ABU DHABI // John Kerry’s first trip abroad as US secretary of state is a “listening tour”, the US state department says. If that is true, he can probably expect an earful everywhere he lands.
America’s new top diplomat arrives in Riyadh on Sunday, where he will find a region worried about Washington’s willingness and ability to tackle a daunting crisis in Syria, simmering tensions with Iran and a lifeless Middle East peace process.
The new secretary of state will be under heavy pressure on Iran, says Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the daily newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, published in London.
“And people want him to give them answers. What are you going to do with Syria?” Mr Atwan said.
Mr Kerry’s trip comes at a time when, in some respects, ties between the United States and the six nations of the GCC are stronger than ever.
US oil imports from the Gulf are at their highest level in nine years, and US arms sales to the Gulf tripled between 2010 and 2011 to a high of US$66.3 billion (Dh243.5bn).
At the same time, experts say, relations with the some states in the region are under more strain than at almost any time since September 11, 2001.
Disagreements over what to do about Syria, a lack of progress towards Palestinian statehood and frustrations with US policy toward the Arab Spring have added to what the former US ambassador to Kuwait, Richard LeBaron, described recently as the “trust deficit” between the two sides.
“Many interlocutors in the Gulf see the United States as a necessary but unpredictable and unreliable partner,” Mr LeBaron said in a paper issued by the Atlantic Council.
What are widely seen as the US’s timid, even incoherent, efforts to force Bashar Al Assad from power in Syria are expected to be the focus of frustrations during Mr Kerry’s stops in Riyadh and Doha.
“It’s very obvious that the Americans are not serious enough about the Syrian issue,” said Hussein Shoboshki, head of Saudi’s Alghalyia television. “They are taking a completely different role from what they took in Libya or even Yemen, and this is prolonging the crisis.”
The Obama administration, at least publicly, has continued to oppose lethal aid to anti-Assad rebels, fearing that weapons will end up in the hands of extremist factions in the Syrian opposition, including Al Nusra Front, which Washington has classified as a terrorist organisation.
The Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal left no doubt that his government differed with that view, when he said this month: “My country believes that the brutality of the Syrian regime against its own people requires empowering the people to defend itself.”
In a bid to reassure Gulf and other Middle Eastern nations of Washington’s engagement in the Syrian crisis, Mr Kerry is attending a conference in Rome with the Syrian opposition and its allies. Before the meeting, US policymakers were said to be discussing ways to increase their non-lethal support to the rebels, including training.
The question is whether that will be enough to quiet criticism during the secretary of state’s visits in the region.
“Secretary Kerry will tell Saudis, ‘We know you’re enthusiastic that [ending the Assad regime in] Syria could help put the Iranian genie back in the bottle’,” said Kamran Bokhari, vice president of the risk consulting firm Stratfor, which covers the Middle East and South Asia. “‘But curb your enthusiasm because it could backfire’.”
In deference to the US, Gulf officials have said that they are limiting the types and quantities of arms they are sending to the rebels. Increasingly, however, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have shown signs of impatience.
“There is concern among Gulf countries about American decline, especially politically, as they perceive that the US does not care or is not involved, as in Syria,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, head of the humanities department at Qatar University. “The increasing cooperation within the GCC is sort of responding to that concern.”
The Saudi crown prince, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, met Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Saturday to discuss Syria, and on Tuesday, The New York Times confirmed speculation that Saudi Arabia has stepped up its own efforts to arm the opposition by purchasing weapons through Croatia.
“Saudi Arabia is concerned about radicals, but they are not going to wait before the fall of Assad regime,” said Mr Atwan.
“Anyway, they are already suffering now simply because there are a lot of people inside Saudi Arabia who are not happy with the lack of involvement of the Saudi government and would like to see them send more support.”
Tensions over the crisis in Syria have also deepened Gulf concerns about Iran, the Assad regime’s main ally. The GCC has accused Tehran of trying to meddle in Gulf affairs, including in a Shiite-led uprising in Bahrain, a charge Iran denies.
As the United States pushes for direct talks with Tehran over its nuclear programme, Mr Kerry will have to assure Gulf states that any deal would not tip the balance of power in Iran’s favour, said Mr Bokhari.
“Kerry’s visit is basically going to be a balancing act in assuring the GCC partners that whatever talks happen with Iran will not undermine their security,” he said.
Analysts say Gulf governments are also likely to raise the Middle East peace process with Mr Kerry.
“There is a real very clear assessment on the situation in West Bank, that we could easily see the third intifada. And there is a strong belief in the region that they don’t want this to happen,” Mr Zweiri said. Fearing another intifada could further destabilise a shaky region, Gulf states are keen to “release the pressure on Palestinians”.
Disagreements over policy toward Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government will probably be left to later conversations, said Mr LeBaron, the former US envoy to Kuwait.
“On Egypt, we will probably recognise our differences and move on,” he said.