On the final day of his trip to the Middle East this month, U.S. President Joe Biden joined leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit. They discussed regional security and bilateral relations.
Early in Biden’s presidency, the White House had distanced America from the Gulf states. Citing human rights violations, the Biden administration veered away from these strategic partners. The Saudi government-led assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inflamed Biden’s harsh rhetoric and hardened his position on Riyadh. The president even called Saudi Arabia a pariah at the 2019 Democratic debate. Considering that history, Biden’s presence at the GCC summit and his pledge to preserve defense ties with its members, including Riyadh, marks a shift for the administration.
Roots of an Alliance
The two-day long Jeddah Summit included all GCC member states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar – in addition to Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. According to Arab News, GCC Secretary General Nayef al-Hajraf said that the conference represented a “regional and international platform to address security issues, challenges, areas of development and aspirations, and to integrate efforts toward enhancing stability and prosperity in the region and the world, especially in light of the accelerating challenges it is witnessing at all levels and fields.” Al-Hajraf emphasized the GCC’s critical role in preserving peace and stability in the region.
Initially established in 1981, the GCC was designed to promote unity and cooperation among Gulf countries. The Council was formalized in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and at the onset of the Iran-Iraq War, and its aim was to protect members from the turmoil at the region’s doorstep. The Council facilitates broad social, military, economic, and cultural cooperation among its members. With six branches responsible for various tasks, the GCC has a well organized structure.
Recent Turmoil in the GCC
In 2017, Qatar was severed from the GCC due to its support for Islamic militants. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain accused Doha of supporting Iran and its authoritarian regime. The Center for Strategic and International Studies detailed the extent of the GCC’s accusations against Qatar at the time. “The four argued that the comments were the last straw in a long list of Qatari offenses that included support for the Muslim Brotherhood, involvement in terrorism, and close ties with Iran. They were unswayed by an FBI determination that the statements were the result of a hack by Russian nationals; instead, they came up with a list of 13 demands that included shutting down all of Qatar’s regional news outlets, cutting links to any political figures in the region, and pulling back from ties with Iran and Turkey.”
In 2021, the blockade of Doha was lifted, ending the country’s three-year isolation from the GCC. Within days of the renewal of ties, Riyadh opened its airspace and its shared borders with Doha. While the three-year hiatus brought some economic troubles to Qatar, the country’s gas-related wealth helped keep it afloat. As described by Reuters, Doha established new shipping routes to replace the ones blocked by its Saudi border. In fact, during its three-year break from the GCC, Doha was the only country in the Gulf to achieve fiscal surpluses.
A Sharper Focus
The rift officially ended with the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration on Jan. 5, 2021. This solidarity and stability act aimed at reunifying the Gulf states, in part against a growing Iranian threat. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince asserted that the decision to re-unify the Gulf states reflected an increasing concern about Iran’s threat to the region. Indeed, Iran has waged proxy warfare across the region for years. Iran-aligned groups frequently carry out missile and drone barrages targeting Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This year, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for a drone attack in March that targeted a refinery in Riyadh. Two months prior, the UAE said it had intercepted two ballistic missiles targeting its capital. This followed an airport attack that killed three people in Abu Dhabi a few weeks earlier.
Iran’s persistent attacks across the region have led to improved ties between GCC members, the U.S., and Israel. During his appearance at the summit in Jeddah, Biden pledged that the U.S. would “not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.” He added that, “We will seek to build on this moment with active, principled, American leadership.” Despite the White House’s efforts earlier in Biden’s administration to distance the U.S. from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the president’s vow to work with the Gulf states in order to better deter Iran’s malign behavior has become a priority.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.