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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Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor Keynote Address to the 24th Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference

Keynote Address by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, Chairman, Al Habtoor Group, delivered at 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 15, 2015, in Washington, DC.

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Dr. Khalaf Al Habtoor


 

The National Council on US-Arab Relations,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Good afternoon.

I would like to start by thanking the National Council on US-Arab Relations, led by Dr. John Duke Anthony – Founding President and CEO, for inviting me to speak at the ‘24th Annual Arab-US Policymakers’ Conference’. I thank you for having me!

In face of what is happening in our world, there could not have been a more relevant topic to discuss than the topic selected for this year’s conference: ‘the future of the US-Arab relations.’

The relationship between the United States of America and the Arab countries is at a turning point
For decades, the alliance between the US and the Arab countries, mainly the GCC States, has proven to be paramount for regional and global stability, prosperity and peace.

We recognise with gratitude, and cannot deny that we have greatly benefited from your knowledge for decades.

As per the Office of the United States Trade Representative, the volume of trade between the US and the GCC countries is worth hundreds of billions of US dollars every year.

Americans in the United Arab Emirates form one of the largest Western communities in the UAE; around 50,000 US nationals reside in my country.

However, what the previous administrations have done to the Arab world in the last decade, particularly to the Sunni populations, leaves a dark stain on this great nation’s history.

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The GCC-U.S. Summit: An Opportunity for Strategic Reassurance?

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An unprecedented and extraordinary event is about to occur: a heads of state summit. These, by any standard, can be and often are extraordinary events. That’s what this one is. It is so because it gathers in the capital of the United States President Barack Obama with the representatives of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The two-day summit is set for May 13-14, 2015.

GCC leaders are scheduled to meet with the president in Washington on day one and on day two gather with him in the more capacious and secluded confines of Camp David. The latter venue is a longtime private presidential meeting place in the Maryland foothills, which is conducive to wide-ranging and deeply probing discussions on matters of common, timely, and varying degrees of urgent interest to the president, his advisers, his guests, and their advisers. The focus of this essay is the issues, challenges, and opportunities that will focus the principals’ attention while there.

The Summit’s Participants in Context

That the summit is occurring at this time is no mere coincidence. In terms of the GCC-U.S. relationship, it brings to the forefront the chief representative of the world’s most militarily, economically, and technologically advanced nation. Joining him will be the leaders of six neighboring Arab Gulf countries from what is arguably the world’s most strategically vital region that are little known and even less well understood by the American people as a whole.

What needs to be better comprehended by the American public regarding these countries are the roots and nature of their multifaceted strategic importance not just to their peoples and immediate region, but also the United States and the world in general. To begin with, the six GCC countries possess thirty per cent of the planet’s proven reserves of oil, the vital strategic commodity that drives the world’s economies. Collectively, they are also the holders of the developing world’s largest reservoir of financial assets, as measured in the trillions of dollars.

Crude Oil 2014 Proved Reserves.

In addition, the GCC countries have no rivals in their combined positive impact on the American aerospace and defense industries. In the past half-decade, their purchases of U.S.-manufactured defense and security structures, systems, technology, weaponry, ammunition, training, maintenance, and operational assistance have massively impacted and continue to impact the American economy.

The dynamism and mutuality of benefits in the U.S.-GCC relationship are envied by virtually every country that wishes it could accomplish anything remotely similar.

The purchases of American export goods and services by these countries have provided jobs essential to the material wellbeing of millions of Americans. They have extended production lines of products that would otherwise no longer be available. As a consequence, they have lowered the cost per unit of many American manufactured goods. In so doing, they have thereby enhanced the competitiveness of this component of the American economy to a degree envied by virtually every government or corporation in other countries that would wish they could accomplish anything remotely similar.

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The Consolidation of a New Arab Political Order

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Operation Decisive Storm Coalition Forces' spokesman Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri provides a briefing on developments in the campaign.

Operation Decisive Storm Coalition Forces’ spokesman Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri provides a briefing on developments in the campaign. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

While the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm against the Yemeni Houthis and their allies continues and its long-term results are so far unknown, it is not pre-mature to project that a new Arab political order is being consolidated. Its elements include a firm and sustainable commitment to fight extremism and sectarianism, bring order and stability to the heart of the Arab world – namely, Syria and Iraq – and design, chart, and lead an independent course for the protection of pan-Arab national interests.

Such an order has a leader in the collective energies and capabilities of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with Saudi Arabia as a first among equals, and essential assistance from such countries as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. Indeed, to assure its collective interests, arrive at a hoped-for peaceful stability, and sustain much needed political, economic, and social development, the Arab world must coalesce around a strong political order that can utilize its capacities and permissible international conditions to achieve what it needs and deserves. Importantly, the consolidated new Arab political order appears to emphasize essential principles that require astute judgment, committed resources, and continuous vigilance.

Fighting Extremism and Sectarianism

The status quo states of the new Arab order are cognizant of the threats represented by the plethora of extremist groups operating at the heart of the Arab world. In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has staked a claim in Hadramawt Province abutting the Saudi Arabian border after it lost its bases in Shabwa and Abyan to the west. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group has erased the borders between the two countries in a mission to re-establish an imagined and borderless Islamic Caliphate while al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front controls strategic areas of Syria. Both organizations are serious threats to Lebanon and its pluralist political society.

In Libya, the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar ash-Shari’a, and a sundry of militias have settled, and promise to both keep the country unstable and use it as a base to spread chaos and mayhem elsewhere. In Tunisia and Egypt, jihadist extremists are waging a war of attrition against state security institutions. The actors of the consolidating Arab political order must know full well that they alone can address this threat in a fashion that combines a sense of shared responsibility for common interests and an attempt at forging an independent course that serves such interests.

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Saudi Arabia Now Largest Defense Importer & Largest Market for the United States

According to IHS’ annual Global Defence Trade Report, in 2014 Saudi Arabia became the largest worldwide importer of defense equipment as well as the largest defense market for the United States. Saudi Arabia replaced India as the largest defense importer in 2014 after being the second largest defense importer in 2013. Saudi Arabia’s defense imports increased by 54% from 2013 to 2014.

According to the same report, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the world’s fourth largest defense importer in 2014 and third largest in 2013. Combined, Saudi Arabia and the UAE imported $8.6 billion in defense systems in 2014, which is more than the imports of all of Western Europe combined.

World’s Largest Defense Importers, 2014 & 2013

Top Worldwide Defense Importers, 2013 and 2014

The U.S. was the largest beneficiary of the increases in the Middle Eastern market, with defense systems exports to the region growing from $6 billion in 2013 to $8.4 billion in 2014. Other leading defense exporters to the Middle East in 2014 were the United Kingdom ($1.9 billion), Russian Federation ($1.5 billion), France, ($1.3 billion), and Germany ($1 billion).

According to data on international arms transfers published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on March 16, 2015, U.S. exports of major weapons increased by 23% between 2005-2009 and 2010-2014, and account for approximately a third of international arms exports. The Middle East was the recipient of 32% of U.S. weapons exports and the U.S. accounted for 47% of total arms supplies to the Middle East from 2010-2014.

According to SIPRI, Saudi Arabia increased the volume of its arms imports by 417% between 2005-2009 and 2010-2014. Imports of arms to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – accounted for 54% of imports to the Middle East from 2010-2014.

NCUSAR National Intelligence University Study Visit to the UAE, April 2013

The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, in coordination with the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi, escorted a delegation of students from the National Intelligence University on a study visit to the UAE in April 2013, coinciding with the Emirates Center’s 18th Annual Conference on “The Future of Warfare in the 21st Century.” The visit provided the students with an opportunity to explore the dynamics of some of the major economic, political, and social determinants of UAE culture as well as the country’s modernization and development.

NCUSAR Organizes & Escorts a Delegation of Naval Academy Midshipmen on a Study Visit to the UAE

Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research

Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research

The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, in coordination with the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), organized and led a May 11-20, 2012 study visit to the United Arab Emirates for the United States Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis, Maryland. The Academy’s delegation was comprised of twelve Midshipmen and two faculty members. The visit provided the Midshipmen an opportunity to explore the dynamics of some of the major economic, political, and social determinants of UAE culture as well as the country’s modernization and development.

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NCUSAR US Air Force Academy Study Visit to the UAE, November 2012

The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, in coordination with the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi, escorted a delegation of cadets from the United States Air Force Academy on a study visit to the UAE in November 2012. The visit provided the cadets with an opportunity to explore the dynamics of some of the major economic, political, and social determinants of UAE culture as well as the country’s modernization and development.