Common defence policy proves elusive for Gulf states

18 September 2009

While the GCC states are spending ever increasing amounts on developing their own armies, they have yet to forge a credible joint defence force

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 removed a longstanding military threat in the Gulf. The elimination of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein, particularly to the northern Gulf states, has altered the strategic landscape of the region. Iran has now come to be seen both by the Gulf states and by other countries outside the region as the main security threat.

In the face of a common threat, the GCC states might be expected to act together by forming a common defence policy and creating a GCC defence force. A precursor to any joint defence agreement would be a common and coherent foreign policy, but in the case of Iran, such a policy is sorely lacking among GCC member states.

While the six countries agree that Iran should be prevented from developing a nuclear weapons capability, they disagree on how to stop it. “The politics of the region are such that you are never going to get a coherent alliance,” says one UK-based diplomatic source. “Oman, sitting just across the Strait of Hormuz, is clearly much more inclined to accommodate Iran and its ambitions, to deal with Iran and avoid antagonising it.”

Qatar has also made efforts to encourage constructive dialogue between Iran and the rest of the Gulf. When Doha hosted the GCC summit in 2007, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited as a guest to observe the summit.

But concerted efforts to deal with the perceived threat from Iran’s military capabilities and intentions have rarely amounted to much more than statements calling for the Gulf to be a region free of weapons of mass destruction.

The GCC states have also proven unwilling to share their defence procurement capabilities. “With such a high reliance on expensive technology, defence procurement has been subject to intense political scrutiny and control,” says one US-based defence industry source. “No government has shown any readiness to subordinate its national interest to GCC-wide efforts towards joint procurement.”

This unwillingness on the part of GCC states to forego national interests in favour of GCC-wide security co-operation is partly a result of the long-standing rivalries. Borders between the countries are often a sensitive issue – for example, a dispute between Qatar and Bahrain over the Hawar islands took 10 years to resolve in the International Court of Justice at The Hague, only ending in 2001.

As an organisation, the GCC is also sensitive to charges from other Arab countries that GCC defence co-operation may undercut the mutual defence commitments of the Arab League.

This is a difficult argument for the GCC to ignore, particularly as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait based their call for military help from other Arab states in 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, on the Arab League’s defence pact. The GCC insists that the co-operation between its member states is within the framework of the pact.

Saudi dominance

The military and economic power of Saudi Arabia is also a concern to its smaller Gulf neighbours and can hinder greater co-operation in many different areas. Hopes for a GCC-wide gas grid, for example, were dashed in 2005 when Saudi Arabia refused to allow an extension to the Dolphin gas pipeline from Qatar to Kuwait to cross its territory.

Given the failure of projects such as this, the chances of success for a common GCC defence force are not good.

The first attempt at GCC military co-operation was the Peninsula Shield Force – a 5,000-strong force set up in 1984 and made up of infantry, armour, artillery and combat support elements from all the GCC countries. The force was located in Hafr al-Batin in the northeast of Saudi Arabia, but its deficiencies as a fighting unit were exposed during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait when it took no part in the country’s defence. After little more than two decades, the GCC said it would replace the force in 2007.

But rather than developing a credible combined defence capability, the GCC members’ historic response to security threats has been to accept military assistance from foreign powers. Key US facilities in the region include the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, US Central Command facilities in Qatar, and bases and port facilities in Kuwait and the UAE.

“Perhaps the best approach is the one the US is now adopting: to encourage the development of particular capabilities in particular countries,” says one former diplomat.

Other agreements have been signed with European powers. The UK has been a significant source of weapons for Gulf states for decades. In June, a French military base was opened in Abu Dhabi, with 500 personnel. Kuwait also has agreements with Russia and China, signed in 1993 and 1995 respectively.

The latter moves have been seen by some defence analysts as encouraging a shift away from the Gulf’s dependence on Washington, but could also complicate any hopes of a collective GCC military framework.

“The more outside powers are involved in Gulf security, and the more outside powers sign bilateral defence agreements with the individual GCC states and establish bases, the more difficult it will be for the GCC states to establish their own regional security regime in the long term,” says Nicole Stracke, researcher at Dubai’s Gulf Research Centre.

As a result of their bilateral agreements with international allies, Gulf countries – with the exception of Saudi Arabia’s 214,500 troops – have only small standing armies, and are dependent on their partners for armaments, spare parts and training.

According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, GCC forces have no procedures for deploying rapidly in response to a threat, and no common logistics networks. While collaborative efforts in the GCC have failed to develop beyond a small, token common force, defence spending by individual states has grown hugely.

Between 1981, the year the GCC was founded, and 2006 the US delivered more than $72bn worth of weapons, training, equipment and services to the GCC.

More than $57bn went to Saudi Arabia alone, according to the Washington-based Congressional Research Service.

Defence budget

US defence consultant Forecast Inter-national says Saudi Arabia is the largest defence spender in the Middle East. Its defence budget accounts for about 33 per cent of all state spending and amounted to about $36bn in investment in 2008 alone.

Forecast Inter-national estimates that the kingdom will slightly increase this to nearly $39bn in 2009, and its annual spend will have reached more than $45bn by 2013.

While co-operation between the GCC states’ defence forces may remain limited, closer ties are being formed in some related areas, such as border security and combating terrorism.

In 2004, for example, the GCC states signed a counter-terrorism pact that focused primarily on the exchange of intelligence information and increasing security co-operation. According to Stracke, the sharing of intelligence between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait led to the breaking up of terrorist cells in Bahrain and Kuwait in August this year.

But despite some high-profile successes, co-operation is “on a case-by-case basis, rather than through a multilateral body”, says Stracke.

While sharing intelligence does not require large numbers of troops, the limited size and capabilities of the GCC’s armed forces means that states have had little option but to rely on a mix of Western allies and maintaining good relations with Iran to ensure peace in the region. Until they can transform their spending into more effective fighting forces, that situation is likely to continue.

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