As US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel departs for Saudi Arabia to make good on his Manama Dialogue promise to convene a US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) defense ministerial within the year, it is important to note the substance behind the administration’s attempts to drive closer US-GCC defense cooperation.
This effort to encourage intra-GCC coordination is a pillar of the administration’s evolving foreign policy toward the Middle East and is deemed especially key as the administration moves into its final end-game in negotiations with Iran this summer.
President Obama’s recent trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and his signing of an executive order allowing US foreign military sales to the GCC as an institution — instead of bilaterally to each country — underscore the administration’s attempts to reassure gulf allies in the face of the talks with Iran. However, these steps and Hagel’s upcoming trip are also meant to underscore to the Iranians that the US is serious about working with our allies to defend against Iran’s hegemonic tendencies in the region despite the US pivot to Asia.
According to one senior administration official, this is one of “the sticks in the carrot-and-stick approach” to the negotiations with Iran.
Hagel joins the president and members of his foreign policy team focused on boosting policy and military coordination bilaterally with key GCC countries as well as multilaterally in coalitions to mitigate joint security concerns and improve interoperability and integration. The administration champions the view that closer multilateral cooperation is a force multiplier for dealing with all of our shared security interests in the gulf.
In taking steps to build deeper trust among and with the GCC countries, US defense and security officials continuously acknowledge that the GCC is in a unique position to take a greater role in the maintenance of regional security and stability. The GCC is primed to be not only a consumer of security, but increasingly a provider of security as well.
At the top of the administration’s stated agenda for this week’s summit in Jeddah is discussion of closer coordination on regional air and missile defense. Some in the GCC are skeptical. Key countries are at a much more advanced stage of acquisition and integration of systems, so they do not want to be held back in their fielding and deployment of these advanced systems.
Hagel will need to work hard to assuage these concerns and assure various partners that the goal of overall multilateral coordination will not impede or restrain certain bilateral programs already well underway.
To be sure, the US views greater defense and security coordination with and among the GCC states as crucial to providing more lift and support with regard to other regional hot spots and problem areas farther afield from the Arabian Gulf like Syria, Libya and Egypt.
The United States continues to work closely with our gulf and international partners to coordinate strategy and operations for providing humanitarian, healthcare, and economic support to a million or so displaced Syrians. US-GCC cooperation, coordination and partnership is valued on both sides as key to stemming the flow of foreign fighters from the region and mitigating regional terrorism threats posed by a destabilizing Syria.
The US administration is working actively with gulf and international partners to properly vet the many branches of the Syrian opposition in order to determine aid and assistance to moderate rebel groups. A successful US-GCC Defense Ministerial will help build trust and confidence with our gulf partners as we strive toward closer coordination on how to deal with Syria in the future, hopefully including what weapons should and should not be transferred to the insurgents by our gulf allies.
The US and our GCC partners share a view that the economic and political steadiness of Egypt is paramount to the pursuit of regional stability in the broader Arab world. We are in agreement that whoever is elected later this month to lead Egypt will have a window of opportunity to institute real and systemic economic and political reforms that are valued and accepted by a majority of the population. A successful US-GCC ministerial this week in Saudi Arabia will also help build confidence as we work to more closely align our various economic and political reform efforts with Egypt after elections take place there on May 26-27.
Many who would criticize Hagel’s efforts to convene this important meeting lose sight of the importance of getting leaders together in a room in this part of the world. This defense ministerial between the US and the GCC is primed to allow all parties involved to take stock and carefully consider the intentions of an administration routinely criticized for not doing enough.
All of these critics should also see merit in Hagel’s trip and this defense ministerial summit with gulf leaders as a chance for the administration to hear directly from our key partners and allies in the region, especially as it tries to move toward an end-game in the negotiations with Iran. ■
Danny Sebright is president of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council and a senior adviser at The Cohen Group in Washington.