Gulf Security: Looking Beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council

By Anthony Cordesman

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The 38th summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was held in Kuwait on December 5, 2017. The meeting's impact can politely be described as the "sound of one hand clapping." More realistically, it can be described as the sound of several clenched fists. It had to be cut from a two-day session to a one-day session because of the feuding between Qatar and a hostile mix of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE did not send heads of state. However, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash; Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel Al Jubeir; Bahrain’s deputy prime minister, Mohammed bin Mubarak; and Oman’s deputy prime minister, Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud, did attend. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, did attend, and the meeting was overseen by Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah—who has led the GCC effort to reconcile Qatar and its neighbors. But, this was not the kind of representation that could move anything forward, and the meeting fell apart before its second session could begin.

Nothing happened to ease the tensions that had led Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar on June 5, 2017; and had led Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain to give Qatari citizens 14 days to leave their territory while banning their own citizens from travelling to or residing in Qatar.

The most that Kuwait's presiding Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah could say after months of effort to settle the dispute between the four states was that, "The last six months have witnessed a rift in our Gulf home, but we must look to rebuild as the GCC has achieved a great many things, and still has a long road ahead," and that the leaders of the GCC had calmed the situation in spite of, "negative developments and sorrowful events," and that "any dispute on the Gulf level must not affect the continuation of the summit.” The only positive development—if it was one —was that Sheikh Al Sabah also announced the creation of a committee to modify the statute setting up and defining the role of the GCC.

Earlier that morning, however, and before the GCC Summit even began, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs also announced a new "joint cooperation committee"—separate from the GCC—that would form a new military and trade partnership between the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and that was "assigned to cooperate and coordinate in all military, political, economic, trade and cultural fields, as well as others, in the interest of the two countries."

The Crumbling Facade of a Long, Hollow, and Ineffective Alliance

There are still some shreds of quiet military cooperation in spite of the resulting boycott of Qatar. Qatar's head of state did come to the meeting, but there were no signs of meaningful compromise or that there is any prospect that the decades of failing to create an effective military alliance will come to an end. Bad as the recent divisions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are, they are only part of the story.

It is unfair to say that the current internal divisions within the Arab Gulf have killed the GCC, but only because it has never really been alive. The years of vacuous rhetoric about security cooperation that have come out of past GCC summit meetings, and the even more vacuous rhetoric filled with good intentions that have come out of the Manama Dialogues, have always been a facade.

To the extent there now is serious real-world military cooperation between the Gulf states—or between the Arab states in general—consists of the emergence of a de facto alliance between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is the alliance doing virtually all of the fighting, backing Hadi against the Houthis in the civil war in Yemen. The one truly advanced cooperative Gulf command and control and intelligence facility in the Gulf is the Saudi Air Force combined air command facility in Riyadh, where the vast majority of the air operations are Saudi and UAE.

There has been no meaningful GCC-wide cooperation in creating major common training facilities that are properly used to conduct common training, maintenance, or military production. There is no meaningful effort at standardization, and only minimal internal effort to ensure interoperability. The GCC has talked about critical future improvements like missile defenses, but seems to be more interested in the "glitter factor" of acquiring the most advanced systems than creating an effective collective ballistic missile defense system—much less integrating it with an effective Gulf-wide air and cruise missile defense system. Gulf navies have recognized the need for an effective mix of integrated, mission-oriented naval forces tied to an integrated maritime/air surveillance and battle management system. Progress has been grindingly slow and left many gaps.

Part of the reason for these failures has been the sheer depth of national tensions and differences. Ministerial image building has papered over a lasting lack of real-world cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Oman—one that has had a critical impact on efforts to create integrated planning and operating capabilities since the GCC was founded in May 1981—well over three decades ago. These are long standing divisions that have led Oman to stand aside from the Saudi-UAE campaign in Yemen and quietly aid Qatar during the current boycott.

Similar differences have led Kuwait to focus on its security links to the U.S. in spite of the role its Arab allies played in liberating it from Saddam Hussein. They also are a reason why Kuwait now plays a key role in trying to mediate between Qatar and Saudi Arabia/UAE/Bahrain. Kuwait's location near Iran and Iraq makes it the most exposed state in the GCC. The lack of any clear GCC plan to contain and deter Iran, and deep national differences on how to deal with Iran, make it as dependent on the U.S. today as it was in 1991.

Similar national differences exist in dealing with Iraq: the fact it is now governed by a Shi'ite majority, and that is experiencing a post-"caliphate" struggle for influence between the U.S. and Iran. The role of Iraq—a major Gulf power—remains highly uncertain. So, however, does the role of Jordan—where rhetoric about including it in the GCC has only led to limited action.

The U.S. as a Substitute for the GCC—If the Gulf Arab States Can Rely Upon It

In practice, most of the real-world Arab Gulf country efforts at common training, exercises, and command are developed as combined U.S. and Arab Gulf state exercises by the United States 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain, and the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Qatar. It is also the U.S. that would have to provide key elements of battle management, command and control, IS&R, and combat support in a serious conflict.

Figure One lists all of the major arms sales and deliveries to each Arab Gulf state from 2016-2017. It covers only a relatively brief period in U.S. support to each Arab partner, and the bulk of the transfers that now shape Arab Gulf forces took place in previous years. Nevertheless, it still shows that the U.S. does far more than sell weapons to the individual Gulf states.

Figure One illustrates the extent to which the U.S. also provides training, maintenance, combat support, and service support to each GCC state and Iraq, as well as support and technology battle management for command and control, IS&R, and counter-terrorism weapons, training and technology. Moreover, European states Britain and France provide similar support, most of it interoperable with U.S. forces as well as their own power projection forces.

These U.S. transfers are why Saudi Arabia and the UAE now have an Air Operations Center in Riyadh with the capability to conduct relatively large air campaigns if they do not face major missile threats and a need to suppress extensive air defenses, and can integrate other Gulf air forces to some degree. If it came to a major war against Iran, however, the Saudi air battlement management facility would face serious limits in managing the overall conflict, and there would not be meaningful GCC-wide battle management advanced facilities without U.S. aid.

It is the U.S. that would have to provide the real-world core of any advanced air-land-naval-missile battle management, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (IS&R) capabilities for the Arab Gulf. In a major conflict with Iran, the U.S. would play a key role in shaping and conducting any major cooperative land/air operation—just as it did against Saddam Hussein's forces in 1991.

The U.S. would have to coordinate any war against the mix of asymmetric naval/missile/air forces Iran has developed to close the Gulf, and lead any operations against Iran's submarines and smart mines. U.S. AEGIS missile defense ships would now have to provide any theater-level missile defense, as well as warning and characterization of missile launches. Advanced as some Gulf Air Forces are, the U.S. would also have to plan and manage any major campaign to suppress Iranian air defenses and conduct a major air and cruise missile campaign deep into Iran.

The GCC also failed to provide effective cooperation in dealing with far less demanding problems. It has failed to develop an integrated effort to deal with the crises in Syria or Lebanon, and member states competed in dealing with various anti-Assad factions. It has failed to deal collectively with Turkey's growing role in Syria or Iraq, and the fact Turkey has supported Qatar in compensating for the impact of the Saudi/UAE/Bahrain boycott. It also has not addressed the reemergence of Russia in the region, the major role it now plays in Syria, the fact it has sold advanced systems like the S300 air defense system to Iran, or the impact of Russian arms purchases by GCC states.

The GCC also has made only limited real-world progress in integrating its approach to fighting extremism and terrorism, and preparing for counterinsurgency campaigns and asymmetric warfare and raids. Key differences over whether to focus on suppression/repression or deal with the more moderate elements of Islamic movements and focus on reform were a key reason for the split between Qatar and the Saudi/UAE/Bahrain/Egypt.

A decade and a half after 2001, and more than a decade after Al Qaida launched major attacks on Saudi targets, Saudi Arabia is organizing major national efforts to deal with such challenges and most GCC countries have steadily improved their national counterterrorism efforts and internal security forces. GCC-wide cooperation and integration, however, are no better in dealing with extremism and terrorism than military threats.

If You Can't Be a Real Alliance, Have Your Members Outspend Your Potential Opponents and Partner with the U.S.

A "hollow" GCC may not matter: if the individual Gulf states buy major weapons (like the Saudi purchase of THAAD missile defenses and Qatari F-15QAs that are interoperable with the best U.S. weapons and technology), if the U.S. stays fully committed in the Gulf and does not make more blunders like invading Iraq and its indecisiveness in Syria, and if Iranian influence over Iraq remains limited. The Gulf states will also be aided by the fact that British and French power projection forces play an important role.

Moreover, no matter how inefficient, wasteful, and uncoordinated the military and internal security efforts of the individual GCC states now are, the members of the GCC are able to vastly outspend Iran on military forces and modernization, and have long had far better access to the most advanced U.S. and European weapons and military technology.

Comparative estimates of Gulf military spending and arms transfers are shown in Figure Two to Figure Four. Figure Two shows the comparative trends in GCC, Iranian, Iraqi, and Yemeni national security spending, that spending as a percent of GDP, and the manning of active and reserve forces in 2014-2016. Figure Three shows the longer-term trend in comparative GCC, Iranian, Iraqi, and Yemeni national security spending.

While the current totals of GCC military spending are uncertain because of the lack of data on the UAE, it seems likely that the spending of all GCC countries in 2016-2017 totaled around $120 billion a year. This compares with no more than $16-20 billion for Iraq and $18-$20 billion for Iran. Saudi Arabia alone spent three to five times as much as Iran each year during 2014-2016.

Figure Four shows the GCC country advantage in arms imports was even greater. The first part of Figure Four draws on a Congressional Research Center study using declassified official U.S. estimates of GCC, Iranian, Iraqi, and Yemeni arms transfers. It shows that the GCC took delivery on $120.7 billion in arms deliveries during 2008-2015, while Iran took delivery on some $400 million worth. It also concluded that the GCC placed $199.7 billion worth of new arms orders during 2008-2015, while Iran placed some $900 million worth.

The second half of Figure Four shows the longer-term trends in the total cost of the U.S. arms sales shown in Figure One. It shows that the U.S. delivered $123 billion worth of military technology and services between 2000 and 2016, with $107 billion going to Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone. At the same time, the GCC states placed $215 billion in new orders, with $118 billion of the total going to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Iran got nothing.

The vast majority of Saudi and UAE purchases during 2008-2015, amounting to some $80.2 billion out of a total of $119.2 billion—were driven by access to advanced U.S. arms and technology. Most of the rest—$36.4 billion worth—came from equal access to the most advanced European arms.

The Limits to Future Success and the Risk of GCC Country Self-Destructiveness

Iran is heavily reliant on systems that date back to the Shah and low-grade imports. Its efforts in-country production have only had mixed success, and Iran seems no more efficient in using its military expenditures and arms transfers. Accordingly, even the air and naval forces of the larger GCC states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE should have an advantage over Iran if they act on their own. They should have a far greater advantage if they can rely on a partnership with US military forces and U.S. help in operational planning, command and control, and IS&R.

The keys to such success, however, are that the U.S. continues to be a strong and effective strategic partner, that Iran does not go nuclear, that Iraq does not become an Iranian ally, and that GCC states put an end to the current pointless divisions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia/UAE/Bahrain and the GCC does not divide further in other ways.

Here, it is critical to remember that Iran may be hostile, and certainly has its ambitions, but it also is driven by the memory of the eight year-long Iran-Iraq War and its hundreds of thousands of Iranians dead and critically wounded, and by the ease with which the U.S. defeated Iraq.

Iran also did not expand its regional influence into Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, and parts of the UAE because of its military superiority or the brilliance of Persian plotting. Iran exploited the obvious fault lines created by the fact the U.S. badly mismanaged the post- invasion aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and its military intervention in Syria. Above all, Iran succeeded because it could take advantage of Arab country divisiveness, self-destructiveness, and failures to meet the needs of their people.

If there are any clear lessons from this history about the real-world prospects for cooperative deterrence, containment, and war fighting in the Gulf, the first is that the GCC is extremely unlikely to evolve into an effective Arab alliance – just as other efforts to create broad Arab alliances have consistently been strong on rhetoric and hopelessly weak on reality in the past. There is nothing wrong with a GCC façade if Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain can be reconciled with Qatar, but a façade is a façade and a hollow alliance is dangerous the moment it is taken seriously.

The second is that the mistakes the U.S. has made in Iraq from the past to the present—its indecisiveness in Syria, its lack of a clear policy in dealing with war in Yemen, and its tendency to emphasize arms sales rather than effective strategic partnership—can be as dangerous as Arab divisiveness, as can any uncertainty about the willingness of the U.S. to sustain its strategic partnerships and come to the aid of its Arab allies in the Gulf. If the Arab Gulf states need to come together, the U.S. needs to show that it will be a reliable and consistent strategic partner at the political and policy levels, and not simply in military-to-military terms.

Iran, regional instability, and extremism seem certain to pose serious threats indefinitely into the future, and the 18 million barrels a day of petroleum and the LNG that flow through the Strait of Hormuz each day remain a key part of a stable global economy and a critical U.S. strategic interest.

And, Reform and Internal Stability Come First

An effective Arab and U.S. strategic partnership is also critical to reducing Gulf Arab state overspending on national security at a time when most need serious internal reform to create the kind of economies and employment that will counter extremism and bring internal stability. The U.S. needs to remember that arms sales profits are less important than effective strategic partnerships.

The GCC states need to remember that military overspending has major liabilities as well as limited benefits. Military overspending undermines their internal stability, ability to meet popular needs and demands, and ability to carry out economic development and social modernization and reform.

Figure Two to Figure Four may reflect Gulf state ability to outspend Iran on military forces and internal security, but they are also a warning to the Gulf states—and to the U.S. and European states that sell them arms. Most GCC states have the benefit of major petroleum earnings, but these benefits do not provide balanced development, create large numbers of jobs, or meet the domestic needs of their sharply growing and very young populations. All of the Gulf states need to use as much of their resources as possible to fund major internal economic and social reforms to properly employ their steadily growing populations and particularly their young men and women.

Accordingly, the levels of military spending and arms imports in these Figures are a warning that many Gulf states are spending far too much of their total GNP on security to fund the level of civil spending and development they need. Some outside estimates put the Saudi percentage of GNP at an even higher 14% in 2017, and the UAE percentage as 8% or more.

Oman's reported figures indicate that it is grossly overspending, although its forces and arms imports do not seem to justify such spending. Bahrain's percentages are not exceptionally high, but Bahrain needs to put as many resources into reform as possible. Iraq is outside the GCC, but is military spending levels are far too high for a country that desperately needs to fund recovery, jobs and economic reform.

It is one of the ironies of military overspending that it aids external security at the cost of internal security and stability. The failure of the Arab Gulf states to develop the kind of savings and efficiencies that could come from a really effective GCC may well have led to levels of over-spending on security that pose more of a civil threat than the benefits they offer in security.

To view the full report with figures, visit

Other recent Burke Chair reports on Gulf Security

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy