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Opinion

Opinion: GCC - A visit from the back-up team

The USA has invited the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council to a summit meeting in Washington. But the Arabs are displaying reservations. Kersten Knipp says that shows just how much they need the support of the USA.

Is he ill, dealing with the ceasefire in Yemen, or just annoyed? Whatever motivated Saudi King Salman Ibn al-Aziz to decline Barack Obama's invitation to attend the US summit, speculation about the potential reasons casts a glaring light on the difficult state of Washington's relations with its Arabian peninsula allies over the last several years.

The Arabs have lost faith it seems. Sobriety, perhaps even skepticism, has taken the place of what had been a natural unanimity, developed over the course of decades. Now, when Riyadh, Manama and Abu Dhabi look to Washington, the questions that occupy them are: What does America want? What does Obama want? Or better still: What does Obama really want?

So, what does Obama want?

In large part, the American president has already let the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) know what he wants - namely, better relations with Iran, the archenemy of those GCC states. That desire has been evidenced in the success of initial nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran, as well as the new roll that the USA has afforded Tehran in their strategic alliance against jihadist terror.

So far, so good. However, the Arab Gulf states would like to know more from Obama; above all, what price is he willing to pay for this new relationship with Iran.

One can criticize the GCC states, and especially Saudi Arabia, for many things - like their chauvinistic religious policies, and their bizarre and muddied relationship to Salafism and jihadism - but they are right about one thing: it is totally unclear whether or not Iran's new international standing will be a blessing for the region.

For instance, Tehran's continuing support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is one of the main reasons that the Syrian conflict is now entering its fifth year, that a quarter million Syrians have been killed, and that ten million more have been displaced. They are being killed and dislodged in part by jihadists, but above all by the Syrian army. Iran, together with Assad's other partner, Russia, is largely responsible for the fact that the war has not yet come to an end. And GCC leaders are asking themselves if Obama could not have done more to end the war.

Love of peace, love of power

But are they pulling their hair out in Riyadh simply because they long for peace? No. Syria is the theater of a proxy war in which Sunni and Shiite countries are vying for power. The Sunni states, including several from the Arabian peninsula, want to hinder Iran's influence in Syria. That is why they are supplying the rebels with arms. But, more and more, they are asking themselves just how much they can count on Obama.

In Yemen - the scene of another Sunni-Shiite proxy war - he joined forces with the GCC states to support their intervention militarily. That is also a symbolically important gesture because the Saudi-led operation, "Decisive Storm," bears the seed of an idea in its name: it is intended to demonstrate the unconditional will of the coalition to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in the Sunni sphere of influence. Riyadh and others look favorably upon the fact that the US has supported this aspiration. The only question is, how much will it actually effect Iran in the long run?

Constrained pragmatism

So what does Obama want? The fact that he only indirectly involved the GCC states in nuclear negotiations with Iran caused a great deal of irritation on the Arabian peninsula. That could be reflecting itself in reactions to the US summit invitation: the majority of states have opted to send politicians of secondary importance rather than heads of state and government to represent them.

This could indeed be a sign of protest, but it can also be interpreted in another way: as an admission that peace efforts in the region are no better off with the US or without. Both sides, the GCC states and Iran, need the USA as an indirect mediator. That is not necessarily proof of sober pragmatism. The GCC and Iran both have their political litmus test ahead of them.

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