GCC-U.S. Relations Under a Trump Administration

By Dr. John Duke Anthony and Fahad Nazer

The results of the U.S. Presidential Election last month confounded most American political pundits and many professional pollsters. Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton also surprised many observers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (the GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). Almost immediately after the result was announced, though, it became clear that leaders from the region were ready to embrace the new President-elect and prepared to quickly adjust to the new political reality.

Within hours, GCC officials congratulated President-elect Trump. They expressed a desire to strengthen the decades-old partnerships between their respective countries and the United States. According to at least one Saudi Arabian news outlet, President-elect Trump conveyed a similar sentiment to King Salman. The two reportedly spoke by telephone within hours of the election results. Each side appears to be fully aware of what lies ahead. All appreciate how difficult it will be to overcome the unprecedented political violence and insidious sectarianism that has convulsed seven of the 22 Arab countries in recent years.

Proactive Aspirations

Numerous observers in the GCC countries have expressed hope that President-elect Trump’s administration will adopt a proactive approach to the turmoil in the region. Others are particularly eager to ascertain what, if anything, he may do differently than the Obama administration regarding the threat posed by militant groups like the so-called Islamic State. Just as importantly, there is anticipation that the new President will take seriously the GCC’s deep concerns about Iran’s policies in the Arab world.

Leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates at the recent 37th Gulf Cooperation Council Heads of State Summit in Bahrain. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

The reference to the latter concern is especially Tehran’s support of militant non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as what further assistance it may extend to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. It is difficult, of course, at this early stage to ascertain the contours of what may, at some point, become known as the “Trump Doctrine.” Even so, important lessons can be drawn from history.

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U.S.-GCC Relations and the Fight Against ISIS

The National Council is pleased to present the most recent addition to its Analyses and Assessments series: an essay on “U.S.-GCC Relations and the Fight Against ISIS.” The author, Dr. Imad Harb, is a Non-Resident National Council Distinguished International Affairs Fellow.

Dr. Harb has served as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland. Earlier, he worked for seven years as a researcher and analyst in the GCC region. He also served as a Senior Program Officer for Education at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), where, in 2008, he authored a USIP Special Report on “Higher Education and the Future of Iraq.”

The author takes measure of the robust and enduring defense and security relationships between the United States and the GCC countries. In so doing, he takes note of the nature and extent of progress made by the 67-member coalition battling the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Dr. Harb examines the need to plan now, not later, for the reconstruction and stabilization efforts necessary for the territories already liberated – and those yet to be liberated – from ISIS control. In so doing, he identifies the numerous but little reported contributions that GCC countries have made in the fight against ISIS. He also highlights the ongoing challenges to domestic security as well as external deterrence and defense that the region continues to face.

In the process, Dr. Harb acknowledges the ways in which robust GCC-U.S. cooperation is working for the respective partners’ and parties’ collective and mutual as well as individual interests and benefit.

In terms of timing, the atmosphere for producing such an essay could hardly be more receptive. The moment, moreover, could hardly be more propitious. The evidence for both is rooted in the extraordinary array of summit-like meetings of late among the coalition’s principals.

The sheer number of these high-level gatherings has been remarkable. So, too, among the participants has been the seriousness and intensity of their deliberations. Together, these endeavors have hardly been mere academic exercises. To the contrary, they have been the opposite.

Conventional Opinions, Thoughts, Wisdoms

They have exposed the purveyors of so-called informed opinion. They have revealed the quackeries of established thought. They have uncovered what otherwise passes, but should not be allowed to pass unchallenged, as conventional wisdom.

As such, they have helped mightily to counter many of the cynics. Among these were the perennial pessimists. Counted among them were those professional naysayers who had never regarded the GCC-U.S. relationship as a serious alliance or even a credible geopolitical arrangement to begin with.

A National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations delegation of Model Arab League students and faculty advisers, led by National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony, visits Queen Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir at a July 2016 meeting in Brussels, Belgium with other regional Foreign Ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

Dr. Harb’s essay therefore refutes the many who had seemed resigned to believe that whatever the parties to such international leadership summits might agree to – in terms of how best to wage the war against ISIS – is likely to be too little and too late.

In the process, the essay’s author underscores how numerous analytical factors are frequently missed or receive insufficient attention in American commentary regarding the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.

In this, one might ask, “Is there nothing new under the sun?” What’s new and exciting is that, yes, there is.

This has arguably been and remains the case with regard to the anti-ISIS campaign’s efforts to come to grips with ISIS’ roots and rise. And it continues, too, to be the case in the battle to free the territories that ISIS has captured.

Aims and Aspirations

In any rational effort to comprehend how ISIS came into being and what is a driving force for many of its members, it would seem unquestionable that one should, and would, focus foremost on first factors, on causal realities.

With this as context, metaphorically speaking, would the phenomenon of there being a “Made in the United States” label in the eyes of so many ISIS’ victims ordinarily be viewed as a commonplace occurrence?

No, researchers and writers would ordinarily regard something of this nature, context, and dimension as no everyday experience but, rather, a reality and insight of profound importance and relevance.

Yet an insight as significant as this, key as it is to one’s knowledge and understanding of the roots, formation, and evolution of ISIS, is frequently overlooked, forgotten, or ignored.

So, too, for many commentators, is the otherwise seemingly inexplicable reason for how and why so many U.S. government policies, positions, actions, and even attitudes have severely damaged key American foreign policy objectives in Arabia and the Gulf, one of the world’s most vital regions.

“Of what objectives is one talking about,” would be a legitimate question. The answer: the maintenance of security and stability, something so basic to any people’s existence and prospects for future development and prosperity – which is arguably just as legitimate – that it could hardly be clearer and more straightforward.

Included among the decisions with the gravest negative consequences was the George W. Bush Administration’s rejection of the United States’ GCC allies counsel not to attack Iraq.

That the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq caused the deaths and maiming for life of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands more Iraqis and other Arabs, there can be no doubt.

That one group of human beings could and would attack and murder another group of human beings who are not in the process of mounting an imminent attack begs the simplest and therefore the most profound of questions: “Why?”

Truths and Consequences

If this and the mainly American policies, positions, actions, and attitudes towards Palestine from the very beginning fail to provide insight into the raison d’etre and staying power of ISIS, insofar as its leaders and rank and file members from the beginning have been and remain so anti-American, then what would?

In the process of killing a country – of destroying a nation and a people that had not attacked the United States or posed any grave danger to U.S. interests – America cannot say it didn’t know what might happen.

America did know. Its Arab and especially its GCC friends, allies, and strategic partners in the build-up to the invasion and occupation repeatedly said, “Don’t do it; don’t do it; don’t do it – you don’t know what you’re doing! You’ll be in over your heads and not know how to get out.”

Prior to the American-led attack against Iraq, this writer participated in separate meetings with two quite different GCC foreign ministers in their respective countries who reiterated this message. The ministers spoke to members of delegations of American leaders for whom it was my privilege to lead to the GCC region’s countries on fact-finding missions up to the day in March 2003 when the invasion began.

But speak the truth as often and as forcefully as these and many another Arab leaders did, it was all for naught.

Did not the military action that the United States commenced in 2003 unleash the torrents of carnage that continue to this day? And if not, what did?

Does it require a rear view mirror or a replay of the recordings from years past to underscore that the present challenges which the United States’ GCC allies cautioned against more than a decade ago are – surprise, surprise – also the ones that a robust and enduring GCC-U.S. partnership are working to solve?

This latter question is but one among numerous others that Dr. Harb’s essay seeks to address.

Dr. John Duke Anthony
Founding President and CEO
National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
Washington, DC


Much has been said about the supposedly troubled relations between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Many in Washington have gone out of their way to paint the relationship as weakening in a way and to a degree not previously envisioned. The “evidence”: some cite a desire on the part of the Obama Administration to shift its focus to East Asia to counter Chinese adventurism.

Others point to something else. They cite the brokering by the United States of a nuclear deal with Iran. From this perspective, the latter will purportedly pave the way to a full return of American-Iranian relations but only – and some would claim obviously – at the expense of the GCC.

Still others note the United States’ lukewarm attitude regarding the Syrian quagmire, and/or what appears to be a hands-off approach toward pressing concerns elsewhere, whether elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf or in the wider Middle East.

And yet, the reality is that, in contrast, the nature and extent of political coordination and military cooperation between Washington and Gulf capitals have seen a robustness that proves the exact opposite.

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A Quiet Revolution: Renewable Energy in the GCC Economies

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) oil and gas producers face the long-term question of how much and how quickly global markets will move from fossil fuels toward cleaner energy. With one of the region’s key strategic and economic concerns being long-term energy demand, Gulf oil producers have long acknowledged that they have an interest in being ahead of the game in planning for future demand reductions in their key markets.

The Paris Agreement of December 2015 may provide clues to the future of clean energy in that it incentivizes increasingly ambitious climate targets and actions by participating states. If the accord is translated into lasting policies across different economies, and depending on the extent to which the policies are implemented, it may be that future generations will use and benefit from a cleaner, more sustainable energy supply. What might also occur is that oil and to some extent gas producers will face a progressively uncertain future for their fossil fuel-based exports.

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