December 8, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The GCC’s Uncertainty Over Trump
On December 7, leaders of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman) concluded their 37th annual summit in Bahrain. This year’s meeting convened amid uncertainty regarding the implications of the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president. The summit also occurred in a climate of raging and seemingly intractable regional conflicts that involve virtually all of the GCC states, either militarily, politically, or diplomatically. The summit’s communique suggested no new GCC ideas for resolving the ongoing civil conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, or for defeating the regional threat posed by the so-called Islamic State. Some of the GCC states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and UAE, favor military or paramilitary approaches, whereas other GCC states—particularly Kuwait and Oman—have primarily sought to broker diplomatic resolutions to the strife. In some cases, such as Libya, in which the UAE and Qatar are supporting rival groups, the intra-GCC differences may be delaying rather than promoting conflict resolution.
A central antagonist in most of these conflicts is Iran—freed from international sanctions—which the GCC views as a significant threat, the fuel for regional sectarianism, and increasingly partnered with Russia against GCC interests. Even though the GCC rulers remain uncertain about the regional policies of the incoming Trump administration, they are optimistic about the new administration’s characterization of Iran as an adversary and regional threat. President-elect Trump has been consistently critical of Iran, and his nominee for Defense Secretary, General James Mattis, is an unwavering advocate of countering Iran’s regional activities, including through potential U.S. military pressure. Mattis has been a champion of close U.S.-GCC defense cooperation, and the GCC rulers view him as likely to increase U.S. backing for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, for which U.S. support has thus far been modest. The incoming administration is also likely to increase U.S. enforcement of U.N. restrictions on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and on Iran’s exports and imports of conventional weaponry.
It is on the subject of Syria where GCC leaders are perhaps most uncertain about the future U.S. role. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supplied arms to rebel groups trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who now has the upper hand in the conflict as a result of intensive support for his forces by Russia, Iran, and Iran’s Shi’a militia proxies. Even those GCC states not directly involved in the Syrian conflict seek Assad's overthrow as a means of reducing Iran’s regional influence, as well as to support Syria’s Sunni Muslims at the core of the opposition. However, President-elect Trump has expressed views that are aligned with those of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in particular by seeming to accept Assad as a potential partner for fighting terrorism in Syria. The President-elect’s views are not only sharply at odds with current U.S. policy, but also with those of the GCC states. The GCC sees Putin not only as Assad’s main backer, but also as an increasingly close ally of Iran and an opponent of Sunni Muslims more broadly.
The GCC states, particularly Saudi Arabia, also take a keen interest in the U.S. stance on a potential settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the status of Jerusalem. Palestinian figures of various factions are in exile in the GCC states, and Qatar is a key intermediary between Hamas—which controls the Gaza Strip—and the Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank. Despite some early statements professing the need for ‘evenhandedness’ between Israel and the Palestinians, President-elect Trump and his inner circle have been largely uncritical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The GCC leaders fear that the incoming U.S. administration will back Netanyahu’s refusal to commit to a two-state solution. During the campaign, President-elect Trump also explicitly promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem—an action that would inflame Palestinian and broader Muslim sentiment.
The GCC’s uncertainty about the incoming administration’s regional policies has served as fuel for Saudi Arabia’s proposal—addressed at the Bahrain summit—to form a ‘Gulf union’. The Saudi concept is that the GCC should evolve into a structure akin to the European Union, better positioning the alliance to counter Iran and to plan for a post-oil economic future. Saudi Arabia has raised this proposal at several prior GCC summits, and each time—including at the Bahrain summit—differences among the Gulf state leaders have caused the issue to be deferred. Underlying the repeated failure of the Saudi union proposal is the refusal of the smaller GCC states to forfeit any sovereignty or policy discretion to the Saudis. The GCC leaders have, however, been able to agree on less ambitious proposals to integrate their military command structures and forge a coordinated missile defense network for the Gulf region. Still, implementation of these initiatives, which were reaffirmed in Bahrain, has been halting to date.
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