While the recent diplomatic strains within the Arabian Gulf will no doubt make US security cooperation efforts more challenging, these concerns are overstated. In truth, US-Gulf security cooperation has always been difficult, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dispute will do little to derail Washington’s long-term strategy.
The recent US-GCC summit in Riyadh during President Obama’s visit has done little to assuage concerns about the future of the relationship. Already on shaky ground after vocal complaints of US inaction over Syria and Egypt and “misguided” policies on Iran, US relations with the gulf states could be further complicated by the rift in the GCC.
And while the recent US effort to sell arms to the GCC as a bloc will be more difficult, Washington’s strategy to increase multilateral security cooperation in the gulf will remain unchanged.
By design, the GCC is meant to be a political and economic union. It is not a security pact, and its founding charter lacks any mention of security. Differing perceptions of external threats and national interests, intra-gulf rivalries, conflicting regional priorities and a desire to maintain sovereignty have failed to transform the GCC into a meaningful political union and security apparatus.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, member states’ focus on internal threats has rarely led to GCC security coordination, with the exception of the controversial Peninsula Shield Force intervention in Bahrain in 2011.
The gulf states have exhibited a deeply ingrained preference for engaging with the US bilaterally on security issues. While the US has pushed for the GCC to act as a collective security organization, it has recognized the gulf states’ need for US security assurances, and has, at times, reinforced the gulf state preference for bilateralism.
Engaging bilaterally with the gulf states over highly charged issues or when reassurance is needed, US officials have been dispatched, for instance, to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi after each round of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.
In addition, the United States has engaged with individual gulf states, selling arms and developing individual capabilities, while trying time and again to enhance US-gulf security cooperation through the GCC.
Despite these preferences, Washington has forged ahead with its agenda of multilateral security cooperation to facilitate greater contributions to their individual defense efforts, increase the burden sharing of regional security and complement existing US efforts. At the IISS Manama Dialogue in December, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the US would sell defense items to the GCC as a bloc and pursue an integrated regional ballistic missile defense strategy.
This was complemented by the announcement of a GCC Joint Military Command, to be made up of about 100,000 soldiers. This would be reinforced by joint military exercises, such as the yearly Eagle Resolve exercise, and multilateral engagement opportunities, such as the upcoming US-GCC Defense Ministerial.
Long History of Engagement
The US-GCC Defense Ministerial is just the latest iteration in a history of US-led initiatives to turn the GCC into an effective security mechanism. The Bush administration initiated the Gulf Security Dialogue, a mechanism to promote cooperation among the GCC states and strengthen US-gulf collaboration on common threats. Under the Clinton administration, the Cooperative Defense Initiative, which sought to enhance US-gulf joint operability, was launched but quickly scuttled by gulf states’ mistrust of one another.
The most recent version is the Obama administration’s US-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum, which aims to address GCC security issues in a multilateral setting.
Greater GCC defense cooperation would be financially and operationally more effective. A coordinated, cooperative GCC would provide Washington with an institutionalized multilateral channel to reassure the gulf states. But as the GCC diplomatic rift illustrates, no matter what initiatives are put forward by President Obama, collective GCC security cooperation is unlikely to happen.
Gulf states remain very protective of their sovereignty and maintain their preference for bilateral engagement, even when this complicates important defense initiatives. But US engagement with the gulf states does not rest on a cooperative GCC security institution. It is a preference, not a prerequisite.
American multilateral engagement has proved challenging as the individual gulf states require bilateral reassurance and individual attention. The recent tempering of ties between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will further complicate US efforts, but they will in no way cause the US to shift its strategy.
There are inherent obstacles to GCC military integration, and the political mistrust of the gulf states is just one challenge. As such, it is likely that the current strain in the GCC writ large will produce little change in the structure of US-gulf security cooperation. ■
Becca Wasser is a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.