Arabia to Asia: The Myths of an American “Pivot” and Whether or Not There’s a U.S. Strategy Toward the GCC Region

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That the foreign policies of various governments often appear to be confusing or contradictory is because they frequently are. During Barack Obama’s presidency, such inconsistency has seemed to characterize aspects of America’s relations with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The ambiguity and uncertainty that accompanies it is among the things that Obama has sought to dispel and clarify in the course successively of his March 2014 visit to Saudi Arabia, his May 2015 summit at Camp David with senior leaders of all six GCC countries, and his mid-April 2016 attendance at a similar meeting with leaders of the same countries. As this essay seeks to demonstrate, what he has had to contend with – and what others of late have had to contend with regarding aspects of his administration — in terms of background, context, and perspective has not been easy of resolution, amelioration, or even abatement.

Assumptions, Ambitions, and Abilities

Dating from before and since these high-level GCC-U.S. meetings, Washington has taken steps to strengthen and extend America’s overall position and influence in the GCC region. A principal means for doing so has been through the GCC-U.S. Strategic Dialogue.[1] But one example among several was when former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, came with approvals for billions of dollars in sales of U.S.-manufactured defense and security structures, systems, technology, and arms to GCC countries, together with long-term munitions and maintenance contracts.

President Barack Obama attends a U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April 2016. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

President Barack Obama attends a U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April 2016. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Yet, simultaneously, signals from Washington and the mainstream U.S. media before and since Obama’s meetings with his GCC counterparts have not always been as clear as the signalers thought would or should be the case. That said, what specialists have had no doubt about for some time is that the Obama administration is recalibrating the strategic focus of its international priorities in hopes of being able to accomplish two objectives at the same time. One objective has been, and continues to be, a steadfast resolve to remain committed to the security, stability, and prospects for prosperity in the GCC region. The other has been and remains a parallel determination to emphasize the Asia-Pacific regions.

Affecting the need for such a recalibration have been major U.S. budget reductions and their impact on strategic concepts, forces, and operational dynamics. At issue and under examination in this regard, according to the Secretary of Defense in advance of the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), are, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, America’s assumptions, ambitions, and abilities.

Understandably, the GCC region’s reaction to these trends and indications was and continues to be mixed.

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President Obama’s Meeting with GCC Leaders in Saudi Arabia: An Opportunity for Heightened Cooperation

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This week President Obama will travel to Riyadh to meet with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The next day he is scheduled to meet with leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

According to a White House Press Briefing, these meetings will be broken into three sessions – one on regional stability, one on defeating ISIL and al-Qaeda and counterterrorism cooperation, and one on Iran and efforts to prevent the Islamic Republic’s destabilizing actions across the region.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud and President Barack Obama during the king’s September 2015 visit to Washington. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

The day before the meeting of the two heads of state, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is expected to meet with Saudi Arabian and GCC nation defense officials. According to U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, that meeting will focus on “enhancing GCC capability, interoperability and how to confront asymmetrical threats.” Mr. Rhodes also expects that the U.S. Defense Secretary “will have specific conversations about how to enhance certain defense capabilities across the Gulf.” Whether this might advance further consideration of a reported pan-GCC missile defense system in which several GCC members have expressed an interest and willingness to purchase – and which the American aerospace and defense manufacturing sectors remain prepared to sell, though there are reports that the Israel lobby and a leading American think tank are allegedly opposed – remains unclear.

Sticks and Stones

President Obama’s visit comes at a propitious moment. It will take place at a time when aspects of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and GCC countries are being vilified. U.S. domestic political campaign rhetoric, legislation contemplated by the U.S. Congress, the media, and special interests are seemingly opposed to strengthening and expanding America’s strategic, economic, national security, and related interests with and in Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries. In addition, the visit comes on the heels of President Obama’s comments in a recent article in The Atlantic in which he was characterized as portraying various Arab and GCC allies as “free riders” and thinking that Saudi Arabia needs to “share” the neighborhood with Iran. If the quoted remarks accurately depict the President’s views, the implication is inescapable: namely, such comments from a sitting U.S. President can only cause America’s longstanding GCC allies to wonder how the U.S. head of state really analyzes and assesses their value as strategic partners and American allies in what is arguably the world’s most vital region.

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The Founding of the Gulf Cooperation Council: A Retrospective and Diplomatic Memoir

What follows is an edited transcript of recent discussions between His Excellency Abdulla Y. Bishara, Founding Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Dr. John Duke Anthony, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO as well as Founding Secretary of the U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee.

H.E. Abdulla Bishara was not only the first leader of the GCC, but is also the longest-serving leader in the organization’s history. He was elected to four consecutive three-year terms from 1981 to 1993. Bishara was previously Ambassador of Kuwait to the United Nations from 1971 to 1981 and, prior to that, Director of the Office of Kuwait’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

H.E. Bishara and Dr. Anthony’s friendship dates from the GCC’s May 1981 founding in Abu Dhabi. Dr. Anthony was one of the official guests present for the occasion, and since then has been invited to every GCC Annual Ministerial and Heads of State Summit. The two reconnected several times recently, first in Doha, where Bishara was the keynote speaker at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Second Annual Gulf Studies Forum. Dr. Anthony also participated in the forum in addition to holding meetings with Qatar University officials, including Dr. Abdullah Baabood, Director of the University’s Gulf Studies Program, on whose Advisory Board Dr. Anthony serves. They met again a few days later in Riyadh, where they were among the invited guests for the GCC’s 36th Annual Heads of State Summit.

H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara, Founding Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the organization’s longest and highest-ranking official to serve in that position for a record of four elected three-year terms, with National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony at the GCC’s 36th Annual Summit, December 10-11, 2015 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

The transcript includes discussions between H.E. Bishara and Dr. Anthony regarding the GCC’s founding. An earlier report on this topic centered on how the founders envisioned emulating the European Union in matters regarding economic cooperation and integration. That report was offered in conjunction with analyses and assessments by incumbent GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani in a seminar sponsored by the National Council and the Council’s U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee. Both reports venture behind the headlines. In places, they contest what are often mistakenly unchallenged views of the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the GCC.

This transcript does the same by providing hard-to-come-by information, insights, knowledge, and understanding regarding the geostrategic and geopolitical conditions of the time. Readers will also find material that bears on the GCC countries’ contemporary concerns, namely terrorism, regional security, and, by extension and implication, the ongoing issues and challenges represented by Iran and Iraq. As such, the transcript provides context and perspective on the current array of issues and challenges confronting the GCC’s decision makers as they face an uncertain future.

The account is composed in the format of questions from Dr. Anthony and responses from H.E. Bishara.

The Impetus for the GCC’s Founding

Q: Were you to address Americans and others who were not present when the GCC was founded in Abu Dhabi in May 1981, what would you have them recall as to the situation prevailing then that served to bring the GCC into being?

Death and destruction were at our doorstep. We were aghast at the nature and extent of the challenges we faced. Iran and Iraq were at each other’s throats, and each had populations as large or larger than ours combined.

A: Regardless of the fact that the GCC would likely have been established at some point, it was Iran’s and Iraq’s resort to armed conflict that provided the immediate geostrategic and geopolitical context and also the pretext for the GCC’s establishment, indeed its necessity. We were under a cloud. Death and destruction were at our doorstep. We were aghast at the nature and extent of the challenges we faced. (Would that the threatening issues in play then were not still in some ways present.) Iran and Iraq were at each other’s throats, and each had populations as large or larger than ours combined.

Q: Was it just the enormous demographic asymmetry that was such a cause for concern?

A: It was that and the fact that each had armed forces that were larger, better equipped, and more experienced than all six of ours. Given their and our respective capacities at the time, it was also that their swords were drawn and were being used; in contrast, ours, impressive as they were in the eyes of some, were still sheathed. As such, the imbalance was precarious.

Q: But as the two were fighting only each other, and neither Iran nor Iraq appeared ready to attack any of the GCC’s founding members, how did this affect the situation?

A: One had little choice but to assume the worst. Not to prepare for what sooner or later would likely be coming toward us was hardly an option.

[LEFT] H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara; [MIDDLE] HH Shaikh Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs (1970 to 2005) and present Deputy Prime Minister; and [RIGHT] H.E. Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, at the 10th GCC Summit in Muscat, Oman, in 1989. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony.

Q: What made this seem so certain?

A: Baghdad and Tehran alike were reeling in anger at what we had done. In ways that were similar yet different, each was fuming at what most analysts, in retrospect, seem to have forgotten or overlooked. Both were irate that we had, in their eyes, stolen a march on them. Here were the GCC’s six founders forging a degree of unprecedented unity of purpose among the region’s eight countries.

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National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Condemns Presidential Campaign Bigotry

Washington, DC: The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations [] condemns the bigotry, demagoguery, and fear mongering directed against Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and communities of color in the 2016 presidential campaign. It joins HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud, Dr. Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor, the Heads of State, Foreign Ministers, and Secretary General of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – and countless other global statesmen and leaders in denouncing calls from prospective nominees and other prominent American national personalities such as those recommending implementation of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Upon his return from the GCC’s 36th Annual Summit, National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony remarked that “America’s GCC friends, allies, and strategic partners said repeatedly that calls to impede people from entering the United States based solely on their religion or ethnicity can be likened in effect to a slap in the face of the Statue of Liberty. Such inflammatory language not only runs counter to the principles upon which this country was founded. It is callous. It is offensive. It is insensitive in the extreme. It serves only to instigate and invigorate religious prejudice, hatred, and violence. It tarnishes the image of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. It smears the record of Muslims serving positively and contributively in all walks of our local, state, and national life. Such calls are nothing short of shameful. They are as un-American as one can imagine. They need to stop.”

As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations takes no position on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for office.

About the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations: Founded in 1983, the National Council is an American non-profit, non-governmental, educational organization dedicated to improving American knowledge and understanding of the Arab world. Information about the Council’s program, projects, events, and activities can be found at

Playing Russian Roulette: Russia’s Involvement In Syria

Following is a Q&A with National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President & CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony regarding Russia’s interests and involvement in Syria.

Q: What characterizes Russia’s relationship with the Bashar al-Assad regime?

A: Out of the 22 Arab countries, 28 Middle Eastern countries, and 57 Islamic nations, Russia’s allies are few. Moscow’s relations with Damascus are closer than its relations with the capitals of other Arab countries. Indeed, they are closer than its relations with other Middle Eastern countries as a whole. As a result, Russia’s military actions in Syria aim to protect Assad and the country’s leadership and to keep Syria strong.

Other nations may not approve of this stance, but it must be acknowledged that Moscow has interests in Syria that it wishes to protect as well as the goal of further strengthening and expanding an allied relationship. What is also important and largely missing from or downplayed by the mainstream media is that Moscow, in standing with Damascus, provides the Syrian leadership with a rebuttal to the other UN Security Council Permanent Members (China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States) who state or imply that Syria lacks international support.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. ©REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin.

Q: What are Russia’s particular interests in Syria and are they of recent or older vintage?

A: They are numerous and date back to the respective reigns of Catherine and Peter the Great. Both sought ports in southern climes that could facilitate and sustain Russian east-west and west-east maritime ventures involving trade, rest, and resupply. During the Cold War, in addition to these commercial and economic objectives, interests of a military nature – aeronautical and naval, mainly – manifested themselves in the construction of port facilities to accommodate Russian ships traversing the waters southward from Turkey and Greece in the eastern Mediterranean. As a matter of course, Russia used these port facilities also to build the country’s air defense system and weaponry as well as to ensure provisions for armaments, munitions, training, and maintenance for the system and the country’s defense establishment as a whole.

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The Passing of James Alban Bill (1939-2015): An Appreciation

He was for the longest time my buddy. We often laughed at the thought that we could have been twin brothers from different mothers, despite the fact that Jim was from Wisconsin and I was from Virginia. We were almost the exact same age. We were U.S. Army veterans of the same enlistment program. We each bore scars at the same place on our right knees from nearly identical high school athletic injuries.

We were both note-taking aficionados, opting, as such, to write most, if not all, of our empirical reports and publications based less, if at all, on library research but rather on firsthand accounts, which we knew at the time were priceless. Indeed, they resulted from the fact that we benefited from privileged access to meetings and briefings with some of Arabia and the Gulf’s top policymakers, decision makers, and strategic analysts that few others enjoyed.

In the 1970s, the two of us even co-choreographed nationwide public speaking engagements for a former guerrilla leader-turned-government official. To this day, the official has never forgotten or been unappreciative of the experience. In June 1982, in the company of the late UT-Austin geographer Paul English, we travelled together to Arabia and the Gulf – to Oman, then the UAE, then Bahrain, and then Saudi Arabia.

Each of us was and remained to the end a baseball freak; before we even met we had separately memorized the major league players’ names of a bygone era, their positions, their teams, their batting averages, their pitching records, their nicknames, their greatest feats – you name it. Often, instead of addressing each other in written letters or telephone calls with our real names, we used made-up ones like Duke Snider, Jerry Priddy, Dizzy and Paul Dean, Jackie Robinson, Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis, and Willie Mays.

When Jim in 1976 invited me to teach at UT-Austin in the university’s Center for Middle East Studies a course on Arabia and the Gulf, I gladly did so and enjoyed it thoroughly, not least because it provided an opportunity for our respective families to get to know one another and, now and again, a chance for us to play a pickup baseball game with six players – his two children and mine plus ourselves – on one of the local diamonds.

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“Gulf Cooperation Council: Role in Regional Dynamics” – 24th Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference

Session on Gulf Cooperation Council: Role in Regional Dynamics with Dr. John Duke Anthony, Ambassador (Ret.) Dr. Richard J. Schmierer, Mr. Khaled Almaeena, Dr. Abdullah AlShayji, and Ms. Elizabeth Wossen from the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ 24th Annual Arab-US Policymakers’ Conference, “U.S.-Arab Relations at a Crossroads: What Paths Forward?,” on October 14, 2015, in Washington, DC.

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A King From The East Approaches: Looking at King Salman’s Meeting with President Obama

King Salman’s visit to Washington comes at a unique time in the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship. The relationship is fundamentally strong. It is, however, characterized by a lack of adequate mutual understanding – among many there are different motives and goals, misattributions of intent, and stress on its underpinnings.

It is human nature to accept the positive aspects of a situation as given and to focus – and in some cases obsess – on the negative. So the following is warranted: the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia will not only endure. It is more likely to strengthen than weaken over time.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa'ud and President Barack Obama during the president's January 27, 2015, visit to Saudi Arabia.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud and President Barack Obama during the president’s January 27, 2015, visit to Saudi Arabia. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

The disagreements and trends outlined below will not significantly disrupt the strong and committed strategic, economic, geopolitical, and defense cooperation relationship. Indeed, even if the meeting between King Salman and President Obama contains moments of what a freewheeling media may contend are contentious, the fact that the leaders of these two nations are meeting at all – and at this time to exchange views on matters of immense importance to both peoples – is in and of itself a sign of the relationship’s strength. For context: note that the United States and Great Britain meet to resolve differences; the Koreas do not. Of these two sets of relationships, one is strong and vital; the other is, at best, dysfunctional.

The positive aspects aside, that the media, Members of Congress, and lobbyists of all stripes will and have already begun to parrot and highlight elements of mistrust and misapprehension in the relationship is undeniable. Given those that support them – and/or to whom they seek to convey their analyses and net negative assessments of the Saudi Arabia-U.S. relationship – are who they are, this is in many ways to be expected. In the dynamics of give and take within a world where different parties and powers often display their competitive colors, such jousting between friends, allies, and partners – and adversaries, too – is also something else: part of the essence of two non-identical countries – name two countries that are not – being regional and international leaders.

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