Obama’s Legacy in the Gulf: Despite Disgruntlement, U.S. Remains Indispensable

This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

To Saudi Arabia and its Arab partners of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United States in six years of Barack Obama’s presidency has become as unpredictable and unreliable as it is indispensable. When President Obama passes the baton in 2017, it is likely that he will not be recalled fondly, but this is a distinction shared with most of his predecessors.

Current Situation

The United States has large military centers in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, and is set to use a base in Saudi Arabia for the training of Syrian rebels. With the possible exception of Qatar, the GCC states share with Washington a strong interest in confronting Islamic extremism. Only the United States could thwart maritime troublemaking by Iran in the Persian Gulf. The United States is the partner of choice in matters of cyber security. Only the United States could have forged the multinational coalition that has undertaken a joint campaign to break the extremist group in Iraq and Syria that calls itself the Islamic State—a coalition that the GCC monarchies agreed unanimously to support.

But those realities have not overpowered the widespread resentment and suspicion among Gulf Arabs that have soured relations in the past few years. At recent meetings in Washington, in conversations in Saudi Arabia in November, and in commentaries in the regional news media, well-informed officials and respected analysts from the GCC states have rolled out a long list of what they view as failures of American policy and, worse, of American will. Even the glossy magazine in a Riyadh hotel room—the kind that never addresses anything controversial—recently carried an article on “America wiping its hands of its responsibilities in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” It is published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Some of these sentiments will dissipate eventually, unless Iraq collapses completely or Iran emerges as the regional superpower. But even if the region settles down and avoids what the Gulf countries would see as the worst outcomes, disenchantment with Washington has led to the development of some new thinking. It is not unusual now to hear GCC voices saying that it is time for these countries to stop waiting for, or depending on, Washington and to assume responsibility for their own security.

“For decades, Arabs have looked to ‘Baba America’ and its allies for protection, knowing full well that U.S. foreign policy is geared solely toward its own security and geopolitical interests,” Khalaf Ahmad al-Habtoor, a prominent businessman in the United Arab Emirates, wrote in the influential Al Arabiya.

Our region would be well-served if Arab governments and peoples spent less time bashing America and more time learning how best to depend on ourselves. We cannot sit back relying on empty pledges from western leaderships currently attempting to enter into some kind of grand bargain with Iran’s ayatollahs…Do we still imagine Uncle Sam will send in the cavalry? If so, we should think again.[1]

“Everybody is in the mood for a post-America Gulf,” Abdelkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in Abu Dhabi, said at a recent forum in Washington. He said that the United States now resembles Britain in the early 1970s, when the weakened empire abandoned its longstanding protectorates in the Gulf because it could no longer afford responsibility for them.

Those comments are not outside the regional mainstream. Some are angry at Obama, some are disappointed, some are baffled, but at least for the moment the United States is in disfavor. Whether the criticisms are fair, and whether they are based on fact rather than on emotion, is open to question, but they seem to be pervasive.

Much of this sentiment derives from the crisis in Iraq. The U.S. invasion and the ouster of Saddam Hussein are almost universally seen as mistakes of historic proportions. It was not Obama, of course, who made the decision to invade, but he is now being blamed for many of the regional nightmares that have ensued. Many in the region accuse Obama and his team of withdrawing from Iraq before its armed forces were prepared to defend the country; of standing by while former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in league with Iran, pursued sectarian policies that marginalized all but his fellow Shi‘a; and of sticking with Maliki when even his sponsors in Iraq had given up on him, because of an unrealistic commitment to Iraq’s phony democracy. The result was the rise of the Islamic State extremist group, or ISIS, which threatens stability and security from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia.

Khaled Almaeena, editor of the English-language Saudi Gazette, wrote in a recent column that

the Arab world cannot absolve itself of blame for the current impasse, nor can it deny its responsibility for the social ills that contributed to the sectarian divide. However, the United States is also accountable for the present tragedy. The invasion of Iraq and the dismantling of all its institutions created a lethal vacuum and tore apart the fabric of Iraqi society. A poorly formulated American Middle East foreign policy tilting toward the Zionist state has contributed to the rage and bloodshed in the region.[2]

As his comments about Israel—the “Zionist state”—indicate, the list of grievances and perceived U.S. failures hardly ends with Iraq. For Saudi Arabia, the foremost issue is the negotiations over the nuclear program in Iran. It seems to be an article of faith among Saudis, even those not involved with foreign policy, that Iran is a malign force bent on dominating the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia’s detriment. Viewing the negotiations in that light, the Saudis fear that the talks will produce an agreement that leads to a wider rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, lifts economic sanctions on Iran, and thereby strengthens Iran as it pursues what the Saudis see as troublesome interference all across the region.

In addition to Iraq and Iran, the United States is being criticized across a broad spectrum of other issues, including:   

Obama’s perceived failure to follow through on what people in the Gulf heard as a commitment to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or to deal decisively with the crisis brought on by the civil war there. That conflict has become an endless humanitarian catastrophe that has fragmented Syria, destabilized Iraq, and threatens to destabilize Jordan and Lebanon. Mark Katz, a political science professor at George Mason University, says that at a recent conference on regional security issues in Riyadh, he found “tremendous bitterness” over Obama’s decision to refrain from military strikes against the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons. He says the delegates felt that

had [air strikes] degraded and weakened the Assad regime back then that we might not have seen ISIS arise so strongly, that it would have been other groups who would have been more dominant…[and] that in the intervening year the Assad regime and its allies have been able to weaken the more moderate opposition groups allowing ISIS to gain strength.[3]

The Gulf states were not reassured when Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that overcoming ISIS cannot be accomplished militarily but only through “a sustained effort over a long  period of time” to strip away its “cloak of religious legitimacy.” He said it was “a generational problem.”[4] The Saudis understand the need to discredit the religious claims of the Islamic State, because they directly challenge their own claims to primacy in Islam, and have been campaigning energetically to spread the message that ISIS is the antithesis of Islam. But they also would like to see more direct military action.

The failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to forge a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, leaving the Palestinians stranded in the political limbo where they have lived for generations. Related to that are the perceived U.S. passivity toward the massive bombardments unleashed by Israel on Gaza during the recent war there and Washington’s failure to constrain Israel’s plans to expand Israeli housing in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Washington’s low-key response to the upheaval in Yemen, where a Shi‘i offshoot rebel group known as the Houthis, apparently with Iranian support, surged across the northern regions, took control of the capital, Sana, and forced President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to appoint a new government. The United States welcomed the formation of a new government, but the Saudis and the UAE did not. In their view, keeping Hadi, a Sunni Muslim, in office, while forcing him to do their bidding, was a clever ploy by the Houthis to avoid the appearance of a Shi‘i takeover. Gulf officials were not amused by an Iranian official’s recent claim that his country now controls, through proxies, four Arab capitals: Sana, Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad.

The Obama administration’s ambivalence about Egypt. The United States accepted the results of the election in 2012 that brought to power an Islamist government headed by Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, but as public demonstrations mounted in 2013 calling for his resignation and early elections, the United States was perceived as standing with Morsi. After Morsi was removed by the military, the United States proceeded to do business with the military-backed interim government that declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and then with former Defense Minister Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who was elected to the presidency in 2014. The GCC states have their own differences on this issue, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have condemned the Brotherhood as a terrorist group but Qatar has not, but what matters less than the details is Washington’s perceived policy shifts. 

Opening a “back channel” to Iran through Oman, a GCC member, without informing the other members. To the Saudis and Emiratis, this move was a sign that the United States does not trust them.

In addition to these specific policy differences, the Gulf states’ malaise about the United States has been stoked by fear that growing U.S. oil output will reduce Washington’s interest in the Gulf, and by concern that budgetary constraints will curtail the U.S. military commitment in the region.

Over the past year, the Obama administration has labored mightily to shore up the morale of its anxious allies in the region. The president and a dozen or so senior cabinet officials and military leaders have visited the GCC states, offering reassurances of American commitment. And the major components of that commitment, including arms sales and the American military presence, have continued without disruption.

At the same time, U.S. trade with the GCC states is flourishing. American industrial firms are participating in major development projects throughout the Gulf. People all across the region have embraced American consumer culture. Tens of thousands of students from the Gulf are being educated in the United States, the country of choice for the upwardly mobile. Except among extremist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula, little anti-Americanism is visible in daily life, which for most people goes on as usual despite the turmoil that surrounds their countries. But the undercurrents of discontent with Uncle Sam are unmistakable.

Such discontent was perceptible in comments by Saudi Arabia’s veteran foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, after a meeting with Kerry:

A true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor, and frankness rather than mere courtesy. Within this perspective, it’s only natural that our policies and views might see agreement in some areas and disagreement in others. That’s perfectly normal in any serious relationship that spans a wide range of issues.

Prince Saud also said that “reducing the Syrian crisis to merely destroying chemical weapons—which is but a small aspect of it—won’t help put an end to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in our times.”[5] He did not specify a particular country had made that decision to put chemical weapons first, but there was little doubt which country he had in mind.

Prince Saud delivered those remarks a year ago. According to Americans in the kingdom, Saudis at the official level have since been mollified by the vigor of Washington’s effort to assemble an international coalition to confront ISIS, and by the arrival of a new U.S. Ambassador, Joseph W. Westphal, a former under secretary of the Army, who is perceived to have a pipeline to the Pentagon. 

Outside the government, analysts unconstrained by diplomatic niceties have been less circumspect in their language than Prince Saud. To give just one recent example, an Arab News columnist, Hassan Barari, dismissed Obama as “toothless” and proclaimed that “after six years in office, Obama has yet to prove that he has a strategy for dealing with the various issues of the Middle East. If anything, regional leaders do not take him seriously due to his hesitancy and lack of leadership.”[6]

Drivers, Dynamics, and Obama’s Legacy

Given the scope and durability of U.S. security commitments in the Gulf, much of the criticism coming from the region reflects the mood of the day rather than penetrating analysis. It is contradictory to criticize Obama for being indecisive and failing to take strong action to bring down a regime in Syria while at the same time criticizing his predecessor for being decisive and taking strong action to bring down a regime in Iraq. That criticism reflects GCC attitudes about Iran more than about the United States: it was wrong to take down Saddam Hussein because he was a bulwark against Iran, but it would be right to take down Assad because he is an ally of Iran. The United States, as the old saying goes, is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. And it is easy to flog the United States for decisions it has made about Iraq and Syria, but there is no way to blame Washington for the GCC’s internal differences and the members’ quarrels with each other, which have inhibited unified action against threats to their security.

It was not the fault of anyone in Washington that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors out of Qatar eight months ago to protest that country’s tendency to go its own way—especially its more benign view of the Muslim Brotherhood. In a surprise meeting on November 16, the GCC buried its differences and the three ambassadors are due to return to Doha, but Qatar in many ways continues to follow its own agenda. In early November, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani went to Beijing and signed a “strategic partnership” agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The six GCC states did put aside their squabbles to agree unanimously to support the U.S.-led coalition confronting ISIS, but they have different views and objectives on other regional issues, especially on Iran, toward which some of the six take a much harder line than the others. They are collectively critical of the United States, but except in confronting ISIS they have been unable to forge their own coherent and consistent security policy.

There are some intellectuals, such as Awadh al-Badi of Riyadh’s King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, who take a longer view. They say the true cause of popular anger at the United States is that American policies are forcing the Arabs to make their own decisions and decide their own fate, rather than wait for some outside power to tell them what to do and organize them to do it. That is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position, but over time it would be a positive development if the Arabs collectively would rise to the occasion, but given their longstanding tribal and ideological rivalries it is difficult to be optimistic.

On balance, the dark cloud that has formed over U.S.-Gulf relations probably does represent, as Prince Saud suggested, a transitory result of simultaneous unfortunate outcomes for which no country is entirely to blame. How long that cloud will hover depends on the outcome of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the effort to contain ISIS, the dubious future of Yemen, the stability of Iraq, the situation in the West Bank, and as always in the Middle East, on the inevitable “black swan” events for which no one in the region, or in Washington, will be prepared.

Obama as an individual will not be fondly remembered when he leaves office, but he will be in good company. In the Gulf, it often seems as if the last prominent American policymaker still admired and respected is James A. Baker III, secretary of state at the time of Desert Storm.

>> Series Overview: Obama's Legacy in the Middle East

[1] Khalaf Ahmad al-Habtoor, “The West Isn’t Duty-Bound to Solve Arab Problems,” Al Arabiya, November 9, 2014, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2014/11/09/The-West-isn-t-duty-bound-to-solve-Arab-problems.html.

[2] Saudi Gazette, Jeddah, November 19, 2014

[3] “Focus KSA—Gulf Challenges Conference—Katz,” SUSRIS, September 22, 2014, http://susris.com/2014/09/22/focus-ksa-arabian-gulf-and-regional-challenges-conference-katz-transcript/.

[4] Testimony before Senate Foreign Relations Committee,  September 16, 2014

[5] Remarks at a meeting with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Riyadh, November 4, 2013.

[6] Hassan Barari, “Iran Unlikely to Budge,” Arab News, November 10, 2014.