Five reasons why the US should remain engaged in the Gulf

Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Serious discussions are taking place in Washington and Gulf capitals about the shape of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-US relations under President-elect Joe Biden. The prospect of the new administration focusing internally on fighting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and jumpstarting its economic recovery is understandable. But that has not, in the past, prevented the US from also engaging with the rest of the world and guarding American interests abroad. I do not share the pessimists’ view that the US will not have the time, energy and/or the inclination to tend to the Gulf quickly. I argue that there are many reasons why the Gulf should be at the top of its external concerns.

First is Gulf security and US policy toward Iran. The election of Biden revived concerns about calls in the US to withdraw or reduce its presence in the Middle East, including the Gulf region. Those calls go back to the days of the Obama administration and its twin policies of “strategic retrenchment” and a “pivot” or “rebalance” of US foreign policy, more toward Asia and the Pacific than Europe and the Middle East. The implications of those policies for the Gulf were overblown in the media, as in reality their effects were minimal. The US maintained a robust security presence in the Gulf throughout and continued to train and equip GCC states’ military forces, while also upgrading its engagement with the GCC as a bloc in many areas.

What was more worrisome was the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran without taking GCC states’ concerns into account, despite the fact that they are most affected by Tehran’s program and are closest geographically to Iran’s nuclear installations. For example, the Bushehr nuclear facility is only about 200 km from major population centers in the GCC.

There were also unintended consequences of the deal, including increased Iranian destabilizing activities throughout the region. While the Obama administration was deeply concerned about those activities, its responses were relatively low-key because of its desire to conclude the nuclear agreement quickly. Similarly, it was concerned about Iran’s rapid development of its ballistic missile program after the conclusion of the nuclear deal, but its public reactions were somewhat muted. Iran got the wrong message and believed it had a free hand in the region in exchange for signing the deal.

Signing the nuclear deal also meant the removal of many of the sanctions the US had imposed on Iran and the release of sizable funds, which amplified Iran’s ability to meddle in its neighbors’ affairs, support sectarian and terrorist groups, and threaten freedom of navigation.
When the Biden administration starts articulating its Iran policy, it will surely take those unintended consequences into account.
For one, it is now clear that a deal focusing solely on Iran’s nuclear program is not enough; its regional activities and missile program should also be on the table. Given how easy it has been for Iran to quickly accelerate its nuclear program in recent months, it is also apparent that the agreement has to include a longer sunset and more vigorous inspections.
Iran’s role in the region is one of the main concerns that the US and GCC states share, as both are interested in deterring the Tehran regime and trying to modify its behavior to be consistent with international norms. In its communications with Iran, the GCC has proposed ways to de-escalate and build trust. The US could support those efforts. It is going to be a difficult undertaking, as the parliamentary elections of February 2020 gave Iran’s hard-liners an overwhelming majority. The hard-liners are also expected to win the next presidential election, scheduled for June 2021, thus tightening the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ grip on power and its ability to thwart efforts at de-escalation.

The second reason the Gulf should be at the top of the Biden administration’s list of foreign policy priorities is the fight against terrorism. Terrorism is on the rise, as Daesh regroups in Iraq and Syria and Al-Qaeda increases its activities in Africa. The GCC-US partnership has been effective in countering terrorist activities at the military, political and intelligence levels. Through dedicated institutions, the US and GCC have also worked closely to disrupt terrorists’ finances and their efforts to recruit young people.

Third is that the US will most likely remain engaged on several other regional issues, where it will find that the GCC states are also engaged and that the two sides could partner to address them. Those include the Israel-Palestine conflict, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. They also include the rising tensions in the Horn of Africa and the Egypt-Ethiopia dispute.
Both are interested in deterring the Tehran regime and trying to modify its behavior to be consistent with international norms.

Fourth is the changing energy environment. As the US has regained its role as a major oil producer and exporter, it has more shared interests with GCC oil producers than before. In April, the US mediated between OPEC and Russia to reduce the oil glut that had led to a collapse in prices. As the US was a major partner in developing the conventional oil industry in the Gulf decades ago, there are now opportunities for new partnerships in shale oil and gas, as well as renewables and energy conservation.

Fifth is that trade and investment are especially important as the US tries to rebuild an economy badly affected by COVID-19 and trade disputes. GCC countries are embarking on ambitious diversification efforts that open up significant opportunities for profitable partnerships between American and Gulf companies. Previous GCC-US summits have identified a wide range of economic and other possibilities, some of which have been already realized.

With so many shared interests, it is a foregone conclusion that the US and the GCC states would benefit greatly from an upgrading of their partnership, both collectively and bilaterally with each member state. It goes without saying that there will be differences of opinion about some key issues, but through regular and sincere dialogue those differences could be addressed and a convergence of views may be found.

Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation and a columnist.