Bridging the widening US-Arab gulf

Ties between the United States and Gulf nations could politely be said to have entered a new phase. Colloquially, one might see them as a long-time couple who are now not that into each other. Ironically, this is unfolding when they both need each other more than ever - the Persian Gulf monarchs more so than US President Barack Obama. Yet all but two of them failed to attend Mr Obama's Camp David summit, with the starkest snub by Saudi Arabia's King Salman. Even after discounting the two ageing Gulf leaders who were said to be too ill to travel, there's no mistaking the loss of ardour among the Gulf Cooperation Council nations who were once staunch US allies.

The coolness is linked to deep Arab distrust arising from US negotiations with Iran (an old enemy) over its nuclear programme. One might also point to a litany of other perceived policy missteps by Mr Obama: a hands-off response to seismic uprisings in the region (Arab Spring), the superpower's withdrawal from the region (Iraq), its inaction after a "red line" was crossed by a dictator (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad), and its failure to rein in an obdurate power (Israel). But whatever its failings, the US is not wholly responsible for the quagmire in the Middle East. To place great weight on any one of the instances cited would be to mistake a symptom of the region's woes for the problem itself.

At the heart of the issue is a crumbling of the post-World War II order in the region - a process that had blind-sided traditional rulers and secular dictators for years, as former CIA analyst Kenneth M. Pollack noted. They had once served to maintain stability and the flow of oil to the West. Now, their ineptitude, as a contagion of unrest spreads across the region, is cause for global concern. Things are unlikely to get better unless they tackle domestic grievances and open political and economic space for their people. Also important is Arab collaboration to shape power-sharing arrangements between Sunni and Shi'ite groups.

Gulf nations, too, ought to heed Mr Obama's call to "secure their own countries' futures" by bolstering regional security architecture. That would be more constructive than merely pushing for a formal defence treaty with the US to guarantee protection from outside aggression - something the Americans are averse to providing at this juncture.

Mr Obama's offer instead of integrated ballistic missile defence systems and enhanced cyber and maritime security can help the US' partners to ensure a security vacuum, coupled with domestic ferment, is not exploited by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Al-Qaeda or Iran. Gulf nations cannot do this alone, neither can the US.