Mitigating the strains placed on Gulf security by virus and Iran
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has had a significant effect on Gulf security. Some old threats have intensified or mutated, while new ones are emerging as the pandemic spreads. New thinking is required.
First, the rapid spread of the pandemic throughout the region has strained health resources, government services and military plans. While the level of contagion, as measured by the number of confirmed infections and coronavirus-related deaths, is low in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries compared to Europe, America or East Asia, the pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on health services. The uncertainty about the future of the disease has put a hold on all non-emergency, non-coronavirus-related medical care.
Lockdowns, curfews, travel halts and social distancing rules, which have been put in place in most GCC states and security partner countries, have meant that some security and military activities have been postponed or modified to meet those restrictions.
There are no available precise figures on how the disease has affected military activity in the region, but the Pentagon reported last week that 3,578 US service members had tested positive for the virus, and at least 40 military ships had COVID-19 cases on them. The case of aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has demonstrated the potential for health emergencies aboard military ships. Similarly, in France, it has been reported that most of the military personnel aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle were infected, demonstrating the increased attrition on military activity caused by the pandemic.
Second, the economy has suffered greatly, with private sector solvency and fiscal sustainability both facing serious challenges as a result. Measures taken to contain COVID-19’s spread have significantly reduced economic activity, both within the GCC region and its trading partners. GCC economies are closely integrated with the world economy and thrive when the global economy is healthy. The economic slowdown has turned into a global recession with the onset of the disease, resulting in reduced demand for oil and petrochemicals, the mainstay of GCC trade. Export earnings took a hit not seen in decades as a result of the reduction in trade volumes, falling oil prices and supply chain disruptions.
Third, while Iran has been devastated more than most countries by the pandemic, its hard-liners are trying to use the disruption to their advantage and refurbish a reputation hurt by the loss of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, embarrassment over its downing of a Ukrainian airliner, and failure to contain the disease. In Iraq, for example, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is working through its proxies to harass US and global coalition forces with the expressed goal of forcing them out of the country. It has also continued its pressure on the newly designated prime minister to allocate key ministerial portfolios to its proxies and allied militias.
Fourth, in Gulf waters, the IRGC has increased its harassment of US forces in an apparent test of their response and a ploy to pressure America’s presence across the Middle East. Two weeks ago, the US released footage showing 11 armed IRGC vessels conducting dangerous and harassing approaches against US naval ships. This incident was an example of the IRGC’s recent tactics of deploying fast, small boats to challenge US ships’ presence in the Gulf. It has also increased the number of small submerged vessels deployed in the Gulf, posing a threat to marine shipping. These and other tactics undertaken since the onset of the pandemic are signs of an emboldened IRGC trying to take advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the coronavirus. President Donald Trump threatened severe consequences if such actions were repeated, but it is not clear the message was received clearly by the IRGC.
Fifth, in Yemen, after a long lull in the fighting, the Houthis have resumed military activity by attacking on several previously quiet fronts. Taken by surprise, government forces were forced to evacuate significant military positions. Following their mentors in Iran, the Houthis have ignored the pandemic and disregarded the toll it could exact on the civilians who were internally displaced as a result of their new military offensives. In addition, militiamen launched ballistic missiles and drones on government-held towns, in addition to targets in Saudi Arabia, mercifully causing only limited damage.
Sixth, Iran last week launched a military reconnaissance satellite in clear contravention of UN Security Council resolution 2231. This was another expansion of its missile and space program, which, in the words of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is “neither peaceful nor entirely civilian.”
Having COVID-19 and the IRGC both in overdrive represents a serious challenge to regional security. Combined with low oil prices and economic recession, it requires unity of purpose and action on the part of the GCC and its partners. This is not a time to question old alliances or exclude new ones. The GCC, its partners and the international community at large agree on the need to defeat the pandemic, lessen its socioeconomic impact, and restart the engines of economic growth. With only a small number of discordant voices, they are also united in opposition to Iran’s malign activities in the region.
What is needed is action to carry out these agreed notions. The pandemic has demonstrated the benefits, if not the necessity, of integrated action. Unified or at least coordinated action is needed. On the economic front, the GCC has intensified work during the pandemic to contain its spread and mitigate its financial and trade repercussions. Taking advantage of its G20 presidency, Saudi Arabia is coordinating the work of the group’s members, representing about 90 percent of the world economy, to achieve the same goals.
Having COVID-19 and the IRGC both in overdrive represents a serious challenge to regional security.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
On the security front, through permanent cooperation and joint exercises, the GCC Joint Military Command is working to strengthen and unify the existing military forces, strategic concepts and plans among GCC states. Joint exercises are conducted on a regular basis, as we saw earlier this year with GCC forces involved in training exercises in the Gulf despite the onset of the pandemic.
Beside regional integration, this is also the time to activate partnerships with other countries and blocs. The US is the most important strategic partner and will remain so. Frameworks already exist for coordinated action, including the Middle East Strategic Alliance and the GCC-US Strategic Partnership. Other GCC partnerships that have been cultivated over the years should play an important role in meeting these challenges. Whether their focus is trade or security, those ties can be brought into action without the risk of weakening US ties, which will remain paramount.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s 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 those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1