Iraqi special forces keep watch as they secure a district in West Baghdad on June 18. Saudi Arabia has warned of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region. (Sabah Arar / Getty Images)
DUBAI — With the threat of the Iraqi Sunni insurgency spilling over to neighboring countries, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members are unlikely to engage in direct action but will maintain a vigilant security posture, experts say.
Gulf countries are unified and ready to counter terrorist threats, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on June 19 as Iraqi government forces battled militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji.
A day earlier, Bahrain’s King Hamed Bin Khalifa said his country refuses any intervention of foreign forces in Iraq despite Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s appeal to the US “to launch air strikes against militants.”
The United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 18 summoned its ambassador to Baghdad home for consultations in view of the dangerous developments in Iraq.
In a statement, the ministry expressed its deep concern at the policy of exclusion, sectarianism and marginalization of basic components of the Iraqi people.
“While reaffirming its condemnation of terrorism by the ISIL and other terrorist organizations, which has led to the killing of many innocent Iraqis, the UAE strongly believes that the way out of this cycle of violence cannot be found through more of the exclusionary and sectarian policies and strategies that are embedded in the statement of the government of Iraq issued on [June 17],” the ministry said.
The UAE has called for the formation of a government of national unity that does not exclude any sections of the Iraqi people.
Actions, But No Strategy
Gulf states have no strategy when it comes to Iraq, said Hassan Hassan, a research associate at UAE-based Delma Institute.
“That’s because they play the wait-and-see game and hope Iraq comes to them,” he said. “That’s why the gulf has become irrelevant to Iraqis, therefore the GCC has to raise their game and speak to the moderate Sunnis and moderate Shias and diplomatically work together to figure out what they want from Iraq.”
Hassan added that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been a stumbling block to GCC-exerted influence. “What needs to come first is an effective strategy to be able to influence a resolution in Iraq.”
Despite that, the GCC’s security posture has been ahead of the curve, he said.
“The gulf is doing what it has been doing for months, and that is to prevent this from spilling over and taking root in the region,” he said. “Saudi busted a group related to ISIL, and online monitoring has been stepped up especially in Saudi.”
On May 6, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced the discovery of a jihadist group in Saudi Arabia linked to ISIL.
The group, according to officials, sought to restart armed action in Saudi Arabia, and it was linked to ISIL in Syria and had contacts with al-Qaida in Yemen. The group was collecting donations, coordinating the smuggling of individuals and weapons, and preparing to resume assassinations and bombings in Saudi Arabia, according to the ministry statement.
Abdel Khaleq Abdullah, a United Arab Emirates University political science professor and analyst, said security, which was always a priority, will become more important, especially with the possibility of a spillover of ISIL in the region.
According to the Global Peace Index released June 17, the UAE spent US $11.7 billion in violence prevention last year, including terrorism and insurgency. The expenditure is the equivalent of $1,270 per person.
Oman lead the GCC rankings by spending $3,940 per person, followed by Kuwait at $2,480 per person, while Qatar spent $2,995.
While Qatar was ranked the most peaceful GCC country, and 22nd out of 162 countries, it is among the 10 in the world most likely to see a deterioration in conditions.
The index did not provide violence-related expenditure for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the two GCC countries ranked the least peaceful, at 80 and 111 globally, respectively.
However, the report said Saudi Arabia spent $87 billion preventing and dealing with violence last year; Bahrain spent $3.67 billion.
“Kuwait will have the biggest worries because they are on the front line, despite the Shia buffer zone, because these guys will always see Kuwait as part of Iraq,” Abdullah said.
In the short term, the economic effects of the fighting in Iraq are not expected to hit the Arabian Gulf countries.
“The oil price has already shot up and might go higher than $115 per barrel. If the 3 million Iraqi barrels a day comes under attack, that would be a profound game changer and a lot is at stake economically,” Abdullah said. “However, Saudi Arabia has the capability to increase oil production to replace the Iraqi shortcomings.”
According to Reuters, the gulf’s financial markets are mostly reacting calmly to the turmoil in Iraq as foreign investors continued to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into gulf bonds. There have been no signs of pressure on gulf currencies’ pegs to the US dollar.
ISIL, which aims to establish its own version of an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, also threatens Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait. The group controls territories covering the northern and western part of Iraq and is battling to stretch its territory to the Jordanian and Saudi borders
Despite that, Abdullah said there is no possibility of an ISIL caliphate.
“I don’t think the regional powers would allow them to establish a state,” he said. “They can have cities and territory, but not a state.”
What will happen over the next six months, Abdullah said, is a continuous war.
“Yes, they did have success and they do have drive, but the Iraqi government, with the help of US and maybe Iran, will [engage in] long-standing skirmishes,” he said. ■