The USA and the Gulf States: Seeking a Relationship of Parity


November 5, 2018
The USA and the Gulf States: Seeking a Relationship of Parity
Ahmad Al Farraj
Ahmad Al Farraj Non Resident Fellow

The relationship between the Arab Gulf States and the United States of America is often misunderstood by observers and commentators, and even by the parties themselves at times.  The stereotypical description of the relationship is one of oil rich states providing the US and the West with necessary natural resource and in turn purchasing high amounts of weapons, technology and other goods from US.  From this the US is viewed as the primary provider of security in the region whereby its interests are the ones that dominate.  In these descriptions the relationship is seen as imbalanced and from this, misunderstandings arise.

What needs to be done is a refocus of views and understanding of this relationship to see it as one of parity.  If both sides are able to view each other’s interest with mutual respect and recognition, then the relationship proceeds as one of cooperation among common interests.  Parity is about ensuring that the interests and concerns of the Arab Gulf States are on par with US interests in the region and that policies reflect this.  To achieve this, we need to utilize the best diplomatic and professional means of outreach and continual cooperation.  Most importantly we need to bring the message of the Arab Gulf States to the US decisions makers, policy makers, and policy influencers.  It is necessary to demonstrate that the Arab Gulf States have common interests with the US and that they are ready to support the US, but equally there needs to be recognition of the Arab Gulf States own interests and how support for these interests should be forthcoming on the basis of parity and commonality.

Relations between the US and the Arabian Gulf States have a significant position in how we view the world and understand global security.  The importance of security in the Gulf region for global powers, regional powers, and the states of the region, is clearly evident; one only needs to look at the news each day.  The US role in the Gulf region has long been prominent as the US has consistently been present in the region, even if, at times, the presence has not been considered substantial enough or effective enough.  But US/Arab Gulf States relations are more than just military security matters, there are also political, commercial and social areas of common interest that will in turn benefit security in the region.

The Arab Gulf States acknowledge that America is a major power, one that asserts itself around the world, and the Arab Gulf States cannot risk losing their affirmative alliances with America.  However, too often it appears that sometimes the Arab Gulf States themselves view relations with the USA as a one way deal – whereby the Gulf needs the US, but not vice versa.  This view clouds judgment at times and does not result in fully embracing the value and benefits of the alliances and cooperation between the US and the Arab Gulf States.  There are many common interests in these alliances where both the US and Arab Gulf States are working together on a level of parity and not as an unbalanced relationship.  When the relationship is viewed as unbalanced taking the position that the Arab Gulf States need the US more than the US needs the support of the Arab Gulf states, that view does not yield the full scope of the mutual benefits that exist.  By viewing the relationship as more of parity, where there are common interests, along with particular interests that are to be mutually respected, a much more beneficial relationship will result.

Military security is likely to remain the cornerstone of US/Arab Gulf State relations.  That is due to the unfortunate situation of insecurity across the MENA region.  In this area the interests of the US and the Arab Gulf States are closely aligned even if the full depth of the Gulf interests and desires for the region are not always recognized.  Beyond military security there are significant areas where the Arab Gulf States’ interests align with the US interests.  States like the UAE have become global transport hubs, allowing convenient and timely travel from the US into Asia and Africa.  There are also the primary global trade routes that pass through the Gulf region upon which the US economy depends heavily.  Commercial interests are continually growing as Gulf state economies continue to diversify making this region a space for inward investment and for the delivery of goods and services.

It is not just the economic importance of the region that provides support for US interests.  The role of Saud Arabia as the leader of the Islamic world is indispensable for the US.  As the Kingdom hosts the Muslims’ Qibla the Kingdom has an important influence on the Islamic scene around the world.  The US has strong strategic interests with the majority of the Islamic world’s countries from Pakistan to Malaysia, Morocco, Indonesia as well as the rest of the Islamic world.  The Kingdom’s leadership in this respect has resulted in Islamic alliances to counter ISIS/Daesh and for countering extremist thought based on the politicization of religion.  The ongoing reform process within Saudi Arabia on how Islam is understood today will have profound influence globally and will have a direct impact on the domestic situations of the US and other Western States.

A similar analysis can be applied to the UAE, which enjoys a special place in the Arab and Islamic worlds.  The UAE’s economic strengths and ongoing diversification make it an essential trade partner for the great powers of the world.  A situation reinforced by the high levels of security and tolerance enjoyed in the UAE allowing business and commercial operations to situate their global operations there and for people from all over the world to live there.  The UAE is also playing an increased military role in the region, working with the US on a number of levels.

The list of shared interests between the US and the Arab Gulf States is endless.  In fact, with the ongoing developments in the region, it needs to be recognized that the Arab Gulf States hold the keys for the US to achieve its interests in the Arab and Islamic world.  And the Arab Gulf States will be able to pursue their interests with the support of the US.  This means that the US must be dealt with as an ally and in parity instead of seeing the US as not having sufficient interests in the Gulf region or that the only way the Arab Gulf States can work with the US is on an unequal transactional basis.

These circumstances give credence to the need for the US to actively engage with the Arab Gulf States as part of the global security architecture forged upon mutual understandings of interests.   This understanding can only move forward by better presenting the case, both ways.  For the Gulf Arab States, this means better presenting our circumstances, our views and our ideas with greater clarity. One of the main obstacles that we face in the Gulf consists of our inability to present ourselves others in the best possible way.  The idea of non-parity has become internalized at times for both sides, with the burdens of history still hanging upon us.   Indeed, we address ourselves and praise our own achievements and are then happy to listen to the echoes. Even when we do decide to present ourselves in the right manner and when we do assert our positions and interests to the others, we often fail in selecting the right tools or strategies for doing this effectively.  In this complex world, and in light of the rapid developments in media and information, we have to ensure efforts are made to present Gulf interests in a sustained manner that is well understood.  We need to move away from the classical manner of understanding the relationship between the US and the Arab Gulf States and ensure that our interests are seen as being on parity with US interests.

To do this Arab Gulf States need to focus on presenting their ideas and interests to a broad range of US actors and influencers, through a variety of strategies and actors.  Based on the above idea that the relations between the Gulf States and America are much deeper and wider than common analysis presents, and that relations are based on common, mutually reinforcing interests, we need to better formulate strategies of information that reinforce the common interests. It must be recognized that the US is a country of institutions, that is to say it has many government departments: there are various branches of the federal government; there are both federal and state levels of government that are influential; all of these levels have multiple institutions.  In the US the extent of its institutions means there is a general “US policy” or approach to matters, but this does not mean there is only one way of viewing the situation, leading to specific policy choices.   For instance, both Presidents Obama and Trump view Iran as a threat to US and global security.  Obama opted for a multilateral process through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, while President Trump believes that trusting Iran through the JCPOA is a major mistake and has thus withdrawn from the agreement.  At the level of the US Congress, individual politicians agree with one or the other approaches, federal agencies equally provide a variety of perspectives on what is the best route to follow.  Within these processes there is continual discussion and debate around the various options that are available, leaving significant space for influencing thinking.

This means that the relationship with the US must first and foremost be built with the institutions while acknowledging the importance of a good relationship with the President as the leader in US foreign policy.  We cannot look only to the President to pursue common interests with the US.  We also need to work with the federal agencies that are a constant, full of civil servants working away, regardless of who is President.  These are the institutions such as the Department of Defense, the State Department, the Department of National Security, and the intelligence services, such as the CIA. The importance of building relations with these entities lies in the fact that their staffers do not change as quickly as the elected politicians do. Indeed, when a new president is elected, he replaces the head of the department and the main officials in the US institutions such as the deputies, agents, and heads of sections, in some cases. However, the civil servants, the desk officers, the main analysts remain in their posts.  These individuals play a role in sketching the future policies, and by understanding the foreign alliances that exist, they can be informed about interests and desires of other countries and regions.   This is an area where greater depth and consistency to the relationship are to be built for ensuring greater degrees of mutual respect and parity.

It is also important for the Arab Gulf States to build relationships with a diversity of actors across the US, targeting actors and institutions that create future policies and provide the popular support for these policies.  The research centers and think tanks in DC are obvious entities where the US future policies are cooked up.  Across the US there are more research centers and think tanks drawing up policy options and ideas that may one day come to direct how things work.  These centers are not controlled by the government as they have their own guiding ideas and frameworks that they feel provide the best options.  In building relationships with these centers it is not just providing them with direct financial support in the hope they create policies that are favorable to the funder.  Rather it is important to continually engage with them in a professional manner by weaving friendly connections with the distinguished researchers working in these centers.  There is a great deal to be gained through constructive outreach through conferences and seminars in the US, in the Gulf and around the world.  Having similar entities in the Gulf region working with counterparts in the US will go a long way in better framing our relationships.

For the Gulf’s interests to be better understood it is necessary for us to voice our interests, explain and illustrate our concerns, our views, our successes, our mistakes.  We cannot assume everyone has their eyes on us and recognize all that we have to offer, we have to be out there telling our stories and sharing our experiences.  Communication with these researchers can take place through governments, but also through independent universities and research centers in the Gulf or through businessmen, researchers, and intellectuals. This will give the Gulf States a voice that influences the nature of the studies and suggestions that influence policy.

Also, with a complex system like the US it is important to not only work at the level of idea creation but also with actors that provide support for ideas and the policies that result.  Businessmen, researchers, intellectuals, along with other civil society actors in the US all have varying levels of influence.  In the US system the primary decision makers have to make policy choices that are best for the US domestic interest and determining what is best involves making sure that US society is also accepting of the decisions.  If a country has a good reputation with US society, then that will be reflected in US policy circles, not absolutely, but positive images do have an influence.  The US is much larger than Washington DC itself, important decisions, especially commercial decisions are taken all over the land.  Raising the profile of the Arab Gulf States across the US would work to reinforce the relationship with the US as one of parity, to show that we have a great deal to offer and that our interests overlap.

Given the size of the US this is not an easy task, and translating information into influence is a job that will take a long time of sustained effort.  It is not possible to change understandings in one large glamourous effort, rather it has to be a long term mission of engagement, sharing and informing.  This can be achieved through attention to government actors described above, as well as through non-governmental contacts where the interests of the region have an influence on policy formation in the US.  The important objective for ensuring the interests of the Arab Gulf States is recognized and received is providing information.  This can be done in multiple forms but needs to be a proactive process where we are actively informing great powers about our region, our interests, our objectives and the best strategies to achieve these.  We cannot stand around waiting and hoping we are understood we need to take the message to our allies and show that we are partners, based on mutual respect with a parity of interests.