GCC summit Camp David 13/14 May

Summary: a successful holding operation, little new.

First, we thank former British ambassador Stephen Day for a comment on our 11 May posting on Yemen and on an earlier comment from James Spencer in our posting of 15 May:
I am glad that James added this comment.   I was in Doha this week and spent Wednesday morning with a leader of the youth movement, appointed Minister for Youth and Sport but now disengaged because of the President’s handling of the Houthis.   He and his colleagues had been in discussion with the Houthis when they took Sana’a and were furious when Hadi acted as James explained.   They did not believe the Houthis wanted to take over Yemen but would fight on to be a participant in any outcome.   Least of all did they want to take over Saudi Arabia, but they would take revenge on Saudi interference.  He was strongly critical of Hadi and saw him as busted.

Camp David GCC summit 13/14 May
In our posting of 13 May we commented on the last-minute decision of the Saudi King Salman not to attend the GCC Camp David summit with President Obama, and the absence of Sultan Qabus of Oman and Shaikh Zayid of the UAE. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain had also declined the invitation, but it only appeared at the last minute that he had apparently given priority to meeting Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Windsor Horse Show in England. So only two out of six heads of state turned up: the elderly Amir Sabah of Kuwait (85) and the young Amir Tamim of Qatar (34).

This may have had a benign effect, damping expectations from the meeting, which was a successful exercise in damage limitation rather than any new dawn. We have only found one possibly new political point in all the small print: hidden deep in theJoint Statement (and repeated word for word in the even longer “Annex” to the Joint Statement – drafting tidy statements for conferences like this is a nightmare) – is thesentence “the United States and GCC member states underscored the enduring importance of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative” on Palestine. We do not recall any previous US mention of the Arab Peace Initiative which was so positive.

Most comment concentrates on Iran. In his press conference on 14 May Obama said that it had been agreed that a full solution addressing concerns about Iran’s nuclear program was “in the security interests of the international community – including our GCC partners… The purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalize Iran.  None of our nations have an interest in an open-ended conflict with Iran.  We welcome an Iran that plays a responsible role in the region – one that takes concrete, practical steps to build trust and resolve its differences with its neighbors by peaceful means, and abides by international rules and norms… ending the tensions in the region and resolving its devastating conflicts will require a broader dialogue – one that includes Iran and its GCC neighbors.  And so a key purpose of bolstering the capacity of our GCC partners is to ensure that our partners can deal with Iran politically, diplomatically, from a position of confidence and strength.”

But questions at the press conference and much media comment were about “Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region”, concern which Obama said he shared and which is mentioned in the Joint Statement, but which we believe is exaggerated both in Washington and in the Arab Gulf. An analysis by Stratfor, considered to be close to the Pentagon and the White House, recounts the history of close US partnership with Iran under the Shah in the Nixon/Kissinger years and comments that “the Saudis were of course more than unnerved.. the last thing the House of Saud needed was for Washington to place its trust in Riyadh’s historical enemy to secure the Gulf.” To call Iran Riyadh’s historical enemy is unhistorical, and some at least of the evidence adduced is factually incorrect (an account by “US ambassador to Iran, James Akins”; Akins was ambassador to Saudi Arabia).

Arab and US feelings about Iran are of course reciprocated. Today 16 May the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said that the US is the main sponsor and engineer of terrorism in the world. ‘Those countries which are nominally Muslims but in reality puppets are the main agents behind the crisis and insecurity in Yemen.’ Iran would support the oppressed people of Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine.

As usual, US reassurances are accompanied by promises of “arms transfers”. An article on the Foreign Policy website is headed “It’s Not Diplomacy, It’s an Arms Fair – U.S. defense contractors are popping corks as Obama “reassures” his Middle East allies with billions of dollars of weapons”. It lists items on offer to GCC states: fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, radar planes, refueling aircraft, air-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, artillery, small arms and ammunition, cluster bombs, and missile defense systems. “In 2011, the U.S-backed security forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened to help put down the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. Last summer, the United Arab Emirates conducted bombing raids against Islamist forces in Libya, further inflaming the situation in that country. Most recently, Saudi Arabia, armed with U.S. planes and bombs, has launched a devastating assault on Yemen that has killed at least 700 civilians, displaced hundreds of thousands, and sparked a humanitarian emergency by blocking access to food and medicine. One shudders trying to imagine what comes next after the president inks billions more dollars worth of arms sales at Camp David this week.”

Similarly last month Vice President Joe Biden seeking to lower the temperature after a period of acrimony between Obama and Netanyahu told an Israeli Independence Day celebration in Washington that the US will begin next year the delivery to Israel of F-35 stealth jets, “our finest”.

The article below is from the Politico website.

Camp David: No breakthroughs
Obama and the six Gulf allies succeeded, at least, in not letting their relationship get worse.
By Nahal Toosi, 5/14/15

CAMP DAVID, Maryland — Arab leaders who went to Camp David seeking a written security agreement with the United States are going home without one. President Barack Obama, who invited the Gulf allies to the presidential retreat in the hopes of getting more support for his opening to Iran, made only limited headway.

Still, it appeared that Obama and the six Arab leaders succeeded, at least, in not letting their relationship get worse.

“Status quo-plus is how I would describe the outcome,” said Richard LeBaron, a former ambassador to Kuwait.

The U.S. and the six Arab countries invited to the summit — the Gulf Cooperation Council states of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar — issued a lengthy joint statement at the end of the gathering Thursday, laying out their plans for a stronger relationship.

The parties announced they would pursue more joint military exercises and cooperate more on cyber-security, counter-terrorism, maritime security and ballistic missile defense. They also touted plans to fast-track arms transfers to the Gulf Arab states, and stressed their unity in fighting against the Islamic State militant group.

“The United States policy to use all elements of power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War, is unequivocal,” the statement read.

In a news conference, Obama added, “I am reaffirming our ironclad commitment to the security of our Gulf partners.”

But it was clear fundamental differences remain.

Both sides agree it’s worth pursuing a comprehensive and verifiable nuclear deal with Iran, but whether they will define those terms the same way is an open question. Both sides may concur it’s important to bring calm to Syria, but the details of how to achieve that peace are likely to stay a source of discord.

Even Obama’s reaffirmation of U.S. support is unlikely to keep the Arab countries from pursuing new military partners or asserting their independence in how to deal with their region’s many troubles.

Obama called the summit to assuage Arab concerns about international nuclear negotiations with Iran, whose willingness to engage the United States has been an extraordinary development after more than 30 years of U.S.-Iranian enmity.

Sunni Muslim Arab leaders are nervously watching the U.S. overtures to their regional and religious rival. They worry whatever deal is reached will not fully curb Iran’s ability to build a bomb, and that lifting sanctions quickly will let Tehran access large amounts of cash it can use to further influence Shiite minorities in the Gulf states.

Iran already has a direct or proxy role in several Arab states, including Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and its rising regional involvement is in some ways of greater concern in Arab capitals than the possibility it would one day start a nuclear war against them.

The U.S. argues that without a nuclear deal, Iran will still pursue atomic weapons, making it an even more dangerous foe for America’s Arab allies and possibly launching a nuclear arms race in the already volatile region. (Saudi Arabia has hinted that an unsatisfactory deal with Iran may spur it to seek the same nuclear capabilities.)

Although the joint statement said the U.S. and its Arab allies had “strong support” for efforts to reach a deal, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, in a separate media appearance at Camp David, warned that it was too soon to tell if the accord would be satisfactory.

The preliminary deal reached in early April between the U.S., five other world powers and Iran is “not a final deal,” Jubeir stressed.

When asked whether the U.S. had pushed the Arab states not to publicly oppose the agreement, Obama told reporters: “We didn’t have a document that we presented to them to sign on the bottom line, ‘Will you approve of this nuclear framework deal?’ because the deal is not completed.”

He went on to argue that Iran’s activities outside its borders have so far been relatively low-tech and low-cost, meaning that even with continued sanctions, it would probably keep them up. An influx in cash would probably be used to shore up its sinking economy, Obama said.

Another major frustration of the Arab states is the bloodshed in Syria, where the Saudis and others want the U.S. to do far more than it has militarily to assist rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The summit statement’s section on Syria largely reaffirmed ongoing cooperation and the need for “increasing support to the moderate opposition.” There was no mention of what some of Syria’s neighbors would like to see, a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone. Nor was there much hint that Obama has lost his reluctance to play a greater military role in that conflict.

While all sides emphasized that the Camp David gathering had gone well (al-Jubeir called it “extremely productive”) it didn’t appear that any breakthroughs had been made.

Only two rulers of the six Arab states invited attended, and Saudi King Salman’s decision to send his deputies instead of attending himself was widely perceived as a snub (the Saudis are the heavyweights in the GCC). Some analysts suggested that part of the reason Salman had stayed away was that he didn’t expect any ground-breaking deals to emerge.

Whether the U.S. succeeded at least in providing some measure of comfort to its Arab allies may become more clear in the coming weeks, LeBaron said. “The noise level will go down,” he said. “You’ll see less planted editorials. You’ll see fewer statements from anonymous sources and so forth. They’ll give the administration a little time.”

Ray Takeyh, a Middle East expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, said that if the various countries engage in more regional actions without U.S. involvement, or if they start to pursue more weapons deals with European states, that’s a sign they were not reassured at Camp David.

Recently, for example, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar — after earlier differences — have forged an alliance aimed at empowering rebels fighting Assad. Also recently, the GCC states have highlighted their growing defense cooperation with France, even welcoming the French president at a recent meeting.

Some Arab leaders had wanted a written security treaty with the United States, one that compels Washington to come to their defense if they are attacked. U.S. officials dismissed that idea ahead of the gathering, however, and it would have faced hurdles in Congress and fury from Israel.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the United States was open to the idea of declaring all the GCC states “major non-NATO allies,” a designation that would give the U.S. more leeway to provide military and other assistance but would not amount to a mutual defense pact.

“We’re open to discussions on” the non-NATO ally topic, Rhodes said. “Frankly, they have been more interested in the nature of the type of public assurance we can provide with respect to their security, and the nature of the capabilities we can help them to develop. … This may be a topic that we’ll continue to explore with them going forward.”

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