As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office in January, Gulf security will be among the key issues the new administration will have to deal with. As vice president during President Barack Obama’s two terms, Biden is no stranger to the subject. Before that, he dealt with the Gulf while serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Gulf security has always been high on the US foreign policy agenda.
While the personal style of President Donald Trump differed from his predecessors when it came to the Gulf, his administration utilized the same security architecture that predated his election in 2016 and has remained substantially the same since then. Biden will inherit that infrastructure and is not likely to change it in the near future.
In 2012, the GCC and the US set up the Strategic Cooperation Forum (SCF), a new framework for their engagement, which had started when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was founded in 1981. In March 2012, the late Prince Saud Al-Faisal and Hillary Clinton co-chaired the SCF’s first session, which was attended by all GCC foreign ministers and a large multi-agency delegation from the US. It was agreed to set up a few joint working groups with a focus on political and security matters.
The SCF established a fairly organized and robust channel of communications centered on the security architecture in the Gulf in light of the tumultuous events of 2011 and 2012, including Iran’s emboldened destabilizing behavior in the region. The forum also paved the way for the first GCC-US summit at Camp David in May 2015, when the setup was elevated to the GCC-US Strategic Partnership, under which the scope of cooperation expanded (and the number of working groups and task forces multiplied). The second Obama-era summit was held in Riyadh in June 2016 and it opened new areas of engagement, including on economic diversification and youth employment.
During the May 2017 GCC-US summit in Riyadh, under Trump, the two sides reiterated their firm commitment to the Camp David framework and agreed to further expand the scope of cooperation.
At the same summit, the Trump administration proposed the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) to include other countries and augment, not replace, the GCC-US Strategic Partnership framework. While discussions continued to finalize MESA’s shape and content, the Trump administration admirably worked just as hard to convene meetings under the GCC-US Strategic Partnership rubric.
The enduring significance and utility of the GCC-US Strategic Partnership should not be underestimated. More importantly, the Gulf security architecture that the US and GCC states have set up over recent decades should also continue. Discussions about changing priorities may take place within those frameworks. Much has been said about Trump’s emphasis on security self-reliance, but one raison d’etre for the GCC as an organization stemmed from that idea: Building a solid collective defense capability. While asymmetrical warfare has been a challenge, there have been great advances in conventional capabilities. Similarly, when American policymakers talk about defense burden sharing, they are not speaking about GCC states, which are not free riders but pay for every weapons system they get.
As such, there is much common ground between the security doctrines of the US and the GCC. The more GCC-US security cooperation there is, the faster the GCC will become self-sufficient militarily, which requires greater cooperation in the development and production of advanced weapons systems and training.
Counterterrorism is a priority for both sides and the two need each other’s cooperation. The Riyadh-based Terrorist Financing Targeting Center is one good example of GCC-US cooperation. Meanwhile, on countering terrorist messaging, the GCC has set up about a dozen centers that have succeeded in reducing terrorists’ attempts at recruitment, and the US is working closely with those entities.
Politically, the two sides see eye-to-eye on most regional and international issues and that is expected to continue. The top priority will be how to forge a common regional policy to counter Iran’s malign activities and bring it back to the negotiation table. That policy should also coordinate the GCC and US’ approaches to countering the destabilizing meddling of other countries.
Energy cooperation is now more productive and equal, as the two sides sit on the same side of the table as major producers of oil and gas. The security and political implications of this development are important and should be discussed under the GCC-US Strategic Partnership, but the importance of the Gulf as the largest store of conventional energy goes beyond supplying the US with cheap oil. This region will remain paramount in the stability of oil markets and consequently the global economic recovery and well-being of many countries. As the largest economic power in the world, the US economy relies on the health of its trading partners, who rely on GCC oil and gas.
There is much common ground between the security doctrines of the US and the GCC.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
In addition to cooperation on conventional energy, the two sides agreed in 2018 to explore new areas of cooperation in renewables and energy efficiency. They have also started to work on creating a regional common market in electricity — a priority for both sides as well as several regional players.
US firms are among the largest investors in the GCC region, and GCC investors are key players in the US market. While merchandise trade growth is flattening because the US imports less oil from GCC producers, non-oil trade is growing. There is significant potential for growth in both trade and investment.
People-to-people contacts have flourished over the years, with hundreds of thousands of GCC students seeking higher education in the US, as well as millions of tourists. While the coronavirus disease has put a damper on those informal contacts, the allure of travel between the two regions will return in the near future.
With such intricate comingling of GCC and US interests, which greatly affect the security and prosperity of both sides, the Biden administration is expected to continue the US’ engagement with the region through existing mechanisms and will also more than likely come up with new ideas to broaden and deepen that engagement. The GCC is ready and open for business when the US is ready.