The security landscape of the Arab states of the Gulf has myriad implications for the broader Middle East and North Africa region, particularly given the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the recent escalation, stalled talks with Iran over the nuclear program, the ongoing crises in Lebanon, and over the horizon in Ukraine. This timely discussion will assess the changing geopolitical map and the Biden administration’s posture towards the Arab states of the Gulf.
An evolving geopolitical, economic, and social landscape
As the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) continues to modernize and globalize its economy, its relations with powers across the globe deepen, not just with the West. “The GCC is a globalization success story,” remarks Ellen Laipson, Director of the Master's in International Security degree program and the Center for Security Policy Studies at the Schar School of
Policy and Government at George Mason University, adding, “And with that success comes a desire to look both West and East and hence, it is critical to understand that the GCC region looks to Asia and looks to have relations with all the great powers.”
Generational changes in leadership, for example in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is sparking remarkable transformations in politics and political culture. The state-society relationship is adapting to a new, particularly when it comes to opportunities for youth and regional activism. Mahjoob Zweiri, Director of Gulf Studies Center, Associate Professor in Contemporary Politics of the Middle East, Qatar University, notes, “It is inaccurate to say that states are not considering the views of their society… there are channels of communication with the state [and] groups within society that can reach out to those in power.”
On the security front, however, the United States still offers unique attributes and capabilities. Despite commentary that the US is pivoting out of the Middle East, Washington maintains its commitment to being the premier security partner of countries in the region and is instead pursuing different strategies than the past two decades.
Forging personal relations with leaders in the Gulf is an important element of maintaining a positive relationship. So far, though, the Biden Administration has been hesitant in doing so. These diplomatic efforts are necessary to balance the sometimes divergent interests of the US and GCC countries. Right now, there’s a level of skepticism towards the US due to its missteps in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as its neglect of the Lebanon crisis and conflict between Iran and Israel.
Underneath these wide held beliefs, are also the unique concerns of each country within the GCC, and broader MENA region. Therefore, a foreign policy that approach the region as a monolith will also prove unsuccessful. Washington must strive to better understand the leaders in the region; how they act, govern, and who their advisors are will affect political dynamics, how they handle conflict, and the differences between states.
According to David DesRoches, Associate Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, “There is no such thing as exceptional in government. There is either standard or substandard and if you do something you think is exceptional, all you've done is raise the bar of what standard for the next time. I think that's what we're seeing in the Gulf.”
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more