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Allies or Partners: Deciphering U.S.-GCC Relations in Peace and Crises

Featured speakers: Ambassador Patrick Theros, Ambassador Robert Gallucci, Dr. Kenneth Katzman, Anna Jacobs, and Professor David Des Roches.

U.S.-GCC relations have become more complicated. U.S. signals of reduced interest in the Middle East and the increase in American oil and gas production to the highest record ever just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine exploded on the scene have strained the relationship more than ever before. In actions unprecedented in the U.S.-GCC relationship, both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) snubbed President Joe Biden’s request for a telephone call. As of this writing, the response of both the Kingdom and the Emirates to Biden’s request to increase oil production in order to dampen oil price rises and allow Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian energy seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi appear reluctant to end their commitment to the OPEC+ agreement with Russia to limit oil exports despite rapidly increasing oil prices worldwide, an increase with serious political and economic ramifications in the United States. To state that these developments have provoked great speculation about the future of U.S.-GCC relations would be an understatement.

U.S.-GCC relations have had their frictions in the recent past. America has expressed concerns for more than a decade about growing economic and, in some cases, security and geopolitical, ties between all the GCC states and China. The decision of the Biden Administration to find a way to restore the JCPOA, Obama’s 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran from which President Trump had withdrawn the U.S. in 2019, went down badly with those GCC states which had hoped for continued U.S. confrontation with Tehran. They saw the JCPOA as a signal that Washington sought to improve relations with Iran, reversing decades of unquestioned U.S. support for the Gulf Arab states and unbending hostility towards Tehran. Combined with Obama’s announced “pivot to Asia” in 2009, U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and American support for the “Arab Spring” anti-authoritarian uprising, one can understand the concerns of some Gulf monarchies that the U.S. no longer cared about their security. Also, long-term contradictions in GCC views of the U.S. have resurfaced. On one hand, Biden rewarded Qatar, naming it a Major Non-NATO Ally, for its long-time loyalty in supporting U.S. activities in the region –not least facilitating the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. On the other hand, the U.S. continues to publicly criticize the Saudi-led war in Yemen, although it continues to provide material support to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to defend against Yemen’s Houthis attacks on both countries.

What do the GCC states expect from Washington? Are they allies or partners or “is it complicated”? How do the different GCC countries see their bilateral relationships with the U.S.? Is there a collective GCC view?  Most importantly, how does Washington view its interests in the region?

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