While most media attention in the United States has focused on the upcoming presidential election, a significant development in U.S. foreign policy with the countries of the Middle East region has emerged and been largely overlooked.
On the margins of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City last month, the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held a second meeting of the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum and signed the U.S.-GCC “Framework Agreement for Trade, Economic Investment and Technical Cooperation.”
These two important milestones indicate a positive American policy trend toward strengthening strategic and commercial partnerships with friendly countries in regions experiencing political turmoil and economic diversification simultaneously — especially in the Middle East.
Gulf countries in particular have emerged as key strategic partners to the U.S. in maintaining regional security and, increasingly, in boosting international trade. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other fellow GCC countries are working hand-in-hand with the U.S. and other countries to leverage their central geographic location and ambitious economic development plans to play a larger role in global security and economic affairs.
In particular, the UAE has served as America’s top export destination in the Middle East over the past three years and is crucial to multinational security efforts and regional economic prosperity.
Strategically, the U.S. and the UAE regard each other as key partners in the maintenance of regional trade and energy security in the gulf, the global fight against terrorism and nonproliferation, and the global efforts to provide humanitarian aid to communities in war-torn countries.
Today, American and Emirati soldiers work together alongside NATO allies to provide humanitarian and security services to communities in turbulent Afghanistan, share key intelligence vital to the security of the Arabian Gulf, and train together to ensure a unified front against threats to regional and global security.
Economically, the U.S. is keen to strengthen commercial ties with the politically stable UAE in line with the country’s economic development goals, including those underlined in the UAE’s well-planned economic development strategies. Under these plans, the UAE continues to execute on the development, with the help of the U.S. and other nations, of key global economic sectors, including commercial aerospace and defense, health care, tourism, infrastructure, media and energy (including renewable and civilian nuclear).
Each of these sectors presents a dynamic opportunity for American investment and partnership over the next several decades.
In recognition of the country’s emergence as a key strategic and commercial partner, the U.S. Department of State and the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs established the U.S.-UAE Economic Policy Dialogue (EPD) in March. The EPD, a formal, biannual discussion between U.S. and UAE government officials, was created to raise the profile of the economic relationship and boost joint coordination of international trade, energy and border security while supporting entrepreneurship and innovation.
The recent trend toward closer coordination between the U.S. and its partners in the Arab world is promising. Continuing to harmonize economic development and security efforts between our two communities will prove instrumental to maintaining peace in the region and supporting economic recovery here at home.
For American commercial defense companies, the continued growth of cooperation in the Middle East region will provide unique business development opportunities to service the region and access key markets around the world. Further, overlapping areas of trade and defense coordination with gulf countries in particular will prove central to future U.S. public and private sector interests.
To underscore and support enhanced cooperation, the U.S. administration should prioritize outstanding defense and security sales requests from partners in the gulf region and beyond. New air and missile defense sales, Navy modernization programs, new fighter purchases and advanced munitions buys are being considered by our key gulf partners.
Benefits from sales to these countries would be enormous. On one hand, billions of dollars from the sales would directly support thousands of American jobs. On the other, the sales would significantly enhance defense and security capabilities of America’s partner countries in the face of regional security threats, including Iran.
Efforts to increase and maximize interoperability between U.S. and gulf partner military forces would prove a potent force multiplier to our own forces in the region — not to mention the cost savings to the U.S. taxpayer derived from increased burden-sharing by our gulf partners. Furthermore, as the U.S. draws down its troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, gulf partners have the potential to deploy more security and humanitarian forces abroad and assume greater leadership roles in helping to guide the ongoing transitions.
As Election Day in the U.S. approaches, one thing is clear: Whoever occupies the White House over the next four years should continue to burnish and enhance emerging U.S.-GCC relationships, particularly those with the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and consider them a centerpiece of America’s trade and foreign policy toward the region.
Danny Sebright, president of the U.S.-UAE Business Council and a counselor at The Cohen Group. He worked on defense and security matters related to the Middle East under six U.S. secretaries of defense.