America neglects its allies at its peril

The administration’s wavering response to developments in the Middle East has led them to question the depth of our friendship and our constancy as an ally. The Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of political extremism and Iran’s assertive hegemony trouble not just the rulers, but the vast majority of their citizens.  Doubt and confusion over U.S. intentions have undermined trust and gravely compromised our ability to influence events.

“What is U.S. policy?” they asked at every turn. If the U.S. supports the Syrian opposition, why does it not act decisively to help them? The chaos, violence and extremism prevailing in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Iraq leave them longing for a more dependable past and determined not to befall a similar fate.  And the signals they get from Washington provide cold comfort. I heard from more than one U.S. Ambassador that the administration believes history has left the ruling families of the Gulf behind.  They reflect on our precipitous abandonment of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, a steadfast ally for thirty years, and wonder if they are next.  

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Why should we care?  Because the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman -- are vital to the security of the United States and the stability of the international order. The Navy’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain and the 8th Air Force and 3rd Army have forward headquarters in Qatar and Kuwait. The UAE is the world’s largest purchaser of U.S. defense equipment, with total orders in excess of $10 billion.

There’s a good reason for this sizable military presence. The GCC accounts for over 30 percent of the world’s oil production. Roughly 35 perrcent of all seaborne oil passes through the Straits of Hormuz. This includes 77 percent of Japan’s oil supply and 74 percent of Korea’s. The well-being of the world economy depends on a stable GCC.   

But our interests in the region go beyond guns and oil. The combined assets of the GCC’s sovereign wealth funds (SWF’s) exceed $1.6 trillion, or 34 percent of the global SWF assets.  Saudi Arabia’s largest SWF invests mostly in low-yield U.S. bonds.  U.S. foreign direct investment in the GCC exceeded $23.5 billion in 2010. U.S. goods and services trade with Saudi Arabia totaled $48 billion in 2010, making it our 12th largest trading partner.  The combined GDP of the GCC member states tops $1.3 trillion, rivaling that of India.

Clearly, this is a region we neglect at our peril. As one senior member of a ruling family asked me, “Why can’t the United States stand by us the way Russia stands by Syria?”  We should.  America must state clearly what it stands for and who it stands with.  The unease we have sown among our allies is damaging to our national security and economic future. Sooner or later, a crisis will strike this part of the world. It could be conflict with Iran or the bloody hand of terror. Domestic upheaval threatens the very foundation of states. And make no mistake – American jobs and financial stability will be at stake.

Now is the time to mend fences and rebuild frayed ties with our friends in the Gulf.  President Obama should take a page from President Clinton’s play book.  He should tell our friends in the GCC that we feel their pain.  He should travel to the region and reassure troubled allies that America is on their side and will work with them in a spirit of common purpose to manage the challenges of a turbulent time. The Administration must reverse this troubling trend of neglect. Our future prosperity depends on it.   

Ereli served as a diplomat for 24 years in the Middle East and was U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain from 2007 to 2011 and also spokesman for the State Department.