from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Guess Who’s Coming to (the GCC) Dinner?

May 8, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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On May 13 and 14, President Obama will be hosting a summit meeting with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation. The members nations are Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar.

The problem is, it may not exactly be a "summit" meeting at all. Sultan Qaboos of Oman has been ill, as is Sheik Khalifa, president of the UAE. Two down. I imagine the king of Bahrain, King Hamad, will attend, and so will the young Emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamim.

I’d also bet on the Emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah, but it may be 51/49. He is 85, and a quick trip to the United States cannot be very appealing. If the Saudi king skips this meeting, Sabah may as well.

The key question is whether Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman will attend. As with Emir Sabah, age is a consideration: Salman is 79. But there is more: he became king in January and has not been to the United States in that capacity. Normally, such a visit would be a very big deal: it would be an official or even a state visit, with great fanfare. Does he want to visit the United States for the first time as king in this way-- merely as one of a group? And merely as one of a group that will for the UAE and Oman, and perhaps others,  not consist of heads of state?

So the "summit" might just have two heads of state, Qatar and Bahrain-- and that’s a problem in itself. After all, Qatar has been a foreign policy problem for the United States (and its GCC partners) for a decade or more, backing extremist Islamist groups that we oppose (like the Muslim Brotherhood, or radical groups in Libya and Mali). And in Bahrain there is a significant human rights problem, with the Sunni monarch crushing the political hopes the Shia majority population.

The president should not have announced the "summit" until he had the agreement of the Kuwaiti and Saudi to attend. If they said no, he should have called a meeting of ministers of defense and foreign affairs, perhaps hosted by hosted jointly by Ashton Carter and John Kerry, with himself as the honored guest. Instead, he may host a dinner for GCC heads of state and get only the two of them he would probably least like to have. Bad planning, bad staff work, if it turns out that way.

 

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