In the GGC and Washington there is hope the next US administration — particularly under Hillary Clinton — will mark the renewal of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East.

GCC leaders, including Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, with Barack Obama during the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at Camp David in May 2015.

(Sharina Lootah / Crown Prince Court)
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Abu Dhabi // In both Washington and capitals across the Gulf, there is widespread hope that the next US administration — particularly under Hillary Clinton — will mark the renewal of American leadership and engagement in the Middle East.

The US alliance with its Gulf partners has been an uneasy but effective one, securing mutual interests for all sides, for much of its 71 years. But the breakdown in the relationship began with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was accelerated by the 2011 uprisings and chaos that followed.

Barack Obama was elected in part to correct the overreach of his predecessor George W Bush. But his cautious approach and reluctance to use military power, coupled with his pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran and exhortations that Gulf states should learn to “share the neighbourhood”, confused insecure partners and led them to doubt Washington’s long-term commitments.

Even Mr Obama's later efforts to shore up the partnerships, such as the Camp David agreements in 2015, were less than the sum of their parts, and did not stem the perception of withdrawal. While the bedrock mutual interests of counter-terrorism, oil security and preventing WMD proliferation remain, a shared long-term strategic vision has been lost — particularly over the region's conflicts, democratic reform and engagement with Iran.

Many in Washington are now looking to how the next US president can put an end to this drift and renew US engagement with partners based on shared objectives for stabilising and rebuilding the Middle East.

“The most important thing to do to get the relationship on a better footing is for both the Americans and the Gulf partners to at least have a common elemental vision for the region,” said Muath Al Wari, an Emirati policy analyst at the Centre for American Progress, a think tank close to the Democratic Party. “The relationship between the Gulf and US suffers from strategic confusion. On nearly all other issues there is no common understanding,” he added.

Gulf officials have expressed hope that a Clinton White House will reset strained relations and work with traditional partners to forge a shared strategy on the direction of the region.

UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, told The National that a renewed US approach should take into account rebuilding the trust of traditional partners and taking seriously their interests, a focus on tackling the roots of extremism, not just manifestations like ISIL, and doing more to counter Iran in the region.

“For us, I think we need to see a more robust or focused effort to challenge or confront Iranian influence in the region. Whether it’s in countries in the region or whether it’s on the terror finance front,” he said.

Leaders and officials in the Gulf say their personal relationships with Mrs Clinton from her tenure as secretary of state are very good. They also see her as committed to a traditional concept of the US role in the region, more willing to use American power to achieve objectives.

“Once trust is rebuilt then it is easier to fix the policy,” Mr Al Otaiba said in Washington last month, adding that “we will wait until the president is elected to gauge the appetite for doing or not doing, but I would propose bringing us together in a room and say ‘we’re going to work together how do we fix this and that … when everybody understands we’re all going to the same objective it will be easier to sort out tactics.”

Mrs Clinton’s top foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, said in June that a tougher stance on Iranian regional behaviour would be a central part of US policy to restore confidence among US partners in the Gulf.

“We need to be raising the costs on Iran for its destabilising behaviour and we need to be raising the confidence of our Sunni partners that the United States is going to be there and in so doing … begin to try and draw down some of their more dangerous hedging behaviour,” Mr Sullivan said.

But close observers of US-Gulf relations caution that while high hopes are to be expected, in reality Mrs Clinton’s administration may be constrained by structural factors as well as the lasting influence of Mr Obama’s policies.

“The era of saying we can base our foreign policy solely on containing Iran and engaging our Arab partners, that era is over,” said Andrew Bowen, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“In that regard Hillary is going to have to seriously think about how she is going to balance her partnerships with Israel, UAE, KSA, and, frankly Iran — and that is where in terms of actual action it may pull more toward the status quo of the Obama years … but with deeper investments in traditional partners.”

The Iran nuclear deal will remain an anchor of US policy under Mrs Clinton, and she may not be willing to push back against Iran as forcefully as some Gulf partners expect. A focus on issues in the region beyond security, such as women’s rights, political representation, human rights and the Saudi-led war in Yemen will also be on her agenda.

While the tone of the relationships may improve under Mrs Clinton, it is unclear where alignment can be reached on issues that plagued ties under Mr Obama.

Perhaps most importantly, the US presidential election revealed the American public’s growing rejection of the traditional foreign policy consensus.

“Regardless of where her views are, I think she comes in fully aware of where the public is,” Mr Al Wari said. “And I think the public is very much comfortable with the posture that President Obama has adopted towards the region and America’s role in it, and does not want to invest heavily in trying to resolve conflicts — and that constrains the ability of the president to act.”

Foreign policy experts have called on the next administration to have a more frank dialogue with Gulf counterparts so that areas of common interest can be pursued without being undermined by mistrust or lack of clarity.

“There needs to be probably a deeper recognition by leaders in the Gulf that Obama is not purely an unpleasant phenomenon that will fade away into the night, and arguably the trends and shifts that at times were represented by him could continue,” Mr Bowen said.

tkhan@thenational.ae