GCC Summit: Defending the Indefensible

Rather than simply reassuring and rearming the Persian Gulf monarchies, the United States should press them to overhaul their autocratic and ultimately unstable political systems.

This week President Obama will be hosting senior representatives of the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. The purpose of the gathering is to reassure the Persian Gulf monarchies that the United States is not abandoning them as it moves toward an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. The Gulf leaders are reportedly asking for advanced weaponry and security guarantees in the face of Iranian aggression.

Much has been made of a last-minute decision by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to back out of the meeting and send the crown prince and deputy crown prince instead. Ostensibly the king’s withdrawal is related to Saudi Arabia’s ongoing intervention in Yemen’s civil war, but the move was widely interpreted as a demonstration of displeasure over the U.S. negotiations with Iran.

Rather than simply reassuring and rearming its GCC partners, the United States should be showing its own displeasure at their failure to overhaul autocratic and increasingly anachronistic political systems.

U.S. lawmakers and particularly the American public would be more eager to assist the Gulf states if their human rights records were not so abysmal. The United States is being asked to defend countries where a person can go to prison for being the victim of sexual assault, posting a satirical video on YouTube, reciting poetry, having an adopted child of a different race, or driving while female. Moreover, if you are one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, practice the wrong religion, or belong to the wrong tribe, you have few if any rights at all in the GCC.


In a recent interview, President Obama stated that the biggest threat to the stability of the Gulf monarchies is domestic unrest stemming from a lack of political self-determination and peaceful outlets for public grievances. These countries portray themselves as guardians of stability in the Middle East, but their definition of stability is rather short-sighted, based on suppression of dissent, the subjugation of women and minorities, and the complete monopolization of political power by dynastic rulers.

If the United States really wants to ensure the security of the GCC countries, it should tie its military guarantees to better performance on political rights and civil liberties.