THE ANCIENT Chinese philosopher Mencius once said, “A state without an enemy or external peril is absolutely doomed.” Today, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is not faced with one enemy but a growing number of enemies. We have had to rethink our security architecture, our allies, and our integration in the wake of the war in Syria and the Iranian nuclear deal.
The United States may be an immoveable force, but it has not delivered on its promise as a guarantor of regional stability. This has forced GCC states, led mainly by Saudi Arabia, to look elsewhere for answers.
One solution is a stronger GCC security framework. But the success of such an endeavor rests on its ambitions. Over the past few decades, the Middle East has seen a myriad of declarations on security agreements. Delivering a coherent force however, has proven extremely difficult, not least because of divergent interests and a lack of trust.
The Arabian Gulf was once a tri-polar regional system with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran as its major players. This balance of power between the three states is no more; the 1970’s oil shocks, Iran’s revolution and the first Gulf War has put paid to that. Iraq, although often at odds with GCC states, was always seen as a buffer, keeping Iran at bay from the rest of the Arab world.
The last invasion of Iraq and the removal of its former president, Saddam Hussein completely altered that balance of power—as well as the GCC security complex. Iraq is now a failing state that has increasingly fallen prey to Iranian influence, in itself on the rise post-nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia also is no longer the only major player given the ascendant political, economic and diplomatic clout of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
But one cannot understand the Gulf without the United States. As an entrenched relationship, the latter has acted as both security provider and arbiter of power—after all, nothing can match its clout—but the role of the U.S. is not what it once was.
While GCC states have recently tried to reduce their reliance on U.S. military hardware by purchasing more from France and the United Kingdom, those two nations still cannot compete with what the U.S. brings to the table. Notwithstanding that in November 2015, the U.K. broke ground on HMS Juffair in Bahrain, the first major naval base opened by Britain east of the Suez Canal since 1971, there is no alternative partner for the GCC for the foreseeable future.
Calls from some citizens—disgruntled with the U.S.—to purchase military hardware from Russia and China also fail to note a crucial point. The militaries of Gulf states have been built with American hardware. To completely refurbish the GCC militaries with new systems would take decades and tens of billions of dollars—it’s hardly plausible. And while the GCC has tried to improve relations with Russia, Moscow has thrown its lot in with Syrian and Iranian governments: a bitter pill to swallow.
What would best serve security in the region? Some proposals, such as a Helsinki-style security forum would include Iraq, Iran and Yemen. But given today’s geo-political situation, this would be highly unlikely. Former CIA operative Kenneth Pollack has suggested something akin to a Middle East NATO. But this would require the United States to establish a formal defense alliance with its GCC partners, the point of which would be to “keep the Americans in, the Iranians out and the Iraqis down.”
For realists, this would fit well with GCC security interests and concerns—and a formal security agreement is what the GCC states pushed for earlier this year. But this, too, is off the table. America has a growing investment in Iraq, it has sought to improve relations with Iran, and as U.S. President Barack Obama’s refusal to put pen to paper in the last Camp David talks with the GCC states made clear. Ironically in the past, GCC states would have shied away from a formal multilateral agreement with the United States, not least due to domestic optics and the risk of a more intrusive America.
Others suggest integrating Iran into a new and more inclusive Arab Gulf security architecture as a means of restraining Tehran’s aggressiveness. That may help to create trust, and may seem noble on paper, but ground realities tell a different tale. Seen from the GCC, the antagonism with Iran is the result of decades worth of perceived interference and malfeasance on Iran’s part. While some hoped that the nuclear deal would usher in an era of Iranian moderation, the opposite has occurred. Incidents such as the discovery of major weapons caches in Kuwait and Bahrain, allegedly linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, to name but a few, have only further served to inflame emotions.
Past arrangements such as the Baghdad Pact, United Arab Republics and various others show just how difficult a task creating a coherent security framework is to accomplish.
For the foreseeable future, it is in the interests of the GCC states to not be part of any wider security structure. Today, the GCC has the only multilateral security, economic and political architecture in the region. So it should play to its strengths. Collective defense begins with a ‘GCC First’ policy. While it has been guilty in the past of lagging, cooperation has increased sharply in the last few years. The GCC is no mere alliance of convenience, it is a constellation of states with a cohesive identity and bond, all facing the same growing threats. A ‘GCC First’ security architecture by no means suggests isolation or ruling out dialogue and initiatives with external actors. In fact, a GCC bloc, which feels less insecure and is a major international power, can encourage lasting solutions to regional concerns. Furthermore, a strong union decreases the need to depend upon distant allies to mediate, which has always brought its own challenges.
As others have stated, this is the Arab Gulf moment. With recent events in Yemen and Vienna, Gulf powers have taken on a doctrine of proactiveness. The GCC needs to continue on that path, improving its own gradually growing defense industries, diversifying their oil dependent economies and investing in the growing human capital of their young. Current world events prove that the GCC has no choice but to take bold and assertive measures to forge its own destiny.