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The Future of U.S.-GCC Security Cooperation and Regional Security in the Arabian Gulf

Sabahat Khan, Senior Analyst, INEGMA
20 May 2014

The development of the Iranian threat and political uncertainties generated by the ‘Arab Spring’ have fundamentally impacted the geostrategic and regional security calculus of both the U.S. and states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. Overall, the absence of a shared or even common approach to those crises between the U.S. and the GCC has frustrated U.S. relations with key GCC allies. While it is sensible to recognize that not all sources of discontent in U.S.-GCC relations in the current context may be addressable in their entirety, it is becoming increasingly apparent that failure to upgrade efforts to synchronize the regional security approaches in the Arabian Gulf will have negative and costly long term implications for U.S. and GCC security interests. As the U.S. and the GCC prepare to face a strategic environment characterized by unprecedented peripheral state fragmentation, the rise of transnational non-state actors, a new generation of terrorist groups, and weapons proliferation, there is no strategic alternative to a collaborative security architecture that builds on existing capabilities to deliver true force interoperability and security burden-sharing.

Statements made at the recent U.S.-GCC Defense Dialogue held in Jeddah by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recognized and reiterated the need to upgrade U.S.-GCC defense cooperation in support of collective defense through enhancing the interoperability and burden-sharing which key GCC allies have been calling for. Despite the apparent U.S.-GCC consensus on evolving the regional security architecture – where regional integrated air and missile defense and maritime security cooperation are prioritized – key technical issues continue to impede progress. On integrated air and missile defense, for example, while the GCC has continued to make substantial investments in acquiring and upgrading Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) systems from U.S. suppliers over the past ten years, there has been little progress on operational integration largely due to U.S.-imposed technology use restrictions. Progress in maritime security has been more notable, with around-the-year coalition exercises and efforts to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). However, the U.S. tendency to highly classify information continues to prevent the level of information-sharing expected by GCC partners. Volumes of GCC-bound defense sales in themselves cannot be used as the test for U.S. commitment to regional allies and regional security, or indeed act as a substitute for a truly collaborative security architecture.

The bottom-line, simply, is that the U.S. – as a partner with the tremendous resources, capabilities, and technical expertise available at its disposal – has so far not assured the level of operational capability, interoperability and joint readiness required in the Arabian Gulf through a coordinated, time-sequenced effort with clear measures of effectiveness. In fact, the U.S. has traditionally chosen against regarding the GCC as a counterpart to engage Arabian Gulf allies on regional security, even selectively. Instead, the U.S. strategy has been to approach regional security almost entirely through layering its bilateral relationships with GCC states. Such a strategy has provided the U.S. space to pursue policies with fewer strings attached – often allowing it to bypass, diverge from, or even go in contradictory directions from those held by the majority of the region. It has also enabled the U.S. to develop a regional power projection based on the hub-and-spoke architecture with itself at the heart. This traditional approach owes to the intellectual stream within U.S. policymaking that apparently regards the GCC as a “third-party” political actor in regional security, and is reluctant to accept that security cooperation primarily developed the U.S.-GCC level would yield more than what can be achieved by Washington D.C. through individual bilateral partnerships.

Firstly, that traditional U.S. approach ignores the GCC consensus on emerging challenges to regional stability and underestimates the political resolve of the GCC to act collectively to meet shared threats. Secondly, by pursuing its strategy almost entirely through bilateral frameworks at the cost of prioritizing a U.S.-GCC framework, the U.S. undermines the prospects for a U.S.-GCC framework to deliver a synergistic force multiplier effect that is greater than the sum of its bilateral partnerships with individual GCC states. As with all other comparable organizations around the world, multinational consensus is not a granted starting point or finishing point for the GCC – rather, consensus-building is a cumulative and adaptive process which evolves and adjusts to changing circumstances and where persistence ultimately delivers agreement. However, the lack of political and policy investment the U.S. has made into partnering with regional states to develop cooperation at the U.S.-GCC level has combined with a form of U.S. political opportunism which has on occasion generated undesirable and potentially jeopardizing effects on the GCC consensus-building process from the outside.

However, the traditional rationales for justifying such a strategy which U.S. policymakers could be expected to raise in their defense are becoming less valid in the emerging context. As the process of strategic re-posturing by the U.S. in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility is implemented, new challenges and opportunities have arisen in U.S.-GCC relations – challenges and opportunities that can only truly be approached and addressed by moving the discussion increasingly into a U.S.-GCC strategic context, on the U.S. as well as the GCC sides. Officials from the U.S. are quick to point out that the GCC must take the lead on this to make headway at a political level for consensus-building within the GCC, however what is often ignored is that the U.S. is by far the most important external factor upon such a process and that Washington D.C., too, will need to address the issue of political will in its own terms to support such a process at multiple layers from the outside.

Any dismissive attitudes towards the potential role the U.S. can play within such a process discounts the enabling effect the U.S. can have, at both the political level by refraining from political opportunism while consensus-building is taking place, and then at the levels where stakeholders then progress to converting political consensus into the specific elements of a truly collaborative security architecture to be operationalized. Such a transformation on the U.S. side would be nothing short of a departure from its traditional approach to doing business in the Arabian Gulf – it would require Washington D.C. to establish new offices with new missions staffed by technical experts, review and recalibrate the human and technical resources it stations in the region, revisit how personnel and interagency cooperation more broadly is managed, and to establish new lines of communication to supplement those that have served its regional activities until now. Support must move beyond ministerial conferences and key leader engagements and result in reporting committees with sub-working groups prescribed specific objectives, timelines, and the appropriate resources.

Moreover, the longstanding reluctance of the United States to remove the technology and technical restrictions imposed upon GCC militaries that would enable them to implement operational integration between themselves continues to stoke frustration and even occasional suspicion. That reluctance suggests a possibility that the U.S. itself has serious reservations about enabling GCC militaries with the capabilities to undertake combined operations because that would displace the current hub-and-spoke architecture with the U.S. at the center with another network, which is more effective and also potentially less critically dependent on deployed U.S. assets and networks. If such theories are true, they reflect a serious trust deficit within the U.S. establishment despite the historical context of US relations with GCC states – most of which are as old as many of the GCC states themselves, and which have survived tests of loyalty spanning decades.

If the U.S.-GCC strategic alliance is to survive the global and regional rebalancing of power, the U.S. must address GCC perceptions on the lack of direction and commitment from Washington D.C. by removing policy and technical barriers that enhance collective GCC deterrence capabilities and enable true force interoperability through a collaboratively developed and time-sequenced implementation program. The U.S. will need to be more proactive and forthcoming in adapting its own deployment of technical resources to the region to facilitate and operationalize such a transformation. Despite the early political and financial investments such a transformation would need, the Arabian Gulf theatre would transform into one where deployed U.S. forces can interoperate with GCC forces in joint operations across a range of mission scenarios with a lean footprint and dominant battlespace awareness including shared early warning for warfighters and operators. Only then can true burden-sharing, which would radically reduce the operational, human, and financial burdens of protecting vital interests upon every individual stakeholder, be achieved and assure long-term regional stability.


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