Saudi Arabia and the other five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) greeted the President Donald Trump administration with a sigh of relief. They had become unnerved by President Barack Obama’s perceived appeasement of Iran and its expanding influence. For the GCC, Iran represents an existential threat to not just their external sovereignty, but internal stability, given the presence of often-marginalized Shia communities within these Sunni nations. Reassuringly, the United States has thus far adopted aggressive policies aimed at the Iranian regime.
The Trump administration instantly responded to Iranian missile testing in February by imposing new sanctions. It permitted major Saudi Arabian and Bahraini arms deals previously blocked by President Obama due to human rights concerns, hinting that many more weaponry sales were to come. In addition, American promises to obliterate the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have resonated in GCC capitals. The Trump administration has scaled up not just its logistical support for the Saudi Arabian-Emirati intervention in Yemen, but also its broader counterterrorist actions. Drone strikes and special forces activities have increased, while new U.S. troops have landed in Syria.
The GCC monarchies have responded enthusiastically to Washington’s return to anti-Iranian belligerency. Ties with the United States have warmed considerably: in early March, Saudi Arabia dispatched Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdelaziz to meet with President Trump, while weeks later Qatar’s defense minister visited the Pentagon. Earlier in February, one of Defense Secretary James Mattis’s first foreign trips entailed a special Gulf mission to the Emirates. Equally telling has been GCC silence on two controversial Middle East policies issued by the Trump administration—the immigration and refugee ban against a number of non-GCC Arab states, and the laptop ban slapped against major regional airlines, including Gulf carriers like Emirates and Qatar Airways.
Trump’s moves, however, are not convincing evidence that the United States will fully commit itself to achieving GCC interests in relation to Iran. Indeed, there are severe contradictions in U.S. foreign policy concerning the geopolitics of the Islamic State, populist pressures in America, and impact on energy markets that make it difficult to envision a smooth U.S.-GCC alliance in the manner envisaged by the Gulf states.