How policy in the Arabian Gulf is evolving

The strategic culture in the Gulf region has historically been reactive and defensive. The War on Terror and the "Arab uprisings" have prompted a more proactive and aggressive foreign and domestic policy in the Gulf States.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir attends a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 18, 2016

Updated Jan 24, 2017
Omar Mohamed Omar Mohamed is a strategic and geo-political analyst based in the Gulf, with a focus on the regional military balance, counter-terrorism and the international relations of the Gulf states. @oomarGCC

It can be argued that were there ever a case for a truly natural alliance amongst a group of states, none would be more natural than the Gulf Cooperation Council.

All six of the GCC states have a shared identity, speak one language, share the same religion, and have populations with tribal and family links in at least one or more GCC countries. In recent times, these bonds have been further strengthened by members of the various royal families of the GCC states marrying into one another. These common threads have brought about a collective strategic culture and identity of being a Khaleeji Arab and a people (as a whole), who come from the peninsula where Islam was revealed. 

Most of the GCC states until the early 70s were protectorates of the British Empire. After gaining independence, many leaders in the countries that now form the GCC, treated the environment around them as a threat to their security. The 1979 revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1981 coup attempt in Bahrain (originating in Iran), and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, the need for such a union intensified and was signed into existence in 1981.

This strategic culture born from a common identity and shared threats has for the most part led to a defensive outlook in domestic and foreign policy with an increased focus on internal threats.

For at least a decade after the formation of the GCC, it became crucial to develop external alliances with either a super power or other non-GCC Arab states. Yet, there were many concerns in aligning with other Arab states who were viewed as having different values and agendas, and who may wish to intervene in internal matters, while an external super power could not be fully trusted, as has been noted by previous scholars.  

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait changed these concerns and led to a growing and strong informal security alliance with the United States. The invasion in many ways altered the perception of GCC states regarding an alliance with a superpower. Any threat to a GCC state would have a domino effect on other members of the council (and still would), and as such, a pervasive culture of collective defence has long been in the makings for the GCC.

While the strategic culture of the GCC states may be overwhelmingly similar, it does not mean they all necessarily follow the same path, and differences amongst the states has led to many issues and disputes in the past.

Once again today, the GCC states find themselves surrounded by threats on all sides. Daesh (ISIS) has taken over parts of Syria and Iraq, the Houthis (an Iranian proxy) have imposed themselves on the Yemeni people, gangs of violent Islamists run various parts of Libya, and Iran emboldened by the lack of international push-back against it, has adopted a much more aggressive and conflict-driven sectarian regional posture.

The strategic culture that was on display until now had been more reactive and defensive. Recent events in the region have caused a change in the strategic culture of the Gulf States.

Four GCC states are members of and have actively taken part in the US-led coalition fight against Daesh. They have also announced a joint military command, which is based in Saudi Arabia to be able to better counter threats from terrorism and Iran. Military and defense spending has been increasing at a rapid rate in recent years especially in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar. Not to forget the GCC military intervention in Yemen, something highly unlikely to have occurred in the past. 

The developments in the region, especially in the post 9/11 era and post “Arab uprisings”, have led to a serious cause of concern not only to the ruling elites of the GCC states, but amongst the general populace too. This, coupled with a view that the U.S. cannot be solely relied on anymore has led to a shift; from a strategic culture of defence, to a more proactive and offensive one, especially in the national strategies of these states.

The strategic culture of the Gulf states have also changed in other ways, for example, there have been a series of different political and economic reforms in the six states, with the goal of improving stability and security based on the principles of realpolitik..  

The collective strategic culture for GCC states, as discussed here, has shaped the national strategies of the six members.

Furthermore, while in terms of internal security the Gulf states have usually been on the same page, this collective strategic culture has led some states to adopt different foreign policies. For example, Qatar shares one of the world’s largest gas fields with Iran and is hesitant to duplicate the posture of some GCC states towards Iran. While Oman on the other hand has followed a policy of friendly relations with everyone. 

The strategic cultures of states is in many ways evolutionary in nature and one of the major alterations to a ‘culture’ occurs when the risk of threats are immense and real. The Middle East faces a whole range of such threats today and in the trajectory of this evolution, the GCC states have had to adapt. As the only stable political, economic and prosperous bloc in the region, it is of utmost importance that a forward leaning strategic culture take hold, especially in light of the increasingly precarious regional outlook.

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.