Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Security Architecture in the Persian Gulf: GCC, Gulf Union or Something Else?

Col Rajeev Agarwal

The West Asian region has been in turmoil for over three years now. What started off as a local incident in Tunisia in December 2010 engulfed the entire region of North Africa and West Asia in what has been popularly termed as ‘Arab Spring’. Three years down the line, some of the countries are still trying to grapple with the changed political dynamics (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen) while others have prevented it from taking an ugly turn (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait). Then, there is the case of Syria where the uprisings turned violent and have led to a state of civil war. In addition, there is the most recent case of Iraq which has imploded under the pressure exerted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams (ISIS). The recent conflict in Gaza too has re-opened the old wounds between Palestine and Israel. The Arabian Peninsula was however, by and large left unaffected by the Arab Spring. Yes, there were clashes in Bahrain; Saudi Arabia had to offer concessions to its population and there were some protests in Kuwait and Oman, but none of these events were on the same scale as what transpired in the rest of the region. The Gulf monarchies survived and still look resilient.

What is, however, affecting the Arabian Peninsula and particularly the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is the dynamic change taking place in the regional balance of power. It is no longer the case of Saudi Arabia versus Iran in the Gulf region or the popular discourse of Arabs versus Israelis. This is largely due to the emergence of new power dynamics in the region. The re-emergence of Egypt post Mubarak, increasing isolation of Israel and emergence of Turkey as another powerful actor are some of the indicators in this regard. Coupled with this is the progressive shift in US policy and towards the Asia Pacific as a part of its “rebalancing”.1

The Gulf region in fact embodies and reflects the concerns of the larger West Asian region. The countries north and south of the Persian Gulf form the core in almost all aspects. They contains majority of the crude oil and natural gas resources, employ the largest number of expat workers in the region, are home to the most holy sites for the Muslims (both Shia and Sunni), harbour a bitter regional rivalry often drawn along sectarian lines between Saudi Arabia and Iran and have a major role to play in all other issues effecting the larger region at large. The Arab-Israeli dispute, Egypt-Israel peace treaty, US role in the region, question of Muslim and/or Arab unity and in recent decades the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism through groups like Al Qaeda etc all have links through the Gulf region.
The Gulf region and its well-being is therefore crucial towards ensuring peace in the region and to coordinate and implement it, there is a requirement of a potent and effective regional organisation. Perhaps concerned by the developing situation, the GCC decided to strengthen the regional security framework possibly in the shape of a‘Gulf Union’. This idea was discussed at the GCC Summit in Bahrain in December 2012,2 but has yet to take any shape. During the Manama Dialogue in December 2013 too, Saudi Arabia brought up the issue of Gulf Union, but has failed to find resonance among all partners. Oman was quick to rubbish the idea with its Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi stating, “We are against a union,” at the Manama Dialogue further adding, “We will not prevent a union, but if it happens we will not be part of it”3. Saudi Arabia seems however convinced that Gulf Union is the need of the hour. “People in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) want a closely-knit union and such a union has now become inevitable,”4 was how Prince Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the Chairman of the Board of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies described the stance of Saudi Arabia at the conclusion of Manama Dialogue. Going by inputs, it is likely that even in its expansion, the GCC is likely to initially restrict such a framework only to member countries. The expansion of GCC into a broader framework or a new framework would be more a question of seeking the right framework to address regional security problems than merely economic cooperation or anything else. If that be the case, it raises critical questions regarding the viability of such a union such as:
  • Can the Gulf region ignore the rapidly evolving dynamics in the region, especially with regards to Syria and Iraq while evolving a new security architecture?
  • Can there be any effective regional security framework in the Gulf region without the participation of Iran and Iraq?
  • Can a security framework in the Arabian Peninsula take shape without taking Yemen and its security concerns into consideration?
  • How would the architecture overcome the Gulf countries’ decades of over-reliance on foreign (read, US) military presence in the region for their security?
Clearly, the GCC security framework would be ineffective without answering most of these questions.

Evolving Dynamics of Regional Security in the Gulf Region

Commencing with Tunisia in December 2010, the popular people’s revolts have threatened to not only alter the political dynamics in the region but also the security balance in the region. The evolving political order in the region is likely to witness considerable shifts within individual countries as well as at the regional level. Economic issues and peoples’ aspirations are likely to be major factors in redefining the regional landscape. These changes would have long term implications for both regional and international actors.

Amongst the regional powers, Iran has attempted to emerge as a major benefactor. It has drawn parallels with its 1979 revolution and has called for Islamic awakening in the region. Saudi Arabia has managed to survive the Arab Spring both internally and within the region. It resorted to immediate economic appeasements to the population at home coupled with the brutal crackdown on protests to quell the revolution before it could threaten the regime. However, without long term systemic changes in system of governance, it knows that it is living on borrowed time.

Another factor to watch out for is the rise of Egypt post Mubarak. It has always been one of most powerful military powers in the region. Its revival could have major repercussions on regional power balance. With former Chief of the Armed Forces, Fatah Al Sisi now elected as the President, Egypt would be a nation to watch out for.

Just before the onslaught by the ISIS on Iraq and the threat of its implosion, Iraq too was slowly consolidating itself. Despite frequent terrorists’ attacks on Shia population, Iraq was rebuilding its military power. Oil production too was on the rise and is becoming competitive in the region. If and when the ISIS threat is brought under control, Iraq could emerge once again as a major player in the region by the end of this decade.

Yemen on the other hand, despite the ouster of President Saleh, continues to be in turmoil. Saudi Arabia has often accused Iran of instigating and supporting the Al Houthi rebels in the North against Saudi Arabia. Despite the constitution of National Dialogue Congress in March 2013, there is hardly any progress towards reconciliation and peace. The spillover of Al Qaeda influence from across Yemen too threatens its security interests. Also, Yemen is the only country in the Arabian Peninsula which is not a member of GCC.

The crisis in Syria has threatened to alter the entire equilibrium in the region. Its civil war initially polarized the country as well as the region into pro and anti-Assad camps. The use of chemical weapons in Damascus on 21 August 2013 further complicated the situation bringing Syria to the brink of US led military strikes and a larger regional military flare up. The subsequent Framework Agreement sponsored by Russia and the UN resolutions however ensured that Syria declare its chemical weapons stockpile, agree to its destruction and sign the international Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC). The Syrian civil war is however far from over. With no resolution in sight and the ISIS threatening to over-run eastern parts of Syria and virtually obliterate the boundaries between Iraq and Syria, there seems no immediate solution to the Syrian crisis in the near future.

The overpowering presence of Saudi Arabia in the GCC, its predominance in the only security structure in the region; the Peninsular Shield Force, the underlying suspicion of smaller states in the GCC on the hegemonic designs of Saudi Arabia in the Gulf region are some of the other concerns to be considered by the GCC and the region. Increased membership and presence of some more powerful players in the group would help counter balance Saudi Arabia.

The Iran, Iraq Factor

Among all the questions regarding Gulf Security Architecture, the most crucial is the question of regional participation. Can the GCC afford to ignore the two most significant countries of the Gulf region, namely, Iran and Iraq and still evolve a viable security framework? The clear answer is ‘No’. Iran is geographically and militarily too large to be ignored. Also, most of the security concerns of GCC members would be taken care of if Iran is either reined in or dovetailed in a collective security apparatus (even if entails having a framework with a common minimum programme). However, the contrary may not hold true as any security framework without Iran will render it unviable in terms of regional security.

As regards Iraq, whether in conjunction with Iran or independently, it is again too big and mighty to be ignored. Given the above, it is imperative that Iran and Iraq form part of a Gulf security framework. The ongoing dialogue on Iran nuclear issue which is the biggest security concern for the GCC countries could offer hope. The interim deal reached between P5+1 in November 2013 and any future resolution of Iran nuclear issue would help dispel doubts in the minds of members of GCC and could pave way for greater Iran-GCC engagement.

Foreign Military Presence in the Gulf Region and the Current Uncertainty

Historically, the six states which now comprise the GCC have relied on an external security guarantor both to safeguard the regimes and to protect against external military threats. The US has been the predominant, especially after the United Kingdom military vacated the Gulf region in 1970s. Commencing with its pledge made in the 1980 Carter Doctrine to use military force if necessary to defend its national interests in the Gulf, the US has continued to guarantee the security of Gulf regimes and uphold their sovereignty through the periods of the Cold War to the present Global War on Terror. In the three decades since 1980, all of the six GCC states have expanded and deepened their military ties with the US, through bilateral defence cooperation agreements. These bilateral defence deals have however inhibited individual growth and has resulted in each GCC state having very small standing armies. Military bases and bilateral security guarantees have prevented and complicated the emergence of any effective regional security architecture at the GCC level wherein the GCC countries could have found solutions to their historical disputes within themselves. The stationing of foreign troops in the region has also given cause and justification to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, spread of influence of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates as well as radicalization of disenchanted elements in the region. Trans-national terrorism and the spread of ideational alternatives to national identities has emerged as a significant challenge to Gulf regimes, who fear the spread of sectarian tensions from Iraq or the "blowback" from any attack on Iran to the Shiite communities in the Gulf. The Iranian nuclear issue is another issue which has created fears and apprehensions in the Gulf region although the present talks between P5+1 could lead to some long term resolution of this very critical regional issue.
Although it has prevented intra-regional wars in the Gulf region and helped regimes survive, US presence has, in the long run been detrimental to the larger security interests of the region. With its predominant military presence West and South of Arabian Gulf, it has polarized the region into pro and anti Iran camps. The war on Iraq has virtually handed over the depleted nation into Iran’s influence, thus extending the proverbial ‘Shiite crescent’ across the North of Arabian Gulf up to the Mediterranean Sea. Also, as mentioned earlier, it has been one of the significant factors in the rise and spread of terrorism in the region.

In the past three years, especially after the onset of ‘Arab Spring”, there is a widespread apprehension in the Gulf region and the larger West Asian region that the US may be losing interest in the region and may not be as actively involved as it was in the past decades intervening and solving conflicts in the region. The clear reluctance shown by the US in getting directly involved in the military campaign in Libya, its refusal to militarily intervene in Syria despite the widespread civil war and thousands of human lives lost as well as its drawing down on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a clear indication of its loosing appetite for any more involvement in the military conflicts in the region. Also, its renewed focus in the Asia-pacific through its ‘rebalancing’ policy towards the region could wean away some of the existing military and diplomatic vigor in the West Asian region. In addition, reports on US discovery and production of shale gas resulting in reduced reliance on the region’s oil as also the feeling that with the current economic downturn, the US will be forced to look more inwards are issues of grave concern to the region and are setting serious doubts in the minds of policy makers in the West Asian region on future US intentions.

Echoing these concerns, Abdulaziz Sager, Chairman of the Gulf Research Center said in a column in Arab News, “The US-GCC relationship appears to be at crossroads. Despite a long history of relations and a clear common and mutual interest in the stability and security of the Gulf region, the GCC states and the United States look as if they are growing apart on an almost daily basis…the prevailing mood appears to be that the terms are beginning to change to such a degree that the GCC states have no choice but to act on their own and without consideration of US interests and concerns. This is bound to have consequences, real and unintended, for both sides, and the question should be asked whether such increased separation will not come back to haunt the region as a whole.”5

Even Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense of the US while speaking at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies Research said, "It is our hope that the GCC can play an important role in the future providing security for this region. Across the board, Washington is urging allies to build local capacity. That's what we're doing for the UAE and that's what we're doing with other countries. Yes, we give them the help they need, we give them assistance, but the fact is that they have to help provide for their security.6"

Countries in the region are already planning for the worst case scenarios wherein they would be deprived of external security guarantees. While the idea of expansion of GCC into a Gulf Union could be one indicator, the increase in import of weapons and equipment in the region too is a pointer to this effect. In December 2011, the US signed a massive $30 billion sale of 84 F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia7. In April 2013, the US announced another big defence deal worth $ 10 billion through arms sale to Saudi Arabia, Israel and United Arab Emirates which includes sale of 26 F-16s to the United Arab Emirates and advanced missiles to both Gulf states capable of being launched in friendly territory and penetrating with great accuracy far behind an opponent’s borders. In the case of Israel, it is likely to procure new missiles designed to attack and incapacitate an adversary’s air-defence radars, advanced radars for its own Air force, refueling tanker planes and — in the first sale to any foreign military — the V-22 Osprey troop transport aircraft8.

A Possible Security Framework for the Gulf Region

GCC was formed primarily as a defensive mechanism against post revolution Iran. With Iran looking for better integration in the region and looking to emerge from the decade’s long shadow of sanctions, there is a need for a relook. In a speech at the Manama Dialogue 2006, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, stated: “In the Gulf, no sustainable long-term regional security arrangement can be envisioned without Iraq and Iran acting as two of its pillars.”9 The ongoing civil war in Syria, the implosion of Iraq under the ISIS, the Gaza conflict, ongoing transition in Egypt and the struggle in Yemen clearly demonstrate that these conflicts cannot be resolved locally as also that the GCC cannot remain immune from such conflicts. There is thus a requirement to rework the regional dynamics in a comprehensive manner while devising a new regional structure.

Before finalising any security framework, GCC would have to deliberate and take a realistic view of the evolving regional dynamics. Also, the GCC needs to pause and take lessons from history. The League of Nations formed after World War I was rendered ineffective as the US did not join it initially and the USSR was barred from joining it due to the threat of communism. The result was a toothless organisation which could not prevent military conflicts nor settle disputes. Even the UN Security Council with only five permanent members selected in 1945 is out of sync with the developments in the world in past 65 years and is not representative of the security dynamics of the world.

GCC, the only regional organisation representing the Gulf region, too is grossly inadequate and underrepresented to address regional security issues. Firstly, it is restrictive in membership and does not include important nations North and West of the Persian Gulf like Iran and Iraq. Even within the Arabian Peninsula, it does not include Yemen. Secondly, it lacks a strong and regionally representative military force. The only military arm; Peninsular Shield Force consists primarily of troops from Saudi Arabia and therefore cannot be termed credible or effective. Thirdly, it does not have any forum to share views or vote of key external players in the region like the US, China or Russia.
Any future architecture will need a core organisation. GCC could be the core to commence this. It could be expanded to GCC+2 (Iran and Iraq) initially and thereafter expanded to include Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen. Each member could have a veto power in matters of regional security which would preclude any one from taking any offensive action against another. There will be occasions when a member may feel threatened by another, but a veto and the threat of a collective punitive action by other members could deter the threat. Obviously, Israel would be a difficult issue. However, if there is some forward movement on Palestine and Israel could rethink its approach in the region akin to its reconciliatory policies in 1990s, there could be scope for a larger regional architecture. Obviously, any extra regional player having stakes and influence in the region will need to be incorporated in the structure, maybe as dialogue partners, but that could follow later.

This is not to say that by just making such a framework, all the problems which are intra GCC or within the Gulf Region would get solved. The differences and conflict of opinions and ideologies in the region are too deep rooted to be overcome soon. It would however be difficult to imagine expanding the GCC into an all-encompassing framework right away. Any start would be however welcome and if correctly articulated, could eliminate at least the threat of conflict within the region. Also, over time, some of the minor irritants could get solved through mutual dialogue. The inclusion of states like Iran, Iraq and even Egypt and Turkey would also act as counter balancing force to Saudi Arabia in the region. Another important spin off from a larger more encompassing security framework could be the effect on terrorism in the region. If the members of the new architecture align closely, the space occupied by terrorist forces like Al Qaeda could reduce. The vacuum created due the fall of dictators in the region which they have currently filled would then become vulnerable to state and larger regional control, thus edging them out of the region. Among all other new member states proposed, the inclusion and acceptability of Iran would be the key and could dictate the future course of such an organization. It is however interesting to note that presently, there is no formal platform of dialogue between GCC and Iran. How do they expect to resolve issues when they don’t even talk?

Further, the framework would have to see beyond its immediate geographical boundaries to include major stake holders in the region for which they could take a leaf out of ASEAN model where, in addition to the core members, various forums have been added to ASEAN to incorporate economic and security interests driven by extra regional powers. This could result in Turkey, US, Russia, India and even China being included as dialogue partners or as independent observers. It would help in improving the atmosphere and confidence in the region. Over time, the Gulf Security Council could hold joint military exercises, have military observers from each country and later even consider a Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) to replace the present Peninsular Shield Force10, which is grossly under equipped and is seen more as a manifestation of Saudi Arabia’s regional designs than anything else.


The bottom line is clear. The present system of Gulf Security is grossly inadequate to meet regional security challenges. A Security Framework based on merely GCC members too would be inadequate, as pointed out earlier. Also, with changing dynamics in the region as also likely change in the priorities of the US, it is possible that in coming decades, the Arabian Gulf does not get the same attention that it gets now from the US. Already there are signs of downsizing the military presence in the Gulf region due to budgetary cuts, ending the wars in the region (Afghanistan, Iraq) and the current policies of the US of not getting itself actively involved in any regional conflict (Syria, Libya).

The GCC thus has to start looking beyond US for their individual and collective security. It is therefore time for the GCC as well as other major stake holders like Iran, Iraq and Egypt to rise above the usual rhetoric and forge a regional Partnership. There will be teething problems, the framework might eventually fail, but all that can only be seen once they take the bold step to come together. If the two Germany could unite, if the US and Russia could talk now and during the Cold War, there is no reason why the Muslim countries in the Gulf region cannot garner courage and come together for their own collective security.

  1. US Secretary of State speech at Asia-Pacific Summit in November 2011, available at
  2. Saudi Arabia calls for ‘strong and solid’ Gulf union, Al Arabiya news, available at
  3. Oman opposes Gulf union, Arab News, 08 December 2013,, accessed on 23 December 2013.
  4. Gulf union is inevitable: Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, Gulf News, 08 December 2013,, accessed on 23 December 2013.
  5. “Whither GCC-US relations?” Arab News, March 29, 2013, at, accessed on July 14, 2013.
  6. US looks to allies to secure Arabian Gulf, The National, April 24, 2013, at, accessed on July 14, 2013.
  7. U.S., Saudi Arabia strike $30 billion arms deal, Washington Post, 29 December 2011, Available at, accessed on 06 August 2013.
  8. U.S. Arms Deal With Israel and 2 Arab Nations Is Near, New York Times, 18 April 2013, available at, accessed on 06 August 2013
  9. Sam Sasan Shoamanesh, A New Security Order for the Middle East, 04 October 2012,
  10. Shaheen Kareem, Defensive shield for the Gulf since 1982, The National, available at
(The author is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses)

Published Date: 1st October 2014, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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