Obama aims to reassure Arabian Gulf leaders over policy shift

The meetings are the US president's latest steps to reassure Arab Gulf allies over recent policy changes.

US President Barack Obama attends the opening plenary session of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on March 24. Representatives of 53 countries will discuss ways to protect against terrorist attacks at the summit on nuclear safety on March 24 and 25. Sean Gallup / EPA
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NEW YORK // When US President Barack Obama meets the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince for talks on Tuesday, he is expected to deliver a message that recent policy changes will not leave Washington’s long-time allies in the Arabian Gulf abandoned.

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, is heading the UAE’s delegation to the Nuclear Security Summit that opened in The Hague on Monday. Mr Obama will then travel to Riyadh to meet Saudi King Abdullah on Friday.

Sheikh Mohammed and King Abdullah are “different leaders from different countries, but obviously there are a lot of common themes,” said Philip Gordon, the White House National Security Council coordinator for Middle East policy. “How to work together in the region, the importance of America’s commitment to our friends in the Gulf, and American appreciation for their role in the bilateral relationships we have.”

Mr Obama’s meetings this week are the latest steps by his administration to reassure Arab Gulf allies that are frustrated with his policies on regional issues, which they see as strengthening their rival Iran and its allies in the region.

There is a sense of “utter exasperation” in some GCC capitals over Washington’s policies towards Syria, Egypt and Iran, said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Gulf politics fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Saudis in particular have made a series of dramatic statements and gestures to show their high level of frustration,” she said.

Last August, Mr Obama caught Gulf allies off guard with a last-minute decision to step away from his own chemical weapons “red line” and not order air strikes against the Syrian regime following a poison gas attack in the Damascus suburbs.

Then Mr Obama announced that the US would lead negotiations with Iran on a deal to end its nuclear weapons ambitions — the fruit of secret Washington-Tehran meetings in Oman that other Gulf states were kept in the dark about.

This comes as the US aims to “rebalance” its priorities towards East Asia and not to be “consumed 24/7 by one region”, in the words of Susan Rice, Mr Obama’s national security adviser.

Such statements fuel fears in the Gulf that the White House is naively looking for a nuclear accord with Iran as a way to exit the region, thereby giving Tehran a free hand to support allies such as Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and other proxies across the region.

But Gulf leaders and Washington have taken steps in recent months to tone down their rhetoric and refocus on cooperation over shared interests. US cabinet secretaries have travelled to the region with reassurances that the US remains committed to its role as a security guarantor for oil shipping lanes and, with 35,000 troops in the region, a check on Tehran.

The lead US negotiator in talks with Iran, Wendy Sherman, travelled directly to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi after Syrian peace talks in Geneva last month to update Gulf officials.

“We couldn’t do this without our partners in the Gulf,” Mr Gordon said, commenting on the Iran talks. “We need them fully a part of this process.”

However, convincing Gulf leaders that the US will look after their interests will remain a difficult task for Mr Obama.

Friday’s meeting between Mr Obama and King Abdullah in Riyadh was initially intended to be a broader summit with leaders from all the GCC countries.

But long-standing internal anger at Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood caused the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha on March 5.

It was unlikely that Riyadh would host a Qatari delegation, and the summit idea was abandoned.

“There are real tensions between some of our GCC partners and trying to have such a meeting at a time when they are trying to work that out didn’t seem like the opportune thing to do,” Mr Gordon said.

Still, the US has been pushing for closer cooperation within the GCC, and a summit would have allowed Mr Obama to communicate his positions more easily.

“Obama could have used this venue to try to build consensus on issues like Iran and GCC security cooperation,” said Becca Wasser, a Washington-based analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

But the region’s shifting geopolitics meant the long-term value of such a summit was always in doubt.

“At the end of the day, the trip is more about communication of policies than actual deliverables and the alignment of US and Gulf policies,” Ms Wasser said.

tkhan@thenational.ae