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Obama's Gulf calculus pays off

‘Snub’ to Washington does not blind Riyadh’s GCC allies to realities of dependence on US hardware

"Snub"  was very much the buzzword regarding Thursday's summit between US President Barack Obama and officials from the Gulf states. It was an apt description, but only to an extent.

The Saudi king's stated reason for his absence - that he needed to oversee the Yemen ceasefire - would have been more plausible had Bahrain's monarch, who is typically in lockstep with the rulers in Riyadh, not also missed the meeting - to attend a horse show with Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

It may not have been the kind of overt child-scolding we have become accustomed to seeing Obama receive from Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but in their own, more diplomatic way, Gulf states expressed their displeasure over Washington's negotiations with regional rival Iran.

However, the scale and implications of the snub were considerably overblown. Of the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the leaders of Qatar and Kuwait did attend, and those of Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were not expected to do so due to poor health.

The heads of state who were absent nonetheless sent senior representatives, and Obama spoke on the phone to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman prior to the summit.

This was hardly the crisis in US-Gulf relations that the media were keen to portray. Indeed, the GCC's assistant secretary general, Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, said: "We're very happy the outcome of the results disappointed pundits, and exceeded beyond most expectations."

This may be somewhat sugar-coated, and expectations were certainly low to begin with, but had the summit been tense, Aluwaisheg's statement would have likely been more measured.

At the meeting - in fact, as he has throughout talks with Iran over its nuclear programme - Obama tried to reassure Gulf states that those talks would not harm their security. However, he still portrayed Tehran as a conventional threat involved in "destabilising activities in the region," no doubt to ensure continued American arms sales to very wealthy and nervous buyers. This is a tricky balancing act that he has so far performed rather well.

As such, when Obama described the summit as a "success”, from the perspective of American interests he was right. He reaffirmed the US commitment to the security of the Gulf states, but stopped short of a formal defence treaty that some of them had sought.

In effect, he offered nothing substantively new but got more in return, including the fast-tracking of lucrative arms transfers, and GCC agreement that a "comprehensive, verifiable" deal with Tehran would be in their security interests.

Obama succeeded in his intention to "deepen and broaden" the relationship with the GCC, if only from a military perspective (a pillar of that relationship nonetheless). The outcome of the summit was greater cooperation in various fields, including counterterrorism, maritime security, cyber-security, ballistic missile defence and joint military exercises.

All in all, not a bad day's work. Obama likely calculated - correctly - that, despite Gulf states' misgivings about the nuclear talks with Iran, they would not - indeed could not - turn their backs on the US.

Their efforts to create a unified Arab military may on the surface be an attempt at greater independence. However, such a force would be made up of armies that are largely supplied by the US, which is the biggest provider of weapons to the Middle East. As such, this would hardly cause concern for the US - on the contrary, it could continue selling arms while potentially being less directly involved militarily in the region.

Other countries could fill the void, though at considerable cost and inconvenience to Gulf states' largely American-equipped armies. Egypt has demonstrated that one can turn to other suppliers (in Cairo's case Russia) without losing US support. In fact, Washington and Moscow are now in competition over Egypt.

But which other countries could feasibly replace the US as patrons and major weapons suppliers to the GCC that are not also involved in the talks with Iran? Gulf allies France and Britain are involved, and participants Russia and China are allied to Tehran (as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose opponents are supported by the Gulf).

Furthermore, countries that are not part of the negotiations do not have the necessary involvement and have yet to show the will or capacity to be that involved, in such a turbulent region.

The Gulf states may have realised that their disapproval over the nuclear talks will not make the participants change course, particularly since Israel - with all its influence in Washington - has failed to do so.

It was never realistic to expect the indefinite isolation of Iran, especially if a major reason for international sanctions - Tehran's nuclear programme - may soon be resolved.

Israeli and Gulf opposition to the talks is not really about Tehran getting the bomb - any agreed deal would make that less likely. It is about the rehabilitation of a sworn enemy that would then be better able to flex its muscles regionally, more so than it is already doing.

This is obviously not as much of a concern for countries outside the region. Indeed, from their perspective, a nuclear deal will likely result in a bonanza: a lucrative regional arms race, and access to the potentially huge Iranian market.

The sooner the region's adversaries realise this the better, because they are the ones who will suffer the fallout while their foreign “allies” line their own pockets.

- Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The National and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the International Media Council "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting" on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US President Barack Obama (2nd R) chats with the emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (R), the emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah (2nd L) and Oman’s Deputy Prime Minister Fahd bin Mahmud al-Said (L) (AFP)