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The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has evolved and sharpened its security agenda since its inception in 1981. Through this time, it has expanded from a political and economic grouping to an organisation that includes a collective security agreement operating under a Central Command.
Yet, steps to practically strengthen its collective security agenda – such as the deployment of a joint missile defence shield – have been consistently stymied by domestic imperatives that include national rivalries and competing foreign policy agendas.
However, the recent ambiguity surrounding the continued US commitment to GCC security in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, along with the Gulf States’ perception of Shia encirclement in Iran, Iraq Lebanon, and Yemen, may galvanise the GCC members to unify their national military postures, and to include a joint Missile Defence Shield.
The GCC’s security is fundamentally threatened by Iran and the Yemeni Houthi rebels’ willingness to use (or threatening to use) ballistic missiles to achieve their political ends. Iran has long viewed ballistic missiles as a critical part of the Islamic Republic’s defensive capability.
Following the Iran-Iraq War – which saw Iran’s critical assets targeted by Iraq’s Scud-B missiles – Tehran started obtaining weapons from Russia, China and North Korea, to harness a ‘counter-strike’ response.
This has subsequently grown to be the largest missile programme in the Middle East behind Israel. These missiles range from the short-range Fateh-110 to the Soumar Cruise Missile, with a range of 2,000–3,000km.
This arsenal, it has been argued, dictates that the GCC would have just four minutes to respond if Iran launched a ballistic missile in the Middle East. On the second front, in the ongoing Yemen war, it has been reported that Houthi rebels have directed some 18 ballistic missiles towards Saudi Arabian territory.
In response to these threats, the GCC has, until now, procured and use their defensive capabilities independently. For instance, the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 is operated by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain.
The UAE is the only one operating the THAAD, with Qatar still waiting for delivery; and the Rapier and Skygaurd is sporadically situated among different GCC members.
However, by operating their defence programme individually, each system detects incoming missiles without passing this information to other sensors, ultimately leaving GCC states more exposed than would be the case if these defensive capabilities operated collectively.
Discussions of a GCC missile defence shield can be tracked back to the inaugural US–GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum in 2012. Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attempted to move the Gulf States beyond their hitherto bilateral security arrangements with the US, to encourage a common security framework across all the GCC members.
While the establishment of a GCC interoperable ballistic missile defence architecture has continued to be in the forefront of US–GCC dialogue, it continues to be just an aspiration.
From the US perspective, the Gulf States’ inability to deliver tangible outcomes in response to various Middle East crises is the driving force behind Washington’s push for the GCC to work together rather than in isolation.
The Iran-Iraq War, for instance, while it inspired more cooperation between the GCC members as evidenced in the formation of the Peninsula Shield Force in 1982, is nonetheless commonly accepted as an example that exposes the region’s shortcomings.
On that occasion, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar supported Iraq because of their mistrust of Iran, and financed up to $60 billion towards the Iraqi war effort. But at the same time, Oman and the UAE attempted to straddle their allegiance with both belligerents, in order not to unsettle economic relations with Iran.
The ineffectiveness of the GCC in withstanding common threats was soon on display again during the 1991 Gulf War, which was in part spurred by the organisation’s unwillingness to cancel Saddam’s Iran-Iraq war debt.
With Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar each targeted by Saddam’s missiles, along with Iraqi forces penetrating Kuwait, the GCC members were reliant on the American military forces to protect them against this aggression.
Indeed, this dependency went on to inspire a multitude of bilateral defence arrangements between the US and individual GCC members, including the stationing of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, ultimately giving form and substance to the 1979 Carter Doctrine.
While progress has been made to enhance the GCC collective security arrangement, including the formation of a unified command in 2013, divergent interests continue to undermine the effectiveness of this military grouping.
The Ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE were recalled from Qatar during the 2011 Arab Uprising, due to Doha’s support for Mohammed Morsi, the then Egyptian leader, and his Muslim Brotherhood, long been viewed by the Gulf monarchies as a threat.
However, recent shifts in US foreign policy may soon push the GCC members closer together. Former President Barack Obama’s apparent dithering throughout the Egyptian revolution on whether to sacrifice democracy on the altar of the Islamic movement, sowed doubt in the minds of the GCC with respect to how indispensable they remained to the US.
Such anxiety was hardened when the Obama administration signed the P5 +1 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, which many of the GCC states viewed as further evidence of waning US commitment to maintain the existing regional security hierarchy.
In order to reassure the Gulf States that the US was committed to their defence, the Obama administration sold the Arab monarchies billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment. In return, the GCC decided to ‘undertake a senior leader tabletop exercise to examine improved regional ballistic missile defense cooperation’.
However, perverse incentives have ultimately undermined the strategic logic of the Obama administration, whereby such bilateral defence procurements worked against efforts to further develop a common defence apparatus, such as a joint missile defence shield.
Yet Trump’s victory may fundamentally alter the strategic calculus of the GCC. While many have pointed to areas of compatibility between Trump and the GCC, including a mutual suspicion of Iran and a promise to double-down on the military commitment in Syria, it is, however, ultimately the ability to defend themselves that will factor most in GCC strategic calculations.
Indeed, Trump’s recent speech to a joint sitting of congress has perhaps poured cold water over any future GCC calculations that factors in US leadership.
Trump stated, ‘My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America’. He added that he expected ‘our partners – whether in NATO, the Middle East, or in the Pacific – to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost’.
Such words have begun to pressure the GCC to forge a new path in their security structures, and have encouraged them to consider more fully integrating their military programmes.
Indeed, it appears that the GCC is beginning to view the world through a similar lens. Hamad Al-Khalifah, commander of the Royal Bahraini Air Force, announced in January the GCC’s intention to bring the joint missile defense shield to fruition.
While Saudi Arabia has been viewed by many as the natural steward for this mutual defensive agreement, as a consequence of Riyadh’s current leadership of the GCC military command, previous reports have instead suggested that Abu Dhabi would be responsible for command and control of this integrated missile shield.
GCC members’ unwillingness to give Saudi Arabia control of their air defences ultimately plays into the fragility of concluding this agreement. In the end though, US leadership is required to upskill GCC members in the technological requirements of interoperability, which could see Trump help to realise the elusive GCC missile defense shield.
Anthony Ricketts is a Teaching Fellow at the Australian Command and Staff College. He is also undertaking a PhD in American foreign policy in the Middle East, at the National Security College, Australian National University. He can be followed on Twitter on @AnthonyRicketts
Banner image: Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force jets, such as this F-15, will have to take a more prominent role in defending the Gulf. Courtesy of US Department of Defense/Tech. Sgt. Hans H Deffner/Wikimedia.