The world will be watching as a two-day summit gets under way between US President Barack Obama and the leaders of six Arab Gulf states at the Camp David retreat outside Washington.
The summit comes in the aftermath of an April framework agreement between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. The agreement intends to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting the crippling economic sanctions against the country.
But before discussing the Gulf states’ demands of the Obama administration regarding the nuclear agreement, it is pertinent to examine a couple of questions: Why did Obama invite the Gulf leaders for the summit, and why did he choose Camp David as the location?
The Obama administration is clearly aware of the Gulf allies’ unhappiness over US policies in the region, especially with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme and the US handling of the crises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya – along with US negligence of the Palestinian cause and the historic Arab-Israeli conflict.
It appears that Obama is preparing to explain to his Gulf allies the details of the deal with Iran, and to give them assurances against any negative consequences the agreement could have on their national security. For Obama, the Iran deal is historic, marking a crowning achievement of his presidency, which ends next year.
From the perspective of the Gulf states, the common denominator between Iraq and Yemen is Iran. Iran stands accused of fuelling instability and civil wars in Iraq and Yemen by supporting its own allies, which has destabilised the entire region.
The location of the summit is peculiar from an Arab perspective, as the Camp David retreat, located in the mountains 100km north of Washington, has a special resonance in the collective Arab psyche. It is permanently connected with terms such as “peace talks” and “negotiations”, after talks in 1978 between Egypt and Israel culminated in the signing of the 1979 peace agreement known as the Camp David Accords. Camp David was also the location for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in 2000, which ultimately failed to produce a peace deal.
It is therefore legitimate to question the agenda of the summit, and to ask whether the gathering will provide a platform for negotiations between the allies over the future of their strategic partnership, which has stood the test of time.
Moreover, it is obvious that Gulf leaders are heading to Washington with several questions and demands for the Obama administration.
It is expected that the first issue Arab leaders will broach with Obama is their need to establish a strategic balance with Iran, especially on the issue of nuclear capabilities.
Although this would not entail a call for a nuclear arms race between Iran and the Arab states, if the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders want their countries to remain geopolitically relevant in an unstable region, they must demand the right to acquire peaceful nuclear technology if Iran is permitted to do so.
Secondly, Gulf leaders will ask the US for security guarantees. The Gulf states face bleak security and military scenarios on their northern borders with Iraq and in the south with Yemen. Iraq, unstable ever since the US invaded in 2003, has been fluctuating in and out of a sectarian civil war. Major chunks of its territory are controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Yemen, too, is facing a civil war and instability after the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels deposed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and took control of the country.
This development prompted Saudi Arabia, which views the situation in Yemen as a threat to its national security, to launch a coalition air campaign against the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in an effort to weaken them and draw them back to the negotiating table.
From the perspective of the Gulf states, the common denominator between Iraq and Yemen is Iran. Iran stands accused of fuelling instability and civil wars in Iraq and Yemen by supporting its own allies, which has destabilised the entire region. Thus, Gulf leaders must address their own security and stability concerns with Obama through the lens of the stability of the region as a whole.
A third topic on the agenda will be solutions to regional issues. Ever since the Arab Spring in 2011, the region – especially Syria, Libya, the Palestinian territories and Egypt – have faced upheavals and instability.
In a message to Obama published by the New York Times in February, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani laid out a road map to address the challenges the region is facing: “Despite all of the pessimism generated by the forces of violence and repression, the youth of the Arab world remain steadfast and committed to a better future. They continue to hope for a Middle East where human dignity is respected and justice is fair and true.”
Adding to his central message about the need to address the root causes of injustice and instability in the region, the Qatari emir said during a meeting with Georgetown University students, that Arab states should not become wholly dependant on the US to solve their problems. Instead, “Arab states have the capability to work together in order to help the people who long for freedom and to confront terrorist groups. Only after we do that we should ask for America’s help”.
Amid rapid changes in the region – especially after Saudi Arabia took the initiative to act in Yemen, coupled with the rise of the young Saudi emirs to the halls of power in the kingdom – the final message Gulf leaders have for Obama is that they are capable of dealing with regional problems, and that the role of the US should be that of “supporter”, not that of “saviour”.
Jamal Abdullah is a researcher at the Gulf Studies Unit with the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.