A Key Moment for the Gulf Cooperation Council

A flurry of attention is surrounding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states this week and next. An impending summit with President Obama at Camp David at the end of next week is driving a host of meetings. French President Francois Hollande is in Riyadh for a GCC summit, and Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with the Saudi government in Riyadh and then the GCC foreign ministers in Paris at the end of this week. At issue are a series of security threats in the Middle East, which the United States believes are best addressed by negotiations with the Iranians and which many of the GCC states believe must be met with unity, toughness, and resolve.

The GCC states look around the region, and they attribute much of what is wrong to Iran. They see Iran virtually controlling Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and grasping for power almost everywhere else. Whereas in 2012 Arab leaders thought their greatest threat came from within, most now attribute the greatest threats to Iranian malfeasance. They see an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program representing an acceptance of Iran’s actions in the region, and they fear that an Iran unhampered by sanctions will be even more aggressive.

This week and next, the Arab side seems preoccupied with two tasks. The first task is coordinating their efforts. Some governments have signaled they are looking for a more formal defense commitment from the United States, while others are wary of the political blowback—in both the United States and the Middle East—that formal agreements might entail. The Obama Administration is likely to come forward with something that falls short of a treaty but seeks to represent a genuine and enduring commitment. Each government also has a shopping list of desired U.S. weapons systems which they would like without the delay that weapons procurement generally takes. Complicating the weapons sales question is the U.S. legal requirement that Israel maintains a qualitative military edge over any potential adversaries, meaning that increasing the capabilities of the Gulf States would necessarily entail boosting Israeli capabilities as well. The leaders who gather at Camp David will want to present a united front.

The second task is reminding the United States that the Gulf has other options. The French government has sold billions of dollars in weapons in the Middle East in the least year, with little of the conditionality and qualifications that accompany U.S. deals. A shrinking global market and diminishing U.S. purchases mean U.S. arms producers are especially keen to identify sales opportunities, but the U.S. approval process is not designed for speed or efficiency.

A lingering question through all of this is what kinds of problems cannot be addressed through U.S. commitments and greater weapons sales to the Gulf. Regional diplomacy has had few successes in recent years, despite widespread agreement that most of the region’s most difficult challenges have no military solutions. Astute officials will try to use several weeks of focusing on weaponry to move forward on diplomacy.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program