June 22, 2017

Gulf Geopolitics Forum

U.S. President Donald J. Trump participates in a meeting at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On February 24, 2017, experts from government, business, academia, and the policy world met at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington to discuss U.S.-Gulf Arab relations, and the foreign policies and geostrategic concerns of the Gulf states, particularly with respect to Iran. Participants also analyzed the domestic factors driving the Gulf Arab states’ external policies. The meeting built on discussions from the inaugural “Gulf Geopolitics Forum,” also co-hosted by AGSIW and Chatham House, in London in November 2016. That meeting took place shortly after the U.S. presidential election won by Donald J. Trump.

The Trump presidency has led to significant changes in the tenor of the U.S.-Gulf relationship. Early indications have been that the Trump administration will reinvigorate ties with traditional Gulf allies and adopt a harder stance against Iran – moves that have been well received by the Gulf Arab states.

Challenges for the Trump administration will include dealing with the fallout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal – and the passage through Congress of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). Most participants did not see the Trump administration abandoning the nuclear deal, but Gulf participants were hopeful that Trump would increase punitive measures against Iran’s ballistic missile development program and push back more robustly against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East. There was concern that JASTA, and more generally “America First” policies under Trump, might disrupt mutually beneficial investment and trade.

The consensus among participants was that the Trump administration would offer new opportunities around shared policy goals. The Gulf Arab states would be able to build a relationship with the administration by demonstrating their contribution to counterterrorism and regional stability by continuing to develop both military capabilities and reconstruction efforts.

There was a broad recognition that Gulf Arab states will face domestic challenges that test their commitment to regional intervention and security. The fiscal constraint of lower oil prices, along with the demographic challenge of a substantial youth bulge, has added a new urgency to austerity measures and diversification plans. Leadership transitions in the region have prompted changes in priorities, and may augur nationalist policies that parallel Trump’s “America First.” Participants noted that regional insecurity and foreign military engagements by Gulf states were contributing to a new nationalism and fortress mentality.

The Gulf Arab states’ strategic postures are also being shaped by the return of Russia as a power player in the Middle East, and by Iran’s role in the region. Participants agreed that instability in the Middle East is exacerbated by the rivalry between Gulf Arab countries and Iran. Meanwhile, Russia adds a significant new dimension in regional geopolitics. However, both Iran and the Gulf Arab states treat the former Cold War power with mistrust.

To help structure the conversation, participants were divided among three groups and tasked with discussing one of the following scenarios for U.S. engagement in the region: continuation of the pre-2017 status quo, a reduction in engagement, or an expansion of engagement.

All three groups broadly agreed that whichever scenario played out, the United States would likely continue weapons sales and military engagement in the region, and the Gulf Arab states would continue to expand their own defense capabilities and strategic alliances. The groups discussing the likelihood of a maintenance of the status quo and reduction in U.S. engagement each agreed that a terror attack on U.S. soil would lead to an intensification of U.S. activity in the Gulf and broader Middle East, making the expansion scenario most likely. All three groups agreed that the United States would maintain the JCPOA and push for greater burden sharing by key Arab allies.

While participants differed in their analysis of the driving force behind mounting Iran-GCC tensions there was broad agreement that – due to a shared perception of threat from Iran and the need to confront the danger posed by jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and al-Qaeda – cooperation between the United States and Gulf Arab countries would continue.

Recommendations

For the Trump administration

  • Develop a more predictable foreign policy
  • Strengthen alliances with, and promote cooperation among, U.S. partners

Regarding Iran

  • Promote dialogue between Iran and Gulf Cooperation Council states while opposing Iranian intervention in Arab states
  • Maintain and enforce the JCPOA, but avoid prompting or excusing Iran’s withdrawal

Combatting ISIL

  • Recognize the complex challenges inherent in simultaneously combatting ISIL and containing Iran
  • Recognize that even if ISIL is defeated, fanatic individual extremists will remain and any successor group could be worse

Coping with Yemen

  • Name a U.S. special envoy to ensure a political agreement is pursued
  • Encourage dialogue between the United States, Arab states, and Iran to resolve the conflict
  • Work with all parties to alleviate the humanitarian crisis

For the GCC states

  • Embrace self-reliance and broad regional engagement
  • Value the national diversity within the council as an asset
  • Avoid economic nationalism and protectionism