Military exercises bring regional defense to the fore

Military exercises bring regional defense to the fore

Since the British withdrawal from the Gulf in the early 1970s, regional security has been maintained by the US military juggernaut. With bases in five of the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the US has used them as convenient platforms from which to conduct operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, while also maintaining Gulf security. 

As the British Army began its largest military exercise in 15 years with the Royal Omani Armed Forces last week, it would seem that regional instability has led to new developments in security. Given that the strategic priorities of the US government increasingly lie elsewhere, how Gulf states guarantee their security going forward is a matter of great importance.

Named Al-Shamoukh 2 and Saif Saree 3, the Omani-British operations will run into November. They are “the largest in the history of the Sultan’s Armed Forces,” said its chief of staff. As an important military test of equipment and personnel in hot climates, the exercises are central to proving both armed forces’ suitability to desert warfare. 

According to Brig. Zac Stenning, commander of the UK’s 1st Armoured Infantry Brigade — which is taking part — the British Army has been “transformed” following long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan since the last exercise in Oman in 2001.

Diplomatically, the exercises have been given the highest form of support. It has been stressed that they will improve the process of working with Oman, and demonstrate the UK’s ability to project a joint force in order to assist a close ally if needed, showing Britain to be a player both globally and in the Middle East. 

Given the strategic location of the Middle East, its position on key global shipping routes and its long-term role in the global economy, how the Gulf states seek to guarantee their security going forward is critical.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The UK’s Middle East Minister Alistair Burt described Oman as a “lynchpin” of the region on his arrival, noting the country’s expertise on “Yemen, Syria and wider Gulf issues.” In so publically committing to Oman’s defense, the British government is showing a commitment to the sultanate’s future security and gesturing toward playing a regional role going forward.

The US has an estimated 54,000 troops in the Middle East, with more than 10,000 at the Camp Doha army base in Kuwait, an estimated 5,000 at Al-Dhafra air base in the UAE, and its navy’s Fifth Fleet and more than 4,000 soldiers in Bahrain, supplemented by Al-Udeid air base in Qatar and a base in Oman. But despite the obvious importance of the region to the US in terms of energy security, there are serious concerns about the region’s long-term security.  

In arguably the most precarious moment in the Gulf states’ history, allied forces numbering some 750,000 gathered to liberate Kuwait in 1991. The operation was calculated by the US Congress to have cost $61.1 billion (equivalent to $96.5 billion in 2016). About $52 billion of that amount were paid by other countries, namely Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Given the development of non-hydrocarbon energy sources worldwide and a growing US lack of commitment to Middle East security, and the more limited financial resources of regional powers, it is increasingly hard to fathom such commitments in the face of a future regional crisis. 

The Gulf states occupy a constantly shifting and volatile region, making their military capability incredibly important. Iran’s ambitions, though not explicitly targeted at the GCC, have exacerbated longstanding fault lines. Taking into account its hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf, Iran’s paramilitary activities in Yemen and Syria have raised the stakes of the regional strategic game. 

This has drawn attention to the need for a long-term and inclusive Gulf security framework. The increased threats to regional security must be viewed with respect to the fallout from state collapse in Iraq and Syria, and the need to broaden security relationships and partnerships.

Occupying key global crossroads, the Gulf states will never be able to adopt a completely insular approach to their security. Given the strategic location of the Middle East, its position on key global shipping routes and its long-term role in the global economy, how the Gulf states seek to guarantee their security going forward is critical.

The current military exercises in Oman, following the opening of the first permanent British base in Bahrain for 47 years earlier this year, illustrate the UK government’s growing commitment to the security of the region. How leading global powers posture and maneuver so as to increase their military ties going forward will go some way to understanding regional security in the coming decades.
  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and adviser to private clients from London to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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