The Gulf and America: Has the Strategic Alliance Shifted?

Many analytical reports and articles have addressed the implications of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some have observed that one of the repercussions is a decline in confidence in the existing strategic alliance between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and an erosion in trust in American promises to protect the interests of its GCC allies should they be threatened. In my opinion, a careful examination of the current situation suggests that the link between the chaos of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and American commitments to its allies in the Arabian Peninsula has been greatly exaggerated. However, this does not preclude the fact that there clearly is a relative change in America’s commitment to the Gulf nations, but that change has nothing to do with the scene in Afghanistan.

The obvious truth is that there is a raging debate in America between Democrats and Republicans over the limits of the U.S. role in the Gulf region. This debate clearly increased following the shale oil revolution in the United States and the decreased American need for oil energy resources. It follows that what can be called the “Carter doctrine” — which has framed the relationship between the United States and the Gulf region since 1980 and calls for military force to defend U.S. interests in the Gulf — still exists, albeit with a much lower degree of commitment due to changes in conditions and the strategic environment. But it is difficult to argue that this doctrine has changed completely, because the United States, as a superpower, still possesses a wide network of geopolitical interests in the Arabian Peninsula.

The lack of change in the Carter doctrine does not mean there is a definitive American commitment to implementing it. Evidence suggests there are transformations on the tactical level; that is, the principle idea remains, but its execution depends on considerations and factors that greatly reduce how effective it really is. This is not new or a matter of urgency. At least in the eyes of some of the U.S. elite, the commitment to defending American strategic interests does not mean military intervention in defense of Washington’s regional allies. The elite believe U.S. strategic interests are no longer what they were back in 1980, and have interpreted them differently depending on the perspective of presidential administrations. Some of the elite invoke the nuclear agreement signed by former President Barack Obama and the Iranian mullahs that ignored the legitimate security concerns of U.S. allies in the Gulf and centered instead on what was considered to be American strategic interests; an agreement whose only result was that it inflicted severe damage on the interests of both Washington and its allies alike.

Former President Jimmy Carter saw any attempt by the former Soviet Union or others to control the Arabian Peninsula and its oil resources as a threat to U.S. strategic interests, a threat which called for military confrontation if the situation required it. But subsequently, after an attack on Saudi oil facilities in November 2019, former President Donald Trump pointed the finger at Iran but did not move a muscle, even though the attack was then considered to be a message to the United States from Iran in response to Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.

Although President Trump laid the foundation for important changes in America’s strategic vision for its alliance with GCC countries, something which contributed to deep fissures between the two sides, these changes have risen to the level of redefining and transforming the relationships into purely transactional matters rather than alliances that would serve longer term strategic interests and provide mutual benefits. Certainly, U.S. interests in the region have not changed very much. Everything that has taken place in this respect happened within the framework of ranking U.S. strategic priorities and concerns in terms of international developments and the emergence of challenges that Washington felt deserved greater focus. The Gulf does not only mean oil from the perspective of U.S. strategic interests. Rather, the situation relates to influence, position and dominance over the world order, as well as being intimately tied to economic stability. From the perspective of GCC countries, the relationship with the United States is not only about protective cover or weapons exports; it is deeper and broader than that and closely tied to the strategic interests of the two political parties.

In light of all this, I believe that the recent opening of channels of communication and dialogue between some of the GCC countries and Iran does not reflect lost confidence in the U.S. alliance as much as it is a logical strategic response to regional and global developments. This includes a desire by the Gulf nations to diversify their strategic choices and guarantee regional security and stability through tools that align with developments in U.S. foreign policy, especially as it relates to managing relations with Iran.

Finally, it could be said that GCC countries are no longer what they used to be. They have succeeded in translating their economic, investment and business power into political and strategic capital based on diversity and multilateralism in their alliances and strategic partnerships with large nations. Thus we can say that if U.S. foreign policy has changed, the GCC countries’ policies have also changed. They have become more inclined toward independence as they search for interests, partnerships and alliances with a diverse number superpowers, including, of course, the United States, which is no longer their only partner or ally. Moreover, the security of the Arabian Peninsula is no longer exclusively America’s responsibility, rather it is of concern to all the large countries, foremost among them China, Russia and members of the European Union.

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