Panel| GCC Security Amid Regional Crises

OxGAPS launched its latest Gulf Affairs issue entitled ‘GCC Security Amid Regional Crises’ through a panel discussion on the same topic. The panel was chaired by Eugene Rogan (Senior Member of OxGAPS), and joined by David Des Roches (Associate Professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies), David B. Roberts, Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London), Courtney Freer (Research Officer at the Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States at the London School of Economics), and Toby Matthiesen (Senior Research Fellow in the International Relations of the Middle East, St Antony’s College, Oxford).

US-GCC Relations

The panel kicked off with Des Roches, who set out his view that the US was not currently shifting away from or abandoning the Gulf region. There have been recent criticisms over the movement of troops and aircraft carriers out of the Gulf region however this should be seen as an inevitable shift of temporary resources as operations draw down rather than a strategic pivot away. Des Roches went on to make the case for seeing military relations as extremely strong with no drop off following the decline in oil prices. For example, demand for education and training for GCC militaries within the US continues to far outstrip supply. The significance of King Salman’s absence at the Camp David GCC summit of May 2015 was also downplayed and it was noted that King Salman paid a visit to the US soon afterwards.

The focus then moved onto the conflict in Yemen where Des Roches noted that the GCC is exercising remarkably high military capabilities: sustaining an air campaign, establishing a layered defence of Saudi Arabia’s southern border, launching operational expeditions, proving an ability to absorb causalities and to integrate different national armed forces all in a conflict which the GCC is fighting almost entirely without external help. Pulling these different points together, Des Roches set out how he believed the US remained committed to the absolute territorial integrity of the GCC. Although some had been arguing for a NATO-like agreement with the GCC, the reality of the situation with the US having proved its willingness to actively deploy troops in defence of GCC territory shows that US commitment does not need such a treaty.

Gulf States and the Muslim Brotherhood

Freer shifted the panel toward internal security and gave an overview of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the different member states of the GCC. Most importantly, there is significant divergence in the perspective of GCC members on the Muslim Brotherhood, partially reflective of the differences between the Brotherhood movements within the region. Expanding on this, Freer made the point that the prominence of the Egyptian Brotherhood gave a distorted picture of Gulf Brotherhoods altogether. There is not nearly so much focus on welfare compared to Egypt since Gulf states already provide much of that. Gulf states are also much more deeply involved in the Islamic world through monitoring mosques, funding specific educational programmes and building religious credibility through mosque-construction. In other words, Gulf states are a very different context for the Brotherhood to exist in compared to Egypt.

To exemplify the different positions of Brotherhoods within the Gulf region, Freer described the situation in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. In Kuwait, the Brotherhood is permitted to exist and though it has been facing state pressure over the past few years, this is not targeted at the Brotherhood in particular but instead is part of a general move against reformist thought in the country. In Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood movement dissolved itself over two decades ago, however, the influence of the movement remains intellectually strong (though the country’s turn towards traditional Islamic laws can also be understood as a result of Wahhabi rather than Brotherhood influence). In the UAE, the situation is remarkably different. From 1994 the UAE cracked down on the Brotherhood with the pressure increasing after the 9/11 attacks. In 2012 one hundred leaders were arrested and the movement was officially banned. The nature of the Brotherhood in the UAE is interesting, combining a focus on social policies such as the rejection of growing Westernisation rather than confrontational political demands. Freer suggested that with increasing oppression within the UAE this could change and there was likely to be a backlash against the UAE state as a result.

GCC Military Capabilities

Roberts focused on the sudden cast change in Western (or at least British and American) perceptions of the GCC’s military capacities. Eighteen months ago the indigenous military forces of the GCC were seen as having limited combat capabilities. This reflected a degree of patronising views but also backed up by hard evidence of ineffectual military training programmes and the poor outcome of Saudi Arabia’s 2009 military campaign in Yemen. This thinking is now looking misguided given the recent events in Yemen where Saudi Arabia has led a military coalition largely without Western support with great operational success. The now weighty military capabilities of GCC nations are also exemplified by the UAE which has a track record starting from their involvement in Kosovo as part of the UN mission in the late 1990s and most recently enabling long distance air strikes in Libya, supposedly without US support. 

On a point of qualification, Roberts did note the involvement of non-GCC forces which were being used to bolster GCC forces in Yemen—troops, ships and planes from as far afield as Morocco and Sudan while private security firms are also thought to be playing an important role in the conflict. Moreover, there is a clear overreliance on airpower being used for coercion rather than just means towards obvious military ends. This naturally raises the question of whether we should expect to see Gulf states acting far more independently of the West in the future? Roberts stated that this remained an uncertain point: on the one hand it was clearly shocking for Gulf states to experience human losses in war—over 50 men killed in Scud attacks during the Yemen campaign—but on the other hand GCC fears over the US pivot to Asia, worsened by US failures in Iraq and positive dealings with Iran, could propel it towards greater military action.

Qualified Success in Yemen and Internal Threats

Matthiesen was quick to provide a slightly different view on events in Yemen involving the GCC and emphasised the need to put successes in relative perspective. The GCC states have had massive natural advantages (huge wealth channelled into the most advanced military equipment for decades with the long-term support of the world’s preeminent military power) against one of the poorest Arab states with extremely limited military technology. Furthermore, the narrative is certainly not one of constant military success: Houthi rebels have been able to penetrate into Saudi territory itself in raids on border posts. Matthiesen then explained a little of the history of armed forces in GCC states. They have been built up very differently in the Gulf than the rest of the Middle East over the 20th century in an attempt to avoid internal coups. For example, in Saudi Arabia a balance of power is maintained against the armed forces by national guards. Armed forces are also often located in the periphery where they are less of a direct threat to the heart of state power.

Matthiesen also questioned if the increasing power of the military after Yemen could lead to political demands? He raised the point that the key threat to GCC security was internal rather than external. On this point he agreed with US President Barack Obama who warned the GCC states at the Camp David summit last year that although the US remained committed to the Gulf’s external security, they had to deal with their own internal security through reform. The conclusion that it is important to recognise the ideological and internal threats to the Gulf provided a fitting counterbalance to the discussions on external military threats that had been discussed earlier.

Click here to download the released Gulf Affairs issue 'GCC Security Amid Regional Crises.'