DUBAI — As US President Barack Obama visits with Gulf nations with week, expectations for concrete solutions to regional security issues remain low among experts.
The president will meet Wednesday in the Saudi capital Riyadh with King Salman ahead of a summit with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Regional issues will likely top the discussions for Gulf Arab nations, including delayed weapons deals and security concerns involving Iran, Yemen, Syria, Libya, the Islamic State group and Saudi Arabia’s newly created Islamic military coalition against terrorism.
Despite the importance of the summit, experts have downplayed the expected achievements.
“The relation with the US has reached an unprecedented low,” United Arab Emirates-based academic Dania Koleilat Al-Khatib said.
“The US is slowly disengaging from the region. First of all the region does not have the strategic importance it used to have before due to the emergence of alternative source[s] of energy, namely shale oil. Even though, as of today, there is no complete alternative to Gulf oil imports, psychologically the US is showing that it does not have the fear of being cut off from Middle East oil,” she said.
Echoing Al-Khatib’s statement is the assistant director to the Qatari National Security Shield Project, Brig. Tariq Al-Obaidli.
During the Doha International Maritime Defence Conference and Exhibition (DIMDEX 2016) Al-Obaidli said the drawdown of partner nations in the region is forcing GCC countries to shift their defense strategy and evolve their military doctrines.
“The change in focus of friendly and partner nations stationed in the Gulf with military bases towards the Far East and specifically Southeast Asia, with what is called ‘Pivoting to Asia,’ will create a vacuum in the region which forces us to re-evaluate our military doctrines, therefore it has become more clear to Gulf countries that the current presence of friendly nations in the Gulf will be only symbolic,” he said.
According to the Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel, there have been no cutbacks in military presence in the Gulf based on raw numbers.
“What you are sensing is a relative lack of investment in relationships. I hear stories of meetings that are very transactional and where talking points are just read and partnerships are appearing, at least to the partners — both Israel and the Gulf, as less meaningful; that the United States is less invested,” Pavel said in an interview with the New Atlanticist.
“(Gulf nations) feel that now that they are in active operations (in Yemen) that are their top priorities, the United States should share their perception of those priorities and should support those operations with a much greater degree of urgency than they have seen. They feel somewhat betrayed,” he said.
Pavel downplayed the claim that the engagement with Iran and the declining US dependence on foreign oil diminished the importance of Arab Gulf partners to the United States.
“Analytically, I don’t think either of those things has reduced the importance of the region. A major disruption in oil flows would still affect the US economy. Like with our other partners and allies around the world, we have a mutual commitment to their security because it is in our interests to have that commitment and to have those military relationships,” he said.
“The United States’ security is greatly enhanced by working as far from US shores as possible with like-minded nations to prevent threats from getting worse, and, if necessary, to defeat them when they arise as far from US shores as possible. We would much rather play away games than home games. That’s what some candidates don’t get about alliances,” he said.
However, in an open letter to Obama published Wednesday by Qatari Al-Arab newspaper, executive director of Doha-based Gulf Monitoring Group, Dhafir Al-Ajmi, described Obama as a “lame duck” and accused his administration of working with the Houthi rebels against al-Qaida in return for their acquisition of the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
“(In Yemen) we know that for our enemies the Houthis, Sana’a was the price of their services as spies against Al-Qaeda, furthermore your ambassador did not leave the city until after it has fallen to them,” Al-Ajmi said.
A recent move by Congress to pass a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the September 11, 2001, attacks on US soil has further sparked condemnations from all Gulf Arab countries and a threat by the Saudi leadership to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States.
“It is not a coincidence that the issue of 9/11 and the possible knowledge or involvement of Saudi officials is now evoked,” Al-Khatib said. “The general mood is ripe for such accusations.
“I think the number one issue Obama will be discussing with the king would be the 9/11 allegations.
“Threatening to liquidate assets, which has economic repercussion[s] on the US, reinforces the misconception that Saudi [Arabia] uses money to buy influence, [and] it will increase the general tendency of the American public who would want the US to distance itself from Saudi [Arabia].”
Al-Khatib added that the US administration, as well as the Saudi monarchy, wants a quick resolution to this problem.
“The question is what price the relation will bear for such a quick fix. I don’t see the relation between the two going forward,” she added.
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