A Renewed Agenda for U.S.-Gulf Partnership

William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary of State
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, DC
February 19, 2014

Thank you, Jon. Good afternoon. It’s an honor to be back at CSIS – an institution for which I have enormous admiration and respect. It’s an honor to visit this magnificent new building – a real testament to John Hamre’s vision and leadership. And it’s an honor to be introduced by Jon Alterman – a wonderful scholar, colleague, and friend.

President Kennedy said Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm. I hope you won’t feel the same way about my speech today – and I did promise Jon that I will try to be brief.

I’m very glad to join all of you today to talk about our partnership with the Gulf during a time of profound change in the broader Middle East. The dynamics unleashed by the second Arab Awakening three years ago are still very much with us today. They will continue to unfold over the course of this generation, and very likely the next. These dynamics are hard to understand, let alone navigate. While humility is not our national trademark, we ought to approach this moment with great circumspection. After all, as we tend to demonstrate from time to time, we have no monopoly on wisdom or common sense.

During this time of change and uncertainty, the U.S.-Gulf partnership – rooted in more than seven decades of close and enduring cooperation – remains crucial, and it remains strong. But even among friends, there can be real differences about what this change means and how we should respond to it. There is no point pretending otherwise, and it’s important to address doubts and concerns honestly and plainly.

After a post-9/11 decade dominated by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not hard to see why Americans would seek to rebalance our priorities. With the U.S. likely to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer in the next five years or so, and with the prospect of genuine energy independence in the next twenty years or so, it’s also natural for Americans to wonder if we really need to pay so much attention to the Middle East.

It’s equally natural for some of our Gulf partners to doubt our grasp of what’s happening in the region and take issue with our policies. Our warnings about the region’s unsustainable status quo – and our confident talk about energy independence – have led some Gulf states to question our reliability as partners. Others complain that our diplomacy with Iran is naïve and overly fixated on the nuclear issue. And then there is the huge problem of Syria – where some of our Gulf partners believe that our concerns about the day after Asad’s exit cloud our judgment about the steps that are required to get there.

I wish I could offer simple answers to these concerns or new and neat prescriptions for these challenges. I cannot. But I am convinced that it would be a real mistake if we allowed our occasional doubts and differences to weaken the historic bonds between us. I am convinced that for many years to come our strategic interests will remain far more aligned than not. And I am convinced that we have far more to gain by working together than working separately.

We can – and we should – seize this moment to renew our partnership, strengthen it, make it more resilient, and ensure that it serves our common interests and our common aspirations.

As Secretary Kerry made clear in Davos last month, America’s commitment to the Middle East is enduring because America’s interests in the Middle East are enduring. And as President Obama will stress during his visit to Saudi Arabia next month, our partnership with the Gulf will remain a cornerstone of that commitment.

Renewed Agenda for U.S.-Gulf Partnership

The truth is that for all the talk about rebalance and retrenchment, the Gulf remains central to American national interests, and partnership with the United States remains central to the national interests of Gulf states.

We know that increased American energy independence doesn’t free the United States from the global energy market. A rise in the price of oil anywhere means a rise in the price of oil everywhere, the impact of which neither we nor our allies can escape. While some see our Asia rebalance as a turn away from the Middle East, the exact opposite is true: the U.S. and the Gulf both have an increasing stake in the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific – the most dynamic part of the global economy and the biggest consumer of Gulf oil.

At the same time, our Gulf partners know that no country or collection of countries can do for the Gulf states what the United States has done and continues to do.

The challenge facing both of us is whether we can make common cause in the long-term effort to enhance the odds that more moderate, responsive, and responsible governments will emerge throughout the region -- or whether we will work at cross-purposes from one another and enable hardliners and extremists of one stripe or another to erode what some analysts have termed the “Arab Center”, the majority of people and leaderships in the region who seek a future far different than what extremists have to offer.

The founding father of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed, one of the wisest and most decent leaders I’ve ever met in the region, once said that “the greatest natural resource of a nation is its people.” The vision and drive of Sheikh Zayed and his generation have created huge opportunities for the peoples of the Gulf, despite all the challenges that lie ahead. We should harness the same spirit of imagination, courage, and creativity, and put it to work on behalf of this generation’s aspirations and ambitions. We should try to build an affirmative agenda – an agenda that focuses on security, prosperity, easing of regional conflicts, and the promotion of tolerance and pluralism. And we should work together to convey a clear sense of what we stand for, not just what we stand against – a powerful antidote to extremists, who are much better at tearing things down than building anything up.

Let me briefly outline some of the key elements of this agenda.

Security Cooperation

From the Cold War to the Gulf War, and the tanker war to the war on terrorism, our partnership has withstood the tests of time. And I am confident it can withstand today’s challenges as well if we continue to place security cooperation at the heart of our agenda.

The President’s address at the United Nations General Assembly and Secretary Hagel’s speech in Manama last December reaffirmed our continued commitment to Gulf security. Indeed, our security commitments and partnerships in the Gulf are more extensive today than ever before.

Our military presence includes more than 35,000 ground, air, and naval personnel at more than a dozen bases in and around the Gulf. We’ve deployed our most advanced systems to the region – our most advanced aircraft and our most advanced munitions, our most advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, and our most advanced missile defense capabilities.

And we’ve provided to our partners some of the world’s best military equipment. Saudi Arabia recently purchased 72 F-15s, the largest purchase of F-15s by any single country ever. We recently notified Congress of sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE of advanced munitions packages. And just this January, we notified Congress of our support for the UAE’s upgrade of its F-16s and potential purchase of 30 new F-16 fighters. We’ve also approved sales of some of the most sophisticated missile defense systems in the world, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to Qatar and the UAE, and PAC-3 missiles to Kuwait.

Thanks to these capabilities and decades of training and joint exercises, operations, and planning, Gulf states are increasingly becoming some of our most capable military partners. From the UAE and Qatar’s contribution to the no-fly zone over Libya to the GCC’s participation in the counter-piracy operations in the strategically important Arabian Sea, we are seeing the promise of what our enhanced partnership can achieve.

While we continue to expand the depth and breadth of our bilateral security relationships, we are also working to build a more capable, unified, and effective regional security architecture to address emerging threats none of us can fully address on our own.

Two years ago, Secretary Clinton joined GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh to launch the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum. Last fall, Secretary Kerry hosted his counterparts in New York. And Secretary Hagel recently announced in Manama an expansion of the Forum to include, for the first time, an annual meeting of defense ministers. These high-level gatherings have allowed our senior diplomats and defense officials to define a shared set of priorities and practical steps we can take together to address threats to our security.

Building an effective regional defense against the threat of ballistic missiles is one of the Forum’s top priorities. Already, some of our allies have ballistic defense capabilities and others are acquiring them. But enhanced information sharing between Gulf states and interoperability between their disparate capabilities will not only be more cost-efficient, it will provide the region with better early warning, better coordination, and ultimately a more layered and effective defense. We’ve seen countries in other parts of the world successfully overcome the technical and political challenges of designing a regional response to the threat of ballistic missiles – those countries are today safer and more capable U.S. allies. There is no reason the GCC cannot follow in their footsteps.

To help get there, President Obama designated the GCC an international entity eligible to buy U.S. defense articles and services – a designation that will allow the GCC to invest in shared systems for mutual defense. This is the same designation we’ve granted to NATO and other important multilateral partners. And it demonstrates how serious we are about helping the GCC become a top-tier regional security organization and a frontline partner of the United States.

More capable Gulf partners and a more capable GCC will be essential to confronting the many challenges we face in the Gulf and beyond.

Together, through the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, we monitor the skies over conflict zones in the Middle East. And through the GCC Maritime Operations Center, we are working to improve information sharing and coordination on security in the Strait of Hormuz – a strategic passageway through which one-fifth of the world’s oil passes every day.

Together, we are also working on a unified strategy for countering the spread of violent extremism, securing national borders, combating terrorism finance, and protecting critical energy infrastructure from conventional and cyber attacks.

And together, we are working to prevent the world’s most dangerous weapons from getting to some of the world’s most dangerous regimes and actors.

The many layers of our security cooperation reflect our many shared interests. We must each do our part to maintain this momentum and to keep pace with rapidly evolving threats in a rapidly evolving international security landscape.


As we look across that landscape, no challenge to Gulf security is more obvious than Iran. We have no illusions about Iran’s intentions or its conduct. Our concerns with Iran extend far beyond the nuclear issue, across a range of dangerous Iranian behavior that threatens our interests and those of our friends in the region, and threatens the human rights of Iran’s citizens. While all of these concerns are important and serious, the nuclear issue remains the most urgent. Since his first day in office, President Obama has made very clear that he will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He has also emphasized his readiness and determination to seek a negotiated resolution. To get there, we worked with Congress and our international partners to put in place an unprecedented set of sanctions, whose pressures have had a dramatic impact on Iran’s economy.

I can assure you that we’ve entered this diplomatic chapter with our eyes wide open. As the President himself has said, there is probably no better than a 50-50 chance that Iran will ultimately accept an agreement that can guarantee the peaceful nature of its program. But for the first time in many years, we now have a real opportunity to test Iran’s intentions, and we and our partners will pursue it seriously.

As we seek to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear agreement over the coming months, we will remain very mindful of Gulf concerns. We will not relent in our efforts to confront Iran’s destabilizing behavior – not in Lebanon, not in Syria, not in Iraq, and not in the Arabian Peninsula itself. We will not relent in enforcing existing sanctions. And we will not relent in our efforts to intensify consultations and cooperation with our Gulf partners across this whole range of issues. That is exactly why Secretary Kerry was in the UAE yesterday, and it is exactly why the President will visit Saudi Arabia next month.

Resolving Regional Conflicts

Sustainable security in the region requires progress toward resolving some very complicated conflicts. The most poisonous and dangerous of these conflicts today is the bloody civil war in Syria.

The longer the civil war grinds on, the greater the danger to Syria’s people and to the region. The simple truth is that there can be no stability and no resolution of the crisis without a transition to new leadership. We have no illusions about the challenges on the road to achieving that objective, or about the very difficult day after – or, more likely, the very difficult years after. And we have no illusions about the rising extremist threat in Syria, and the risks it poses to the region -- to neighbors who already have more than their share of challenges.

We all have an interest in supporting a capable, moderate opposition that can help build a new Syria and confront al-Qaeda. Given the strong relationship between Gulf states and many opposition groups, GCC leadership and guidance is critically important. But while continued assistance to the opposition is essential, the only viable approach to end the suffering of the Syrian people is through a negotiated transition. And we should work more closely and in a more unified way with our GCC friends to achieve that objective.

As we pursue a diplomatic solution in Syria, we must also continue to coordinate our efforts to support frontline states bearing the brunt of pressure from the Syrian crisis. In Jordan, one out of ten people is a Syrian refugee. In Lebanon, it’s one out of four. The enormous strain on host governments and communities threatens to exacerbate already serious resource, security, and economic challenges across the region. The Gulf has shown real leadership in raising awareness about the human tragedy of the conflict. The Emir of Kuwait has co-hosted two high-level Syria donor conferences that collectively raised nearly four billion dollars of humanitarian assistance. Given the protracted nature of this crisis, our assistance should be integrated with the region’s long-term economic development efforts.

We welcome the continued assistance of the Gulf to both Jordan and Lebanon. And we will continue to do our part. During King Abdullah II’s visit to the United States earlier this month, we announced our intention to offer Jordan a second loan guarantee to help it sustain reforms while continuing to address the ongoing humanitarian challenge.

The Palestinian issue has also taken on new urgency. Nothing is ever easy about Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Former Secretary of State Jim Baker, for whom I worked and have great admiration, keeps a whole wall of caustic newspaper cartoons outside his office in Houston, reminders of the skepticism surrounding his nine trips to the Middle East before the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. But he proved his doubters wrong, and diplomacy worked. That’s our challenge again today. And that’s the challenge Secretary Kerry has taken on, to his great credit, in the face of similar skepticism.

As the Secretary often says, both parties stand to lose a great deal without peace. But they also stand to gain a great deal if they take the courageous steps to an agreement. The Arab Peace Initiative, stimulated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s vision more than a decade ago, still offers Israel, its people, and its economy, new partnerships with 20 members of the Arab League and 35 other Muslim-majority countries. And it offers continued financial and political support to a future Palestinian state. Keeping the promise of the Arab Peace Initiative alive, and making progress toward the two-state solution which Israelis and Palestinians both need and deserve, remains a significant priority for the U.S.-Gulf partnership.

Supporting Positive Transitions

Finally, a renewed agenda for our partnership cannot focus exclusively on contending with external challenges. If we are serious about making our partnership more durable, our agenda should include cooperation on strategies to stem threats from the inside – strategies that seek to bolster moderates, modernize economies and expand opportunities, encourage pluralism and tolerance, and ease the sense of popular grievance on which extremists feed.

The reality is that in our conversations with our Gulf partners, we don’t always see eye-to-eye on what has caused the revolutions and transitions spurred by the second Arab Awakening. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on the direction these transitions should take. And we don’t always see eye-to-eye on how best to respond to them.

But it is also a reality that when we work in concert, we can help shape outcomes that not only advance reform, but also advance stability. As the world’s 11th largest economy, the GCC is increasingly a regional power -- a dynamic business hub, a critical shaper of media and culture in the Muslim world, and a force in regional politics. The GCC can help push the region away from conflict and toward a stable future. We want to be partners in that endeavor.

U.S.-GCC cooperation in Yemen is a very good example of what we can achieve together. Our joint efforts to end the country’s civil strife and help Yemen define a comprehensive transition accord, including the recently concluded National Dialogue, have given the Yemeni people a real chance to begin the hard work of reconciliation and reconstruction.

Just as Yemen’s transition must remain Yemeni-owned and driven, so too must Bahrain’s. But we all have a role – and a stake – in Bahrain’s success. In January, the Crown Prince took the historic step of convening senior members of Bahrain’s political groups – including the leader of the opposition – to inject new momentum into the National Dialogue process. We welcome this step and encourage all parties to participate constructively in the Dialogue, renounce violence, and uphold their commitments.

With its multi-sectarian and multiethnic population, vast energy resources, and central geographic location, Iraq’s success is critical to regional stability. We have an enduring commitment to a stable, secure Iraq that does not threaten its neighbors, has secure borders, and plays a constructive role in regional peace and security.

We continue to support Iraq’s regional integration through a series of ongoing diplomatic engagements, including a trilateral dialogue with Iraq and Turkey and a more expansive dialogue with Jordan, UAE, and others. Iraq has made important recent progress with Kuwait. Iraq’s energy resources and links to its neighbors can deepen the stake Iraqis feel in their country’s own stability and in the stability of the neighborhood. The very difficult challenge posed by al-Qaeda in Anbar makes these efforts all the more important and all the more urgent. Prime Minister Maliki has acknowledged that only a holistic approach that includes security, political, and economic elements can provide a sustainable solution to this challenge. We are working to support him in that effort, and we welcome the Gulf’s constructive participation.

In Egypt, despite our differences, we can work together to support similar reforms. Stable evolution in Egypt remains crucial to the stable evolution of the entire region. But no transition can succeed without a sense of respect for political pluralism and a sense of confidence in a better and more inclusive economic future. Gulf countries have been enormously generous to Egypt during its very bumpy transition, and that support has been critical. But billions of dollars of assistance will produce little sustainable effect without a more comprehensive and carefully conceived strategy.

Beyond Egypt, the U.S. and the Gulf should also align our efforts in the Maghreb. Earlier this month, for example, I visited Tunisia, a country that has experienced the full range of transition challenges and setbacks but whose leaders demonstrated the courage to come together and put the transition back on track. Secretary Kerry was in Tunis yesterday, and emphasized that Tunisia can serve as an example for the entire region of what dialogue and compromise can achieve.


The United States and the Gulf states are distant neighbors. We have different histories. We come from different traditions. And we will, inevitably, continue to have differences of opinion.

But we can, and we must, find common ground and build a common agenda to help shape our shared future. We have a deep stake in each other’s security. We have a deep stake in ending the conflicts that allow extremists to feed on the region’s bitterness and alienation. And we have a deep stake in demonstrating that reform and stability can co-exist.

The agenda I laid out today is undoubtedly ambitious. And the obstacles are undoubtedly formidable. But I remain optimistic that much is possible in the years ahead for a renewed U.S.-Gulf partnership.

Now whenever I used to say that I was optimistic during my service in Moscow as Ambassador a few years ago, one of my Russian friends would invariably remind me of one of the many, typically fatalistic, Russian definitions of an optimist: someone who thinks that tomorrow will be better than the day after.

I mean something a little different. I think “tomorrow” is actually going to be pretty complicated for us and for our Gulf partners. But if we can find the resolve and the persistence to work together on the many problems and opportunities on the road ahead, then I'm certain that the “day after tomorrow”, and many days and months and years beyond, can be a moment of revitalization and great possibility for our partnership, and for the entire region.

Thank you very much.