Persian Gulf Allies Confront Crisis of Confidence in U.S. – NYTimes.com
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Persian Gulf leaders, led by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, are making their growing displeasure with the Obama administration known and searching for ways to ensure their security in an era when they might not be able to rely on the United States.
Many observers here are worried that the gulf countries’ alliances with Washington that have served for decades as a linchpin of regional order are fraying as President Obama presses for a nuclear agreement with Iran that could greatly empower a regional rival and aggressor.
That has led to a crisis of confidence among gulf nations ahead of meetings with Mr. Obama at Camp David this week.
The announcement Sunday that King Salman of Saudi Arabia will not attend — after the White House announced that he would — has been seen by many here as the king’s way of expressing his low expectations. The Saudi foreign minister, speaking in Washington on Monday, said the decision was not related to any disagreement between the countries.
The monarchs of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman also will not attend and are sending other officials. Only the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar will be present.
“It is a diplomatic message that Saudi Arabia is not expecting anything new from Camp David,” said Abdullah al-Shammari, a Saudi political analyst and former diplomat. “Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia is not pleased with the administration of President Obama, especially when it comes to the deal with Iran and the nuclear program.”
The solution for the kingdom, he said, was for Saudi Arabia to depend less on the United States and to increase cooperation with other powers.
But the Saudis remain heavily reliant on the United States for exercising their more activist foreign policy. Saudi pilots trained by the United States are bombing Yemen using jets built by American defense contractors. In Saudi Arabia, forces from the military, the Interior Ministry and the National Guard have been trained by the United States.
“Just as the United States is trying to lessen its dependence on Saudi oil, the Saudis are trying to lessen as much as possible their reliance on the American alliance,” Mr. Shammari said.
Such thinking has grown more common in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia has asked for help from allies like Pakistan in its campaign against Shiite rebels in Yemen, and Qatar last week announced a large arms deal with France.
Persian Gulf leaders have so appreciated France’s hard line in the Iranian nuclear talks that they invited President François Hollande to attend a meeting last week of the Gulf Cooperation Council, making him the first head of state from outside the alliance to do so.
Analysts say the gulf states’ shift away from dependence on the United States is real, but they point out that the extent of the ties still keeps the countries bound tightly together.
Jean-Francois Seznec, a professor of Persian Gulf political economy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, estimates that Saudi Arabia, for example, has spent about $500 billion to build its military in the last 20 years. About three-quarters of that money has gone to the United States.
“Those are huge amounts of money,” he said.
The United States remains heavily involved in training Saudi forces, from soldiers to National Guardsmen, and top officials communicate and regularly share intelligence information on terrorism and other threats.
There is little reason to believe that Saudi Arabia’s other allies can fill that role. Despite generous Saudi aid to Pakistan over the years, the Pakistani Parliament voted down a Saudi request to send troops for the military effort in Yemen. Egypt, whose government has been kept afloat by billions of dollars in Persian Gulf aid in recent years, has also declined to send ground troops.
Gulf nations appear to be at the start of what could be a long process of learning to rely more on themselves and other allies.
“They would prefer for the U.S. to be the godfather and protector, but they also realize that they have to stand on their own feet,” Dr. Seznec said.