Improving the US-GCC Security Partnership: Planning for the Future

The US and its allies in the Southern Gulf face great challenges, but they also have great opportunities. The P5+1 dialogue with Iran offers at least some hope of ending the threat posed by Iranian nuclear weapons, and of reducing the risk of further proliferation, if a comprehensive agreement is structured in a way that can eliminate the threat to the Southern Gulfs, the other states in the region, and the US.

More generally, however, improvements in the military forces of the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and in US power projection capabilities can create a far more effective deterrent against the threats posed by Iran, other regional states, and non-state actors. Additionally, enhanced military capabilities can help safeguard the flow of petroleum exports that are critical for the global economy.

The key question that both the US and Southern Gulf states face is whether they can take advantage of both their current military lead and the massive investments they are making in new weapons and technology. At present, the debate over US and Gulf relations tends to focus on the fear that the US is cutting its military capabilities to the point it can no longer protect its Gulf allies. Conspiracy theories in the Gulf suggest that the US is somehow planning to shift its alliances to Iran and in some variants from Sunnis to Shi’ites.

What is even more serious in terms of real world problems is that divisions between the Southern Gulf states have prevented the GCC from making effective use of its forces and military resources, and recent feuding has made this situation far worse. Key GCC states seem more committed to deepening their differences rather than creating an effective security structure.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed a new assessment of the military balance in the Gulf, US strategy and force plans for the Gulf area, GCC military spending and arms transfers, and the strengths and weaknesses of the Gulf Cooperation council. This analysis is entitled Improving the US-GCC Security Partnership: Planning for the Future, is available on the CSIS web site at

This draft has been prepared for a conference on US and Gulf relations being held by the Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha in June 2102, and it is being circulated for comment and revision before than conference. It makes several key arguments:

  • First, the military balance in the region already is far more favorable to the Southern Gulf states than many commentators seem to realize.
  • Second, US strategy and force plans remain fully committed to supporting Americans current partners in the Middle East and to the Southern Gulf states.
  • Third, the US is seeking to work with its allies in the P5+1 to find a peaceful solution to the potential threat from Iranian nuclear weapons, but continues to see Iran as a source of other threats to the region and as a key contingency for US force planning.
  • Fourth, the US does face budget pressures, but its current force plans still leave it with a decisive capability to intervene in the Gulf area, it is maintaining its core presence in the region, and several new aspects of its power projection capabilities – like the F-35 – will make dramatic improvement in US capabilities.
  • Fifth, the Southern Gulf states are collectively spending far more on military forces than Iran and have a truly massive advantage in arms imports in terms of both size of investment and quality of arms.
  • Sixth, the major problem the Southern Gulf states arte their own divisions and failures to develop integrated force plans and truly interoperable forces. These are not the result of outside threats. They are self-inflicted wounds.
  • Finally, there are institutional solutions to improving the Gulf Cooperation Council that can solve these problems without sacrificing national sovereignty, that will make each country’s forces and military spending far more effective, and will greatly improve their ability to work with outside partners like the US, Britain, and France.

The key challenge for both the Southern Gulf states and their outside allies is whether they can find ways to work together, or choose to remain divided and become steadily weaker in dealing with potential threats in the process.
Five other studies by the Burke Chair explore various aspects of these issues at far more length: