In late April, Riyadh bristled with anticipation over a long-awaited foreign visit. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in town to chair a meeting with his Gulf counterparts: ministers from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The agenda was ambitious: oil security, the fight against IS and, of course, Iran.

“It’s pretty clear that the US wants the GCC states to stand up on their own and take care of problems in their own neighbourhood.”

Relations were markedly tenser than usual. The US’s deal with Iran last year over its nuclear programme had been heralded as a pivot towards a different kind US policy in the Middle East, and with the lifting of sanctions and a new diplomatic relationship, the Gulf states had good reason to wonder where this left their relations with the US. Add to this a quote by the president, who, speaking to The Atlantic magazine in a major interview, referred to certain allies in the Persian Gulf as “free riders” with “an unwillingness to put any skin in the game”, and you have a frosty reception for the American delegation.

But Carter arrived in Riyadh with an olive branch: the proposition of a new military alliance between the US and the GCC, comprising Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman. The alliance was to focus on naval and special forces, and was designed to counter the ‘destabilising activities’ of Iran in the region, strengthen relations and bolster the fight against IS. Months after the nuclear deal, it was obvious that the US was reaching out to reaffirm its relationship with old allies.

US intervention

“The US is trying to show that Washington is actively involved as a partner of the GCC,” says Dr Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics. “But GCC states don’t trust the US like they used to. They saw the Obama administration fail in Iraq, fail in Egypt and fail with Iran, from their perspective. They want the US to stand up and give them what they need so they can protect themselves.”

David B Ottaway, a former foreign correspondent in the region and now Middle East fellow at the Wilson Centre, agrees. He sees Washington’s push as a part of a concerted effort to build cooperation between the GCC states as the US steps back from the interventionist approach of the past.

“The Obama administration – and those before it – pushed the GCC to act as a unit and present a credible military and defence,” he says. “But the US has been frustrated, trying to work with the GCC as a whole, because of its internal problems and inability to work together.”

These divisions have been exemplified by the continued complications over the US-led push for a shared GCC-run ballistic missile defence system. A project over two years in the making, it’s one that has been constantly delayed by the issue of sovereignty. With inter-Gulf-state political disagreements aplenty, few want to hand over control of the system to the GCC’s major power.

“A centralised missile defence system would almost certainly be based in Saudi Arabia,” explains Ottaway. “And giving up sovereignty over starting a war with Saudi Arabia is a problem for some.”

Much of this is driven by the fact that as the US has adopted a more hands-off approach to the region, Gulf states are forced to become more assertive. Where once, the US would intervene in nearby conflicts, it now lies with Saudi Arabia and friends to assert their interests.

“In a sense, the Obama administration is trying to get these states to protect themselves more,” says Karasik. “If push comes to shove, the US would come to their aid, but right now, it’s pretty clear that the US wants the GCC states to stand up on their own and take care of problems in their own neighbourhood.”

Broad concerns

The conflict in Yemen, in particular, loomed over the US announcement. Since 2015, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, along with a coalition of Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Senegal and other sympathetic nations, has waged war against the allegedly Iran-backed Houthi Revolutionary Government. It’s a complex conflict, and one that has drawn in the US, the UK and France to assist their Gulf allies in a complicated proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Al-Qaeda – assistance that has drawn criticism, as the Gulf-backed coalition has bombed major Yemeni cities.

The intervention in Yemen is just a small part of a new atmosphere of broader regional instability where, increasingly, Gulf states are feeling the need to intervene in order to protect their interests. Saudi Arabia and its allies fear the anarchic new regional order they find themselves in. Add to this a newly emboldened Iran combined with a US that’s pulling out of the region, the context of the new naval agreement makes sense.

“GCC states are very concerned about Tehran’s penchant for causing trouble,” says Karasik. “Iran is continuing to conduct missile attacks; and, from the GCC’s perspective, it is continuing to occupy Arab lands
and ship weapons to all kinds of belligerents, including Houthi rebels.”

The US is already using its naval might to assist the Saudi coalition in the war with its neighbour to the south. In April, two US vessels seized a ship in the Persian Gulf that was laden with arms destined for the battlefields of Yemen: hundreds of RPGs and 1,500 AK-47 assault rifles, allegedly from Tehran. The shipments were seized in the Strait of Hormuz, a critical stretch of water where the GCC and Iran almost meet. Around 20% of the world’s petroleum passes through the strait, which, at its narrowest point, measures only 54km wide. In short, the world depends on it staying open.

“This seizure is the latest in a string of illicit weapons shipments assessed by the US to have originated in Iran that were seized in the region by naval forces,” the US Navy announced. “The weapons are now in US custody, awaiting final disposition. The dhow and its crew were allowed to depart once the illicit weapons were seized.”

This was the third such seizure in a month, and a sign that, while resolutely not about to put boots on the ground in the Yemen conflict, the US was firmly on the side of the GCC. But could this naval agreement herald further US intervention in the conflict?

“The US is declaring that it’s going to start with joint patrols in the Arabian Sea; it’s going to try to stop ships coming from Iran with arms that it believes are headed for Yemen,” says Ottoway. “That, to me, is interesting:it’s a concrete step with a concrete mission that ups the commitment of the US to interdicting arms shipments going to the Houthis.”

A tense relationship

All this ties in, argues Ottoway, to the US’s desire to deal with the GCC as a whole, not as individual countries: developing Gulf cooperation and allowing them to “lead from behind”, as the President has described it. Whether or not it will be able to do this is another question. The US has, in recent years, frequently tried to disengage itself from long-term Middle Eastern commitments only to find itself pulled back in by unexpected events: the Arab Spring and the rise of IS being the most recent.

“The US is trying to build up a credible GCC military force – in anti-missile defence, naval and on the ground – and they are going to do ground operations together next March,” says Ottoway.

The message this sends to Iran is complex. With the signing of the nuclear agreement and the beginning of the lifting of international sanctions, many saw the Obama administration drifting away from its dependence on the Gulf. This recent pivot, however, suggests that things might not be so simple.

“We have to remember that the JCPOA was only about Iran’s nuclear programme,” says Karasik. “It has nothing to do with missiles or foreign policy; it’s only about the programme, and that means Iran is able to continue to create mischief as it sees fit.”

US naval patrols in the Strait of Hormuz have caused tension in the past. In January, while conducting a routine exercise, a US Navy ship and its crew were detained after entering Iranian waters and breaking down. Though released after just 15 hours in captivity, the incident demonstrated the fine line such expeditions tread, and the still-fraught relationship between the US, Iran and the GCC. With increased US naval work in the Gulf, there may be more such incidents to come.