June 20, 2017

Washington’s Role and Interests in the GCC Crisis

June 20_Washingtons Role GCC Crisis_Photo

June 20, 2017

U.S. President Donald J. Trump‘s visit to Saudi Arabia underscored the success of Saudi outreach to the Trump administration and the White House’s determination to restore strategic partnerships in the region. But recent measures by key Arab states to pressure Qatar over policies they view as undermining their national security greatly complicate the agreement among regional states to cooperate more closely with the United States and each other on counterterrorism and other important issues.

Will Washington move toward a neutral approach that urges a return to the status quo ante or continue to press for changes in Doha’s policies and conduct? How can the United States best maintain its relationships with key Gulf Arab allies as tensions mount within the GCC? Did the Trump visit serve as a catalyst for the crisis and isolation of Qatar? How will these dynamics affect the calculations of Washington’s Gulf partners in other areas? How will Iran respond and how will that affect Washington’s tougher line toward Tehran? What is the future of the all-important efforts to end terrorist financing? Finally, what additional pitfalls lie ahead between Washington and the Gulf Arab states?

This AGSIW panel addressed these issues and more.


David Des Roches, Senior Military Fellow, Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies, National Defense University

Ellen Laipson, Distinguished Fellow and President Emeritus, Stimson Center

Hamad Althunayyan, PhD Candidate, University of Maryland, College Park

Ali Vaez, Senior Iran Analyst, International Crisis Group

Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar, AGSIW (Moderator)

Ellen Laipson began by stressing the U.S. interest in enhancing the stability of the Gulf region. Further, she noted the United States has a residual leadership role to play in stabilizing the energy market. Regarding President Donald J. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Laipson stated that while presidential visits are important, they tend to be over exaggerated and analyzed. Even before Trump became president, the United States was entering an era of activism and risk taking. Laipson said she hopes the Trump administration’s stand and position will be a bit more ambitious compared to the Obama administration’s when it comes to how to work with the countries in the Gulf region, especially when it comes to the dangerous stalemate that is taking place between the Arab countries and Iran. The administration has not quite figured out exactly how it should approach this, and this is urgent.

Laipson also touched on tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt. She said the Qataris should be as active as they can be on diplomatic missions at a time like this as a way to consolidate who their friends and allies are. Qataris will have to find some concessions to make in order to relieve the crisis. The bigger issue for the United States is the survival of the Gulf Cooperation Council; the United States has an interest in not allowing this crisis to unravel the GCC.

The conversation turned to Hamad Althunayyan, who said the United States wants to make sure there is a secure flow of energy coming out of the GCC states. He suggested Trump went to Riyadh with three main objectives: defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and countering terrorism; countering Iran; and forwarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Regarding Qatar, Althunayyan argued the intensity of diplomatic measures against Qatar were unwarranted. He said both sides of the crisis perceived that the United States was on their side. He went further to say that the United States should push for a solution in the GCC with Kuwait as a mediator. As a result of the 1990 Iraqi invasion, Kuwait sees mediation as the backbone of security in the Gulf. However, more importantly, he said the United States has not presented good leadership in the crisis with Qatar. He argued Kuwait can play an effective mediator role, however it is not solely in the hands of Kuwait.

David Des Roches argued that the United States wants to achieve three outcomes in the Gulf. The first deals with the regional security infrastructure, or the military bases in the area. The only way the United States can project power in the Indian Ocean and Gulf region is the presence of the bases that are currently there. The second is missile defense; this provides a shared network of defense between all GCC members and the United States against Iran. The third is the need for stability and avoidance for change in the region.

When discussing the Qatar crisis and Trump’s statements in response, Des Roches stressed that the president is a businessman, and in business you dissemble and walk away; however, in diplomacy, every word has a meaning and carries weight.
Des Roches said he believes the situation will go on for the next several months if it is not resolved by Eid. He stressed the dispute harms U.S. national security interests and must be resolved quickly. He concluded, if either side thinks that the United States will be on its side versus the other, they are very mistaken.

Ali Vaez first discussed Iran. He argued that the containment of Iran always results in unintended consequences, such as the war in Iraq. In effect, this has increased Iran’s overall influence. Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia has made Iran more aggressive than it has appeared or been in the last month. Another issue that Vaez pointed out is that it is not obvious what the Trump administration’s end goal is. Therefore, the policy will not be productive and will not have a tangible outcome.

If the current situation stays the same, the administration’s Iran policy will also remain the same or very similar. The one thing that could change is any kind of military clash between Iran and the United States (in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen) anytime during this period that would result in a serious escalation. Ultimately, this would affect the way Iran deals with the neighboring issues, including the recent events in the GCC.

Washington's Role and Interests in the GCC Crisis