Obama, will it be Iran or the GCC?

Camp David might be a first step towards changing GCC perceptions of the US commitment in the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry walks to a news conference with Saudi Arabia''s Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh
Obama offered a very vocal criticism of the governance system of the Gulf monarchies, writes Rickli [Reuters]

The Camp David Summit that gathered the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States was an important test for the Obama Doctrine. In a recent interview with New York Times journalist, Thomas Friedman, US President Barack Obama summarised his doctrine as follows: “We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.” 

In essence, Obama meant that the United States will prioritise diplomatic engagements over using force. The latter will rely on the United States’ “military superiority” and act as a deterrent to any hostile power. Implicit in his statement is the repudiation of the concept of preventive war that his predecessor famously used to justify the US intervention in Iraq. With this doctrine, US foreign policy adopts a more realist orientation, being less interventionist and more focused on deterrence and containment.

In the same interview, Obama voiced harsh criticism of the governance system in the Gulf monarchies implying that the biggest threat to Gulf monarchies was an internal one. The governance system in the Gulf, according to Obama, has triggered alienation among citizens fuelling extremism and ultimately terrorism. This, in turn, obstructs US counterterrorism efforts.

Inside Story: US vows to defend Gulf Arab nations

Looking at Syria, Obama criticised Arab countries for not doing enough to cater for security in the Middle East.

US disengagement

Obama’s words only reinforced prevalent perceptions in the Gulf that the US is gradually disengaging from the region – something that has been fuelled by the perceived pivot to Asia and the strategy of “leading from behind”.

At the same time, the US engagement with Iran has done little to build confidence. The timing of Obama’s interview, just after the US had concluded an interim deal with Iran over its nuclear capabilities, made his remarks even more dramatic.

Obama sent a clear message to the Gulf monarchs ahead of their meeting in Camp David: the US will continue to guarantee the territorial integrity of the monarchies but not at any price.

The nature of US commitment depends on Gulf states’ willingness to do more to guarantee both their own and their collective security. This implies eliminating possible sources of radicalisation within their countries while becoming more proactive in maintaining regional security.

In so doing, Obama downplayed the threat posed by Iran to the security of the Gulf states. If the major threat to the latter comes from within, then these states should focus on internal security.

The nature of US commitment depends on the Gulf states' willingness to do more to guarantee both their own and their collective security.


Pressing for a more proactive security provision in their own backyard, Obama sidelined the issue of Iran – potentially paving the way for the Gulf monarchs to come to terms with the deal brokered in the Swiss city of Lausanne.

On the surface, the Camp David summit conclusions seem to vindicate Obama’s strategy. Obama’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran were endorsed by GCC member states in return for assurances that the United States would challenge Iranian meddling in the region.

Although formal security guarantees – which some Gulf countries had wished for – were not on the table at Camp David, a US-GCC strategic partnership aimed at increased security cooperation on matters such as ballistic missile defence, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, arms transfers and maritime security was agreed upon.

Fundamental issues

The Camp David decisions temporarily alleviate the Gulf countries’ concerns over the United States’ commitment to the region. However they do not solve two more fundamental issues.

First, the Obama Doctrine remains inherently contradictory for players of the zero-sum game shaping the Middle East and the Gulf security environment. Any diplomatic gestures towards Iran will in the end be perceived as a loss in the Gulf capitals.

Second, while Obama believes in the prevalence of US power in the Gulf, the GCC member states see the United States as an increasingly isolationist power challenged by emerging competitors such as Russia or China.

These two elements combined make reassurances a very difficult goal for Washington to achieve. After the summit, Obama declared that “the purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalise Iran”.

Yet, the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Foreign Affairs Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg reaffirmed that the GCC states will “pivot to Iran” only if Tehran first agrees to “de-escalate its destabilising behaviour”.

Obama’s example of a successful test of his doctrine, namely the normalisation of US relations with Cuba, very likely did not convince the Gulf capitals about the soundness of his strategy. The Camp David summit might be a first step towards changing the GCC member states’ perceptions of the US commitment in the Middle East – a commitment that will have to be tangibly expanded in order to live up to the expectations of the Gulf countries.

However, this will run against the inherent restrained nature of the Obama Doctrine. Failing to deliver will, in the end, reinforce the willingness of Arab countries to confront Iran on their own, thus further undermining Obama’s grand strategic plan for the region.

Jean-Marc Rickli is assistant professor at the Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London, researcher at the Near East Centre for Security and Strategy (NECSS) and associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.