President Trump’s approach to America’s allies in the Persian Gulf region is markedly different from the policies and approach of his predecessor. For the last eight years, as Iran grew stronger and more audacious, the Gulf States were left to confront the situation without support or guidance from the United States. As the power and influence of ISIS increased, and the Arab Spring metastasized into a regional nightmare Washington remained on the sidelines to a great extent. Obama’s ‘lead from behind’ foreign policy doctrine was alienating some of America’s most important strategic partners and allies at a time when those nations were desperately seeking US leadership.
President Trump’s visit to Riyadh has made it clear that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf allies again have a steadfast friend in the White House. The strategic relationship is being rekindled, much to the delight of the Saudis. In a widely anticipated speech on Sunday to the leaders of 50 Muslim-majority nations, Trump called on those nations to take the lead in combatting radical Islamic terrorism, and its root causes. His speech was widely seen as an attempt to ‘reset’ relations with the Muslim world. He blamed Iran for much of the region’s instability, and characterized the war on extremism as a fight between ‘good and evil.’ Unlike his predecessor, Trump did not bring up human rights, or democracy. However, he did condemn the oppression of woman, something the Saudi government is seen to be guilty of.
The list of subjects discussed between Trump, and GCC leaders included threats to regional security and stability, Iran’s influence in the region, and Yemen. The civil war raging in that country is also a proxy war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi/GCC- supported government forces. Iran’s move to support the Houthis came as part of a wider campaign to obtain a lasting strategic advantage over Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and its GCC allies could not stand idly by and allow Yemen to fall into Tehran’s sphere of influence. Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of 9 Arab and African nations launched a military intervention in March, 2015. UN efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have been unsuccessful. The Saudis are holding onto the hope that US efforts to broker a ceasefire will materialize and be more fruitful.
President Trump next flies to Israel on Monday morning for a two-day visit.
President Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday for talks with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. This will be Obama’s fourth and final visit to the oil rich kingdom. The meeting comes one day before a summit with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders later in the week. The topics of discussion for the summit, as well as those for Obama and Raman’s meeting, will be nearly identical: Iran, ISIS, Syria, Yemen, plummeting oil prices and continuing sectarian violence in the region. Expectations for Obama’s Riyadh visit and the GCC meeting are low. The president is not expected to present a solid plan for US-GCC cooperation on any of the regional issues. With his second term coming to an end next January, Obama seems satisfied to leave the critical decisions on the future of the US-GCC and US-Saudi relationships for his predecessor to handle.
The visit comes at a particularly tense point in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are in the middle of a geopolitical conflict with Iran for regional hegemony and Riyadh is unhappy with the Iran nuclear deal and the US relationship with Iran. Obama’s reassurances about the US commitment to Saudi security have done little to assuage the Kingdom’s concerns. Saudi Arabia views itself as being in a fight for its life and the reluctance of the US President to openly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its longtime ally is frustrating and bewildering. The 9/11 bill currently in the US Senate is also ruffling feathers. Should the bill pass it will allow the families of September 11th, 2001 victims to sue the Saudi Arabian government. Even though the Saudis deny any involvement in the terrorist attacks, the families of victims have tried repeatedly to bring the matter to court without success.
Following the GCC summit, it will be time to take another look at the Persian Gulf region and talk about what the region could look like when the new US president is inaugurated next January.
I’ll be blunt: The Iranian nuclear deal is the very epitome of a bad deal. The drawbacks outnumber the potential benefits by a wide margin. The agreement was negotiated to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. In exchange for acquiescing to inspections and such, Tehran will receive a veritable gift basket of concessions. The sanctions that have been in place for years and are hindering Iran’s economy will be lifted. Iranian monetary assets will be unfrozen. In essence, Tehran will be allowed to rejoin the world. Commerce markets will be reopened. So long as Iran abides by the rules and resume uranium enrichment, the perks remain in place. Only when there’s evidence that the agreement has been violated will Iran face penalties. In theory, the agreement will almost certainly prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. In practice, it may be an entirely different story. Time will tell.
What the agreement does not prevent or deter is a conventional arms buildup. Now, soon to be rich with cash and burgeoning relationships with Russia and other nations, Iran is already making moves to bolster and perhaps eventually expand the size and capabilities of its armed forces.
Despite public statements to the contrary, America’s allies in the Persian Gulf region and Middle East as a whole, are wary of the nuclear agreement. A nuclear armed Iran is unthinkable. An Iran with improved conventional forces might not be an easier scenario to digest. The Gulf States and other nations in the region are not going to hedge their security and ultimately their sovereignty on a treaty that permits Iran to build up its conventional armed forces in exchange for promises to shelve its nuclear ambitions.
This series will be divided into two parts. The first will be published on 1 September, 2015 and look at the potential conventional arms race that’s brewing in the Persian Gulf. Part two will examine the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the region should Iran violate the agreement and decide to move forward in building a nuclear weapon.
*Note: Apologies for the shortness of this entry, but work is taking up 18 hours of my days right now. More extensive, in-depth posts are coming shortly*
With Yemen sliding towards an all-out civil war and Houthi rebels continuing their advance towards Aden, Yemeni President Hadi has placed an official request for assistance with the Gulf Cooperation Council. The appeal exemplifies how desperate the situation is for Hadi. Without outside military assistance in the coming days, Yemen could be irrevocably destabilized. This would be a disaster not only for Yemen and its citizens, but for the entire Arabian Peninsula and even the United States. The only nation that benefits from the situation is Iran. And no matter what the final outcome is, Al Qaeda will maintain its presence in Yemen.
The last week has been a period of intense activity regarding Yemen. On Sunday, the United Nations special envoy to Yemen reported to the Security Council that the country is on the verge of civil war. Talks between the feuding parties are now scheduled to begin in Doha soon. The UN is brokering the talks. Meanwhile, in Riyadh, the Saudis appear to be laying the foundation for future military action in Yemen aimed at supporting the Hadi government and preserving the ‘sovereignty of Yemen.’ In other words, the Saudis are preparing to do whatever is necessary to minimize Iran’s influence in Yemen. Yes, this is technically meddling in the internal affairs of another country. However, the stakes are very high for Saudi Arabia and Iran has already intruded on Yemeni sovereignty by instigating a proxy war.