Lines in Shifting Sand

Refining the Strategic Approach to American Interests in the Middle East


Alexander Schade is a Middle East Foreign Area Officer with the U.S. Army. The views expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


As the eve of an unprecedented meeting at Camp David approaches, I found myself reminiscing over a discussion highlighting the strategic interests of the U.S. in the Middle East. The best way, as put by Dr. Stephen Walt, to attain our strategy goals in the Middle East is to act as an “offshore balancer” in the region, shedding ourselves of special relationships and attempts at regional re-alignment. Our forays into shaping the Middle East through favoritism, exclusionary alliances, and local power balancing have stalled our progress in achieving strategic interests, and are limiting our partners in the Middle East from accomplishing theirs. Our successes in the past are a direct result of a more flexible approach to our relationships in the region, and with the approaching Camp David summit we have the opportunity to refine our strategic approach to the Middle East.

The White House has invited the leadership from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Camp David this month to “discuss ways to enhance [our] partnership, and deepen security cooperation.” There is no doubt that Iran will be the primary talking point at the summit — primarily the shift in U.S. position toward negotiations with Iran. The gathering occurs on the heels of this year’s GCC Summit in Riyadh, where members from Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman met in Saudi Arabia to discuss the conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, as well as affirm their “comprehensive final agreement,” which would guarantee that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are purely peaceful. While such gatherings typically produce unfulfilled treaties and usually result in financial aid packages being strewn about various parts of the Middle East, the echo of GCC member state actions in recent years is calling attention to the importance of reassessing our own strategy in the Middle East.

In just the last five years we have witnessed GCC member states attempt to expand the regional alliance by inviting Jordan and Morocco to become full members. While neither Jordan or Morocco sit on the Arabian Gulf, it was immediately clarified that “geographical distance is no obstacle for a strong relationship.” Setting out a 5 year fiscal observation period, and providing a $5 billion dollar financial aid package to Jordan and Morocco, the GCC took its first steps towards expansion in its 30-year history.

…it would appear that tangible steps are being taken toward a GCC expansion.

Even Yemen began negotiations to identify the fiscal, defense, and societal requirements it would have to meet in order to become a GCC member, although the Houthi takeover quickly put those plans on hold. Egypt, as well, was in talks, and the GCC has been looking favorably at Al-Sissi since the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power. With the recent visit of King Mohammed VI to Saudi Arabia, the Moroccan contribution to the fight against the Houthis, and the announcement of a strategic alignment between Morocco and the GCC, it would appear that tangible steps are being taken toward a GCC expansion.

In the last three years, we've seen the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, and others unified in joint military strikes at trouble spots throughout the Middle East. In 2014, the GCC finally established their Joint Military Command Center (JMCC), which has been coordinating both training and strike missions. Furthermore, Saudi Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah announced that a 100,000 member “national guard” comprised of member state soldiers will fall directly under the command of the JMCC. Arguably, one of the primary benefits of GCC membership is access to defense deals between member partners and the West.

The United States hosts at least 4 major regional military exercises with up to 40 nations, and combined US military arms sales since 2007 is upwards of $75 billion dollars.

Francois Hollande was the first Western leader to attend the recent GCC summit, in part to discuss the situation in Syria, as well as to complete a $7 billion Rafale fighter jet deal with Qatar. The United States hosts at least 4 major regional military exercises with up to 40 nations, and combined U.S. military arms sales since 2007 is upwards of $75 billion dollars. As we look to the future, the GCC and the West are working towards increased missile defense capabilities, increasing maritime operations and security, and further developing national counter-terrorism strategies.

These achievements point to significant improvements in the effectiveness of the Middle East and North Africa region’s self-governance. After nearly a decade of western intervention in the Middle East, the GCC is taking a more proactive role in preserving the sovereignty of its member states, while still vying for strong relationships in the region and in the West. These changes in the GCC’s posture give the United States more flexibility in relationships, and signify a need to adopt a broader “balance of power” strategy with regional partners.

The scars of the Arab Spring, the fall of several dictators, and renewed western relations with Iran have widened the eyes of the traditional monarchies in the Middle East, and they are taking calculated steps to ensure that their economic and power systems are secure from any future threats. As the U.S. invites the GCC members to participate in the gathering at Camp David, and as new Middle East strategy recommendations call for a more “management” focused approach, an opportunity to refine our interactions has appeared on the horizon.


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