The Cable

Obama Vows to Stand By Gulf Allies Facing an ‘External’ Threat

President Barack Obama promised Thursday to stand by Gulf allies against any “external attack," capping the end of a one-day summit at Camp David that ended without a formal defense pact.

CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 14: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks alongside Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (L) and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, following the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. summit on May 14, 2015 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama hosted leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Amirates and Oman to discuss a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama promised Thursday to stand by Gulf allies against any “external attack,” capping the end of a one-day summit at Camp David that ended without a formal defense pact.

“The United States is prepared to work jointly with [Gulf Cooperation Council] member states to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state’s territorial integrity,” he said at a press conference.

The word “external,” repeated six times in the joint statement released by the White House, is widely understood to allude to Iran, which has expanded its influence in Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq to the alarm of the six GCC countries: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.

But the word is also significant in that it unburdens the White House from committing itself to lending military assistance to Gulf allies in the event of an internal uprising in the authoritarian countries — an issue the White Houses agonized over during the Arab Spring protests of 2010 that upended governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and beyond.

The issue, a sensitive one given that the Gulf states are monarchies with widely varying degrees of freedom and inclusiveness, resurfaced controversially last month, when the president gave an interview to the New York Times  highlighting the risk of internal uprisings by disenfranchised citizens.

“I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading,” Obama told columnist Thomas Friedman. “It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. … That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”

That remark reverberated across the Arab world and angered a number of Gulf allies who consider such public criticisms meddling in the internal affairs of their countries.

When asked about the comment during an Atlantic Council event last week, the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the U.S. suggested the remark was not suitable for public consumption.  “It’s a conversation we welcome in private,” said Yousef Al Otaiba.

He emphasized that the UAE had assisted the U.S. in six military conflicts, including in the current war against Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria.

“A country that doesn’t share your values fought with you six times,” he said. “We still don’t share your democratic values, but we are great partners.”

In the joint statement released at the end of the summit, the nations also committed to working more closely on missile defense, military exercises and training, counterterrorism and maritime security.

The White House would not commit to the formal defense pact that some Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, had wanted.

The U.S. hopes to win the GCC’s diplomatic backing for an Iran nuclear deal currently being negotiated with Tehran and five other world powers. Just prior to the summit, the monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, announced his plans to skip the high-level meeting, a move widely perceived as a snub to Obama.

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