The Approaching Turning Point: The Future of U.S. Relations with the Gulf States

Executive Summary

United States policy toward the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman) is in the midst of an important change. Saudi Arabia has served as the linchpin of American military and political influence in the Gulf since Desert Storm. It can no longer play that role. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, an American military presence in the kingdom is no longer sustainable in the political system of either the United States or Saudi Arabia. Washington therefore has to rely on the smaller Gulf monarchies to provide the infrastructure for its military presence in the region. The build-up toward war with Iraq has accelerated that change, with the Saudis unwilling to cooperate openly with Washington on this issue. No matter the outcome of war with Iraq, the political and strategic logic of basing American military power in these smaller Gulf states is compelling.

In turn, Saudi-American relations need to be reconstituted on a basis that serves the shared interests of both states, and can be sustained in both countries’ political systems. That requires an end to the basing of American forces in the kingdom. The fall of Saddam Hussein will facilitate this goal, allowing the removal of the American air wing in Saudi Arabia that patrols southern Iraq. The public opinion benefits for the Saudis of the departure of the American forces will permit a return to a more normal, if somewhat more distant, cooperative relationship with the United States. However, important difficulties remain to be addressed in the relationship.

Those who contend that the Saudi-US relationship can continue as it has are misreading political realities in both countries. However, those in the United States who argue that the Saudis should be viewed not as a strategic partner, but as an enemy, do not offer a practical alternative for American policy. Their course means giving up the influence that a decades-long relationship provides with a government that controls 25 percent of the world’s known oil reserves and that can play a central role—positive or negative—in political and ideological trends in the Muslim world. They can offer no guarantee that any successor regime in Arabia would be more amenable to American interests.

The American agenda with Saudi Arabia should concentrate on those foreign policy issues where Riyadh’s cooperation is essential for American interests. These include: oil policy, regional stability and the Saudi role in the larger Muslim world, both in terms of practical “war on terrorism” issues, like intelligence sharing and terrorist financing, and a more active Saudi role in delegitimizing the bin Ladenist interpretation of Islam. Washington should not involve itself overtly in sensitive domestic political issues in Saudi Arabia, like women’s rights or the role of the religious establishment. The scrutiny that the Saudis have received in the U.S. since the September 11th attacks has played an important role in spurring self-examination and indications of reform in Riyadh. Both official and private Americans should continue to stress important reform issues for Saudi Arabia.

A key realization, however, is that any reform program with a “made-in-America” stamp on it will lead to a backlash within Saudi Arabia. Efforts to broaden political participation need to come from Saudi leaders, not from Washington, in order to be credible and acceptable in Saudi society. Washington must also realize that elections in Saudi Arabia will yield representative bodies more anti-American than the current regime, and complicate American-Saudi relations. In terms of Saudi domestic politics, the United States can more directly and openly push the Saudis to move on economic reforms aimed at increasing transparency, lessening corruption and increasing the job prospects of the burgeoning Saudi youth population.

The smaller Gulf states are better able to manage the political consequences of an American military presence than is Saudi Arabia. The same logic that made them the centerpiece of British Gulf strategy for 150 years still remains today. However, with its increasing reliance upon them, the United States must avoid the fallacy that it can simply recreate the British role in the Gulf of a past colonial age. With better-educated and more politically aware populations, these smaller states cannot be viewed simply as protectorates. The United States role needs to be minimally acceptable in local public opinion. This will depend enormously on how overall American policy is viewed there on larger issues in the Arab and Muslim worlds, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In these new political circumstances, the United States must also avoid the temptation to play an overtly imperial role of direct intervention in local politics, such as in ruling family factional squabbles. Changes imposed from the outside, no matter how well intentioned, are likely to misread local realities and to engender a local backlash. With this strategy in place, the U.S. will be far better prepared to weather the upcoming turning point in U.S.-GCC relations.