Why there is no need for new Gulf security structures
During the general debate of the UN General Assembly last month, world leaders came up with numerous proposals, some new and some refurbished, about Gulf security.
Some ideas were advanced with good intentions as a response to Iran’s drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations on Sept. 14. Some probably had ulterior motives. The Russian concept was based on effectively internationalizing Gulf security and does not take into consideration the local alliances already in place. Although most proposals were motivated by the September attacks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani cynically proposed a security system to be led by Tehran.
What most proposals had in common was the denial of local agency by the countries most threatened in the Gulf, ignoring their work of recent decades in establishing a fairly robust collective security system. The peace and security of the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait (and others) have been repeatedly threatened by Iran, its proxies and terrorists it has trained, armed and funded. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was set up in 1981 as a security organization in part as a response to Iran’s threats. The GCC is a political and economic body as well but, during the past 38 years, it has set up an elaborate security architecture, which was crowned last November with the appointment of Gen. Eid Al-Shalawi as general commander of the GCC Unified Military Command (GUMC).
Overseen by the joint chiefs of staff of the member states, the GUMC coordinates the work of all military services, including the land, naval, air force and air defenses of member states. Despite the recent intra-GCC difficulties, the joint chiefs of staff and other officers from the six GCC member states have been meeting regularly, intensifying their efforts since May due to Iran’s escalation of aggression against international shipping in the Gulf and oil installations on land.
Counterterrorism is a task handled by several GCC organizations, including the Secretariat in Riyadh and the GCC Police in Abu Dhabi, and overseen by the ministers of interior, who have been meeting despite intra-GCC differences. GCC counterterrorism efforts include addressing terrorism financing, extremism, and targeting and apprehending suspected terrorists, both foreign and domestic.
The GCC security architecture is based on collective defense. For example, Article II of the Mutual Defense Treaty, concluded in 2000 and ratified by all member states, stipulates that GCC security is indivisible and obliges all member states to act jointly to repel external aggression. The GCC emergency summit held in Makkah in May invoked this treaty and joint action has since intensified.
It is clear that Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states already have a collective security system, anchored around the GCC agreements and working with allies, partners and friends as needed.
One can draw important lessons from the events unfolding in northern Syria this month. When the US decided to withdraw its remaining troops from that region, a security vacuum was created. Turkey then launched its long-planned incursion into Syria. The 10-point accord reached between Turkey and Russia on Tuesday, dividing security roles among them, has clearly sidelined the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It upended previous US-SDF arrangements and replaced them with a new configuration between Russia and Turkey.
The most important lesson is that foreign partnerships are important but can be volatile and subject to considerations beyond local powers’ control. They are no substitute for regional collective defense arrangements. External partnerships are most useful when they complement a functioning locally-led collective defense.
A case in point is the Security and Defense Conference, which Saudi Arabia convened this week with the chiefs of staff from 18 countries — the six GCC states, Egypt, Jordan, the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, Pakistan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Gen. Fayyadh Al-Ruwaili, the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, chaired the gathering.
The meeting aimed at solidifying the Kingdom’s external partnerships and concluded with a joint communique adopting a solid unified position against the Sept. 14 attacks. The military leaders expressed their determination to work together to deter future attacks. They also voiced support for Saudi Arabia, stressing its right, together with its partners, to deter further attacks and defend its territory, vital infrastructure, and territorial waters.
The communique said that the 18 nations were working jointly to determine the best ways to support Saudi Arabia, focusing on the methods and operations necessary for defense and deterrence. They plan to meet again on Nov. 4 to discuss the modalities of that support.
Foreign partnerships are important but can be volatile and subject to consideration beyond local powers’ control.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Another example of timely joint work and effective partnership was the visit to Riyadh this week by US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who reiterated US support for Saudi Arabia and its determination to deter Iran’s aggression. Earlier, the US deployed additional troops to the Kingdom, in addition to Patriot missile batteries and dozens of fighter jets.
During his visit to Riyadh, Esper said he would soon urge NATO nations to contribute more to Gulf defense. This call was part of the US campaign to get its allies to shoulder more responsibility for Gulf security.
Thus the Gulf security architecture already exists. The foundation should be based on Saudi Arabia’s own efforts, those of its GCC allies, and the GCC’s well-established collective security instruments. It allows for the participation of the GCC’s external partners, as protecting international waterways and the freedom of navigation in the Gulf is a joint international responsibility. So far, “strategic partnerships” have been firmly established with a number of countries, notably the US in 2015 and the UK in 2016. The GCC and its member states have also launched “strategic dialogues” with dozens of countries and organizations with the aim of establishing effective, equal and mutually beneficial partnerships in all areas, including security, economy and culture.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1