BEIRUT — Six Gulf states and Egypt have signed what has been dubbed the al-Ula agreement, ending a rift with Qatar that lasted more than three years. With signs that diplomatic relations are improving, regional analysts are wondering if joint military cooperation between the signatories is next.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Bahrain and Egypt, severed commercial and diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing the state of cozying up to Iran and financing extremist groups in the region. Doha denied the charges, criticizing the boycott as a bid to subvert its sovereignty.
Though military experts are optimistic about the aftermath of the al-Ula accords — which involved Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt and Qatar — there is a consensus that effective defense cooperation to tackle regional asymmetric threats is a long way off.
A Mideast Brexit
The al-Ula accords didn’t involve the announcement of renewed military contracts, nor did it call for activating defense cooperation. However, it called for the Gulf Cooperation Council to bolster efforts at implementing joint defense and security systems. The 41st GCC summit, where the al-Ula agreement was finalized, saw the approval of an amendment of Article 6 of the Joint Defense Agreement, which would change the name of the “Joint Peninsula Shield Forces Command” to the “GCC Unified Military Command.” That command is to be based in Riyadh.
“The mission of the GCC Unified Military Command must be determined in normal circumstances and in crises, and whether its role will be limited within the borders of member states, or [whether] it [will] be deployed within the common geopolitical space of member states,” Abdullah Al Junaid, a Bahraini strategic expert and political researcher, told Defense News.
Zafer Al Ajamy, a retired Kuwaiti military officer, told Defense News that military cooperation continued between regional countries despite the diplomatic rift.
“Qatari officers used to come to Kuwait and from Kuwait; they would go with the Kuwaiti delegation to Riyadh for the General Secretariat [of the GCC], the Military Committee [of the GCC]. So information exchange, intel sharing and defense cooperation did not stop at all,” the retired colonel said. “The reasons for the al-Ula agreement maybe more defensive than economic or political. For example, Britain left the European Union but did not leave NATO.”
Indeed, al-Ula signatories have shared data and intelligence in the past. “Past experiences have proven that member states share information and data, especially in the areas of countering terrorism, the sources of direct threat[s] to [transportation] security as well as the direct threat to any member state of the council,” Al Junaid said. “However, the capabilities vary between them.”
He thinks the Unified Military Command should set up a C4ISR center (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), not only to secure digital communications but also to manage defensive operations and link together systems. He also believes cooperation in research and development could come of the al-Ula agreement, citing existing models in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that even before relations degraded between Qatar and its neighbors, joint defense cooperation was challenging.
“Gulf and other regional efforts at creating jointness or even increased levels of military coordination ... have been a chronic challenge for regional states. For years, U.S. [Central Command] has encouraged more regional cooperation and coordination, while being cleareyed about the fact that this will remain a critical challenge. The al-Ula agreement does not change those dynamics,”Nerguizian said.
Signatories of the al-Ula agreement affirmed their support for joint military integration efforts to achieve the collective security of GCC members. But Nerguizian said this goal is a difficult one to accomplish.
“Unified command and control remains an aspirational endeavor in the Gulf, as opposed to an achievable outcome in the short to medium term. Even if the rift with Qatar didn’t exist, managing — let alone aligning — the often-diverging national security, procurement and force structure idiosyncrasies of each state remains a persistent challenge,” he said.
“That does not mean regional states don’t find ways to share intelligence, cooperate where they can and deconflict where they cannot. Those efforts are ongoing and certainly benefit from a cooling of tensions with Qatar. But it is still [too early] to assess the impact on enhancing cooperation and mitigating distrust.”
But what about the Arab NATO — a Middle Eastern alliance pitched in 2017 for collective defense among Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan?
“I think that idea of the Middle East Strategic Alliance, or Arab NATO, is still in progress, but only through exercises and intel sharing,” said al Ajamy. “This reconciliation will give it a push, but it is not the main motive for this cooperation.”
However, al Junaid was less optimistic.
“I am not enthusiastic about this at the present time, for more than one reason, and the first of which is the existence of many bilateral agreements for member states with more than one international ally, and some of them require review, as they overlap with other comprehensive agreements of member states. The priority now requires developing a specific concept for the unified military leadership of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, giving them the leadership role in developing a unified defense strategy, and then entering into regional or international alliances.”
Nerguizian agreed. “Even if you had less acrimony in the Gulf, there is low confidence that regional states can, at present, create the level of confidence, coordination and unity to put in place a binding mutual defense pact. It is also important to bear in mind that far too many regional states remain focused on pursuing bilateral security arrangements with external states — whether they be the U.S., Russia, Israel and so on. But in both cases — collective security and bilateral security arrangements — success remains illusive.”
Will there be more joint military drills?
No new joint defense exercise has been announced or scheduled for the coming year, but al Ajamy stressed that “the participation of Qataris in military exercises did not stop even during the Gulf crisis.”
“I do not think that there will be new exercises since already there are joint drills covering all domains,” he explained.
But any additional exercises involving the al-Ula signatories would focus on combating asymmetric threats, according to Mohamed al-Kenany, a military affairs researcher and defense analyst at the Arab Forum for Analyzing Iranian Policies in Cairo.
“I think that the focus will be on joint exercises to counter terrorism and asymmetric threats to confront the danger posed by Iran. It is likely that the North Thunder exercises, which were previously conducted with the participation of a number of Arab countries, including Qatar and Egypt, will be emphasized,” he said. (The North Thunder exercise was held in 2016 in Saudi Arabia, and Qatar was among the 20 countries that participated.)
“And we may see in the future a symbolic Qatari participation or through observers in joint exercises,” he noted, emphasizing that this could depend on whether Qatar is seen as interfering in Egypt’s affairs — something the government is closely monitoring.
But perhaps the most important question is whether the al-Ula agreement will even hold.
“This is at best a cold peace in the Gulf before the next unforeseen crisis rears its ugly head,” Nerguizian predicted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Agnes Helou is a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.