What security cooperation in the Gulf?

By Vivien Pertusot

Security cooperation in the Gulf remains marginal. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been actively dealing with economic issues, sick but has yet to fulfill its potential as a regional security forum. Many impediments and setbacks have crippled the organization and prevented it from heading in that direction. However, the unfolding instability in Yemen has stirred up many reactions among the GCC that could bring about an increased cooperation in the security field.

The GCC is composed of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It was founded in 1981 partly as a reaction to the Iran-Iraq War. While economic issues have always prevailed, security has been a constant yet largely unaddressed concern. The members have never been able to reach consensus on those issues. Several reasons justify the lack of security cooperation. First of all, distrust among members remains detrimental to such an aim. As the regional heavyweight, Saudi Arabia still arouses wariness among its small neighbors who fear that their voice would not be heard and consequently cherish their autonomy. Despite significant efforts in recent years, some territorial disputes still plague the region as the recent naval skirmish between Saudi Arabia and the UAE illustrates. While we may think that the GCC could play a role in the resolution of those disputes, a careful analysis proves us wrong. For instance, when Saudi Arabia and Qatar came to an agreement in 2001 to terminate their disputes, the GCC was not at the negotiation table.

Moreover, the Gulf countries have long given up on defense policies to rely on the U.S. security umbrella. Anthony Cordesman explains that the Gulf countries are important arms importers, but their defense policies are too inchoate and lack an overarching guidance as well as a military structure for an efficient use of those materials. Since they heavily depend on the U.S. presence in the region, they have been overlooking the potential of developing common and interoperable armed forces.

Finally, those countries struggle to agree on a common definition of threats, which of Iran, Iraq, or Yemen should be of prime concern to the GCC remains undecided. The organization has been virtually AWOL from the war in Iraq and still shies away from providing assistance in the reconstruction phase. The contrasting views on Iran have led the GCC to reach a standstill. Until recently, Yemen was a topic on which most agreed but none wanted to take the bull by the horns.

Have the incursions in Saudi Arabia by the Houthi rebels last November fostered a wind of change? It was the first time since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that a GCC country was attacked and the organization took a strong stand. It asserted in an official statement that an attack against Saudi Arabia was deemed an attack against all the GCC countries. As much as this wording could suggest the rationale of a collective defense organization, no such policy exists within the Council. There have also been unfruitful talks to deploy a rapid reaction force. It was not the first time such an idea came up, and it is still floating around.

Despite some encouraging signs, those efforts seemed more quixotic than indicating real change in policy. No common security strategy exists within the GCC and no negotiations are taking place towards that aim. As long as no country leads the way and the relations with Iran and Iraq are not sorted out, a vapid status quo will remain.

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