US works to improve relations with Persian Gulf nations

By PAUL RICHTER | Los Angeles Times | Published: February 21, 2014

PARIS — The Obama administration is mobilizing on several fronts to strengthen relations with Persian Gulf leaders who worry that the United States is reducing its commitments in the Middle East.

The diplomatic push comes as the White House has begun preparing for President Barack Obama’s fence-mending visit to Saudi Arabia next month. Obama met with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Rancho Mirage last week.

Separately, White House officials said they are bringing in a Middle East expert and former peace negotiator, Robert Malley, to help strengthen U.S. ties with leaders in the region.

The United States and the thinly populated but oil-rich gulf states have been bound by security and economic interests for seven decades. But gulf leaders have worried since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 that Washington is scaling back its traditional role and responsibilities in the region as it shifts emphasis toward Asia.

In response, some of America’s traditional allies in the gulf have increasingly charted their own course, sometimes at cross-purposes with Washington.

The gulf states have been alarmed that the Obama administration has not done more to provide heavy weapons and other military support to Syrian opposition forces locked in a three-year war to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

The differences have spilled into the open in recent days, as Saudi officials have said they intend to provide Syrian rebels with shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles. Washington long has opposed transferring such weapons out of fear they would fall into the hands of al-Qaida-linked insurgent groups.

At the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns said it’s easy to see why Americans, weary of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and less dependent on gulf oil than before, would “wonder if we really need to pay so much attention to the Middle East.”

Burns said it also is natural that gulf states would “question our reliability as partners” given U.S. efforts to achieve energy independence and U.S. warnings that traditional power structures, such as the gulf monarchies, are “unsustainable.”

But Burns said the gulf remains central to U.S. national interests, and “no country or collection of countries can do for the gulf states what the United States has done and continues to do.”

“While some see our Asia rebalance as a turn away from the Middle East, the exact opposite is true: The U.S. and the gulf both have an increasing stake in the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific, the most dynamic part of the global economy and the biggest consumer of gulf oil,” he said.

Burns said the U.S. military commitment to the gulf is greater than ever, including 35,000 ground, air and naval personnel at more than a dozen bases. U.S. forces have deployed “our most advanced” aircraft, munitions, intelligence, missile defense and other systems in the region, he said.

He said Washington also is selling highly sophisticated arms to gulf allies. Saudi Arabia recently purchased 72 F-15 fighter jets, and the administration has notified Congress of sales of advanced munitions and F-16 fighters to the United Arab Emirates, and missile defense systems to Qatar and Kuwait.

He acknowledged that some gulf leaders “complain that our diplomacy with Iran is naive and overly fixated on the nuclear issue.” But he said that the Obama administration will not accept a flawed deal in international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and that Washington is focused on Tehran’s efforts to undermine its Arab rivals.

“We will not relent in our efforts to confront Iran’s destabilizing behavior, not in Lebanon, not in Syria, not in Iraq and not in the Arabian Peninsula itself,” he said.

He said Washington and the gulf states should work together in turbulent Egypt, but urged them to accept that wealth and political power must be more widely shared in the most populous Arab nation.

“Stable evolution in Egypt remains crucial to the stable evolution of the entire region,” he said. The billions of dollars in aid that gulf states have given Cairo since 2011 “will produce little sustainable effect without a more comprehensive and carefully conceived strategy.”


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