What are President Barack Obama’s chances of hauling Gulf Cooperation Council rulers into genuine military cooperation when his Middle East plans are built around close rapport with Tehran?
It was for this elusive purpose that he invited the six Gulf Cooperation Council rulers to meet him at the White House and the presidential resort of Camp David Wednesday and Thursday May 13-14
But shortly before the summit began, a gust of disapproval blew a raft of last-minute cancellations into the White House mail box. The kingpin, Saudi King Salman, was the first to announce he would not be coming, but sending instead two high-ranking princes, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman. Two key emirs followed suit, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isaa Al Khalifa and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
Sultan Qaboos of Oman is at home in his palace breathing his last. That left two Gulf seats to be occupied at Obama’s round table by senior officials in lieu of the top men.
Behind these cancellations were low or zero regional expectations of the US president turning away from his pro-Iranian course, or stiffening his terms for a nuclear deal with Tehran sufficiently to allay their apprehensions.
Their distrust was not mitigated by Obama’s promise to shift US support round from Israel to the Palestinians and squeeze Binyamin Netanyahu hard to meet their demands.
Not clear what Obama has to offer the Gulf
By now, the Gulf accepts it will have to swallow the nuclear accord as an accomplished fact, however undesirable and hazardous to their security and territorial integrity.
But the Gulf missile shield plan put before Riyadh by US Secretary of State John Kerry last week did not strike them as seriously addressing any of their concerns.
Indeed, the Arab rulers of the region said it was a barely disguised sales pitch for top-of-the-line American hardware. The oil region is already awash with sophisticated US weaponry, which its rulers consider over-priced, but lack the trained manpower for using it.
Common ground between Washington and the Gulf shrank in advance of the summit when US officials, making the rounds of region’s capitals, had nothing to say when asked if the US President would be ready to launch from the Camp David event a formal defense pact pledging US military forces to defend GCC members’ borders if in danger.
After that option faded, the emirs were left with the suspicion that the only point of Obama’s summit was to extract endorsement for the nuclear accord to be signed by the six powers and Iran by June 30 – without the president leveling with them on its secret clauses.
The heavyweights therefore decided to stay home.
Saudis ask Israel and France for intelligence assistance in Yemen
The Saudi-led coalition’s experience of US input in the Yemen war deepened their mistrust of the president Obama’s motivations.
The US assistance offered for the Saudi war effort was to consist mainly of targeting intelligence for coalition air strikes against rebel Houthi positions on the ground, and the monitoring of Iranian naval and commercial shipping movements in the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. US intelligence soon proved to be scrappy at best. It carefully skirted targets that could be construed as potentially antagonizing Tehran or forestalling its signature on the nuclear accord.
Obama appeared to be trying to maintain his balance on a tightrope between Tehran and Riyadh, while falling on the side of the former.
The Saudis accordingly decided to go their own way, according to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources, and look for credible intelligence sources elsewhere. Of late, they discreetly approached France and Israel, asking them to tilt their surveillance satellites in the direction of the Yemen arena and feed their input to the Saudi war effort. Riyadh also proposed that French and Israeli spy-planes conduct surveillance flights over Yemen from air bases in southern Saudi Arabia.
Turning outside America for strategic allies
Following this experience, Saudi strategists have more or less given up on any real US support for defending Saudi or Gulf emirate borders. As they see it, the Obama administration aims to downscale the US military presence in the Gulf rather than enhance it.
This does not mean that the oil sheikhs will let their bad strategic relations with Washington sink into an outright rift. They will continue to pursue other important shared interests, such as the coordination of oil prices and a stable world energy market. They also depend on the US supplying maintenance and spare parts for their armies’ American arsenals.
But in pursuit of their military policies, they are turning outside the United States for allies.
On May 5, the Gulf Cooperation Council held its first summit with a strategic outside partner. French President Francois Hollande was invited to the event in Riyadh to launch his “strategic partnership initiative” with the GCC.
Then, on May 9, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi was the only Arab head of state with President Vladimir Putin on the stand of the huge Russian military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
El-Sisi went to Moscow with the Saudi king’s blessing.
Cairo rounds up Arab allies, France and Italy, for Libyan campaign
Next week, on May 18, Arab chiefs of staff meet in Cairo to coordinate their plans for joint intervention in Libya to restore the country’s stability. The partners in this venture are Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Sudan and the Libyan army.
France and Italy will be invited to add their support – the former to supply logistics and special forces and the latter, for naval support.
Sources in Cairo report that talks between Libyan National Army chief Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hiftar and the GCC, have led to the purchase of arms ready for the campaign,. They include five Mi-35 Hind upgraded helicopters delivered by the UAE on April 26. More Russian-made equipment, such as antitank and armor-piercing weapons and munitions, is on the way.
In Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey continue to arm the rebels fighting to topple Bashar Assad.
Two features stand out in the newly hyperactive Gulf Arab military thrust: One is the fading of the US military and diplomatic presence, and the other is the quest by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies for new partners in the various Middle East crisis arenas.