When the assorted Middle Eastern Sheiks, Kings, and Crown-Princes troop to Camp David this week for a meeting with President Obama to discuss America's rapidly warming relationship with Iran, they would do well to recall one of geopolitics eternal truisms: Countries have no permanent allies, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Attributed to Lord Palmerston, Foreign Secretary and two-times Prime Minister of 19th Century Britain, the saying is as true today as it was in Victorian England.
In the bucolic calm of Camp David the visitors will have the opportunity to focus on a new reality: that their countries have ceased to be a vital national interest of the United States. This is a sea-change from the geopolitical relationship that linked the United States to the region for over seven decades. The relationship was based on a simple equation--the Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia with its massive oil reserves, would keep their oil flowing at a decent price to keep Western economies humming, and in return America would underwrite their security with its blood and treasure. As it did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia's oil fields.
But now, thanks to American ingenuity, oil and natural gas that previously remained locked in hard rock, or miles below the surface can be tapped through the twin technologies of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and horizontal drilling. The vast quantities of oil and natural gas that these technologies have unleashed have totally transformed the energy picture in the United States which bypassed Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producer of oil in 2014. It had already become the world's largest natural gas producer three years earlier, in 2010. America is producing so much oil "We're running out of storage capacity in the U.S," says Ed Morse, the global head of commodities research at Citigroup. The energy bonanza has diminished the importance of Middle Eastern oil for the United States and removed Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms from the short list of America's vital national interests.
This sea-change in the United States fortunes comes at a time when America has rapidly downgraded its military commitment to the Middle East. Recognizing that the real threats to the Arab states are from their restive and disaffected populations, and the extremist movements that their regressive policies have spawned, President Obama has wisely chosen to increasingly let these countries sort out their own mess. A U.S. grand strategy of restraint has replaced the gung-ho, neo-imperial mind-set of the past two decades.
While keeping the sea lanes, though which Middle East oil flows to America's allies, open is important, it is not that big a deal, as the ongoing war in Yemen is demonstrating. Even with U.S., Saudi, Iranian, Chinese, and other countries' naval ships running around each other off Yemen, oil continues to flow unimpeded and there has been no increase in insurance risk premiums for oil cargoes transiting out of the Middle East.
If they travel down this analytical path, the Arab leaders at Camp David will eventually be able to put America's pivot to Iran in its true perspective: Besides Iran's huge business potential, it is the Shia gorilla in the Middle East's Sunni landscape. With luck a refurbished Iran could restore the balance of power that, for all his faults, Saddam Hussein's Iraq maintained in the Middle East, until the Bush Administration's 2003 invasion destroyed Iraq and converted it into a failed state.
This is the vision that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni neighbors detest and want to thwart during their visit to Washington this week. The problem for them is Iran's reentry into the world has emerged as a vital U.S. national interest replacing that of the Arab states.
It is this radically transformed geopolitical landscape that must inform the Arab visitors this week as they sit around the table with President Obama. It will not be an easy time for the Sheiks as they go marching in to Camp David.