x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

US to press for coordinated GCC security strategy in Jeddah

First US-GCC meeting of defence ministers since 2008 offers a chance to revise strategies to match developments in the region.

The US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel gives a speech on the US military's changing priorities in Chicago on May 6, 2014. Brian Kersey / Getty Images / AFP
The US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel gives a speech on the US military's changing priorities in Chicago on May 6, 2014. Brian Kersey / Getty Images / AFP

NEW YORK // Chuck Hagel, the US secretary of defence, will press GCC countries to integrate their defences more closely when he meets defence ministers in Jeddah this week.

Washington would like the GCC countries to take on a larger role in regional security, coordinate the deployment of massive amounts of sophisticated weapons purchased from the US, particularly on the key issue of missile defence against Iran, and buy shared weapons systems as a bloc.

“The ministerial meeting is designed to strengthen multilateral security cooperation in the region, focusing on enhanced GCC coordination on air and missile defence, maritime security, and cyber defence,” the Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Friday.

But unprecedented public divisions within the GCC over Qatar’s foreign policies have coincided with each member taking its own course on relations with Iran as the possibility looms of a breakthrough in the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear programme, undermining the US attempt to work with the GCC as a single entity on security issues.

US officials view working one-on-one to address security requirements as inefficient and even counterproductive. But officials in Gulf capitals “wonder why is this actually happening, because most of them still prefer to deal with the United States on a bilateral basis”, said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress think tank in Washington.

These strategic differences will likely complicate Mr Hagel’s task when he meets his counterparts on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Consultations are important in themselves, but I don’t expect much in substantive outcomes or changes in policy,” said Richard LeBaron, a former US ambassador to Kuwait. “I don’t see the indicators that there has been a lot of progress [on mending GCC divisions] and that there will be a common approach to some of the defence issues.

“But perhaps they’re saving some of those announcements for the meeting itself.”

At the heart of inter-GCC tensions is unhappiness in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi over Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf as well as across the countries of the Arab uprisings. Saudi Arabia in March named the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, a move the UAE supported.

Qatar is launching new media outlets aimed at more objective reporting than the pro-Brotherhood Al Jazeera Arabic, and there have also been unverified reports of talks to deport the Egyptian-born cleric Youssef Al Qaradawi, a spiritual leader of the Brotherhood and Qatari citizen who regularly preaches against the UAE and Saudi leadership.

But he remains in Doha and for the time being Qatar appears unwilling to sever ties with the group that has helped it project power across the Arab world, a strategy that has backfired to some degree as popular anger against Brotherhood-linked political parties has mounted in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

US officials have also been working in private to push Qatar to cut off funding and arms to Islamist rebel groups in Syria and bring them in line with Washington’s western and Arab allies, who have mostly preferred to back the more moderate Free Syrian Army fighters.

But the fundamental issues that led Saudi, the UAE and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha remain unresolved.

It is not clear if all of the GCC’s defence ministers will attend the summit with Mr Hagel, but if Qatar’s minister, Maj Gen Hamad bin Ali Al Attiyah, does, “it would be very interesting”, Mr Katulis said.

This week’s visit will be Mr Hagel’s third Middle East trip in the past year or so, and follows a visit to Bahrain in December where he brought a message of reassurance to Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials were furious with US policy in Syria; a potential thaw in US relations with their arch rival Iran that they fear will embolden it regionally; and US plans for a strategic refocus away from the Middle East towards East Asia.

Mr Hagel is expected to bring another message of reassurance to this week’s meeting.

In Bahrain, Mr Hagel said he planned to hold a summit with GCC defence ministers this year, the first such meeting since 2008, and he was followed by the US president Barack Obama to the region, who last month held talks with Saudi King Abdullah near Riyadh.

While US-Saudi relations now appear to be on a more stable footing, Mr Obama’s visit did not produce any tangible changes in US policy, and after a tour of Asia last month, “the need for reassurance is still very strong, and very real”, said Mr Katulis.

The central question, he said, is whether the summit’s outcome will be largely symbolic, “or whether there’s going to be something serious that actually leads to the US working directly with the GCC”.

Mr Hagel will also discuss “common regional security challenges” aside from Iran, including Syria, Egypt and Iraq, Adm Kirby said.

After the talks, he will travel to Jordan to meet the country’s chief of defence to discuss cooperation in the Syrian civil war and underscore Washington’s “commitment to the defence of Jordan, where more than 1,000 US personnel are on the ground”, Adm Kirby said.

From there, Mr Hagel will travel to Israel to discuss regional and bilateral security issues, including cooperation on Israel’s missile defence.

tkhan@thenational.ae