April 18, 2016

CNAS Press Note: The President’s Trip to Saudi Arabia

By Ilan Goldenberg

Washington, April 18 – As President Obama heads to Saudi Arabia for meetings with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Center for a New American Security (CNAS)Middle East Security Program Director Ilan Goldenberg has written a new Press Note, “The President’s Trip to Saudi Arabia.” The Press Note lays out the key issues the president will address and advocates for a modest set of objectives.

The full Press Note is below:

When President Obama heads to Saudi Arabia later this week to meet with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), he should pursue a modest set of objectives. The relations between the United States and many of its traditional Middle Eastern partners in the Gulf are strained and that is unlikely to change for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. The best that can be accomplished during this meeting is to agree to better coordinate on a series of common challenges in the Middle East, but it will be up to the next president to see if he or she can repair some of the rifts that have plagued the relationship in recent years.

The tensions between President Obama and GCC leaders go back a number of years and can be blamed on both sides. Many of the Gulf States blamed lack of American support for the fall of Hossnei Mubarak at the start of the Arab Spring, without acknowledging that it was the Egyptian people and military who brought on the revolution – not the United States. And the GCC has deeply resented the Iran nuclear agreement and improved relations between Washington and Tehran despite the fact that the agreement has significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program and there is little evidence that this agreement will result in a fundamental shift in American alliances in the region.

But the GCC has also rightfully criticized the United States for its slow response to the civil war in Syria when perhaps a more engaged approach earlier on could have done more to shape the course of the conflict. And the decision in 2013 not to strike the Assad regime after declaring the use of chemical weapons as a redline created a significant backlash among the Gulf States. The United States could have also done more to listen to GCC concerns and respond more forcefully to Iran’s destabilizing support for surrogates and proxies in the Middle East, even as it negotiated the nuclear deal.

At this point, more arms sales and American reassurances are unlikely to have a major effect on the calculus of the GCC. Instead, what the parties should look to do is identify a common set of interests. The GCC has prioritized its competition with Iran and would like to see the United States take a harder line against Iran’s behavior in the region. The United States has prioritized the fight with ISIS and would like to see the GCC contribute more to this effort. If both sides can find ways to increase their joint commitments and efforts on these two fronts, the summit should be deemed a success.

Goldenberg is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409.

  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expert with ext...