Security Challenges and Threats in the Gulf

A Net Assessment

Both Gulf and US policymakers need to reassess the priorities in dealing with the threats to the Gulf. Regardless of the outcome of the war in Iraq, both the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will need to adapt their forces to deal with the real-world threats in the region, and to make more effective efforts at cooperation, creating forces that are focused on real-world needs for deterrence and defense, and that examine the full range of threats and not the most obvious military and security issues.
The Burke Chair has prepared a new net assessment brief that provides an overview of both the trends in the Gulf military balance, and in the threats that the GCC states and allied outside powers like the US, UK, and France must deal with.

This assessment builds on a presentation prepared for the Royal United Service Institute, and presented at the Dimdex conference on maritime defense that was held in Doha on March 18, 2008. It presents a detailed set of tables, graphs, and maps describing the overall security situation in the Gulf.

The Evolving Range of Threats

The assessment concludes that the Gulf does not face abstract threats or abstract potential enemies. At this point in time, it faces seven very real security challenges:

  • Conventional Military Threats and the Lack of Unity and Mission Focus in the GCC
  • Asymmetric warfare and “Wars of Intimidation”
  • Iranian Missiles and Proliferation
  • Iraqi Instability
  • Energy and Critical Infrastructure
  • Terrorism
    • Region-wide impact of Neo-Salafi Islamist extremism. Franchising of Al Qa’ida, Sunni vs. Shi’ite tension, and its impact inside and outside the region
    • War in Afghanistan, potential destabilization of a nuclear Pakistan, and impact on proliferation and Islamist extremism in the Middle East
  • Demographics, Foreign Labor, and Social Change

In every case, the GCC states have the resources to develop an effective mix of deterrent and defensive capabilities that will be reinforced by support from the US, UK, and France. The key issues are whether they will act and whether they will act with the necessary degree of unity.

Conventional Military Threats and the Lack of Unity and Mission Focus in the GCC

The present lack of unity and effective leadership is the main the threat to the GCC states. Their problem is not the risk they will face a dominant foreign enemy, but rather that they will continue to bicker and fail to develop a proper degree of integration, interoperability, and effectiveness in performing key military missions. The main threat that the GCC state now face does not consist of Iran, Yemen, or terrorism, but their own leaders and their failure to look beyond petty feuding, fears of their own military and security forces, an obsession with buying different and better “glitter factor” weapons than their neighbors, and an unwillingness to come to grips with the details of creating effective joint forces.

It is almost absurd to describe Iran as a potential hegemon, or Yemen as a major threat, if the GCC states develop integrated battle management and command and control; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (IS&R), and mission-oriented interoperable or joint standing forces in critical areas like maritime security, mine warfare, and air and missile defense.

Yemen’s forces are now relatively small, poorly equipped with increasingly obsolescent equipment, lacking in readiness and sustainability, and are not trained or organized for power projection.  Iran has a military advantage in only one largely meaningless area: total manpower. (p. )  Iran cannot effectively use this advantage. It cannot hope to deploy large ground forces across the Gulf unless the GCC states and their allies remain passive, and – unless the GCC state fail to act to keep Iraq unified and under a national government – Iraq will act as a major buffer to any Iranian move to the West, and Kuwait will present the problem that any Iranian force concentration would have to cross a major water barrier, and any meaningful Iranian preparations for such action would be highly visible, provide extensive strategic warning, and be extremely vulnerable to air and missile attack.

The GCC has a lead in every other aspect of force building and conventional warfare capability. It has an almost incredible lead in military resources, and one that has steadily accelerated over time. During the last decade, the GCC states have spent an average of more than seven times as much on national security as Iran. (They have signed new arms import orders that are some 16 times larger since the end of the Gulf War ($89 billion for the GCC versus $5.6 billion for Iran).

In short, the highest single priority for Gulf security is for the GCC heads of state to end the threat that they pose to their own countries and to focus on the following priorities:

  • Leaders must take deterrence, conflict prevention, and defense as seriously as their militaries.
  • End pointless intra-state feuding; create a real GCC
  • Interoperability and standardization versus glitter factor and prestige buys. Coordinated requirements and procurement planning.
  • Focus on key mission needs.
  • Integrated battle management and IS&R.
  • Standardized, demanding, real-world CPX and FTX training, contingency plans and doctrine.
  • Joint warfare planning, end stove piping, and prepare for real time defense in breadth and width.
  • Establish partnership with US, UK, and France; not just de facto dependence.

Asymmetric Warfare and “Wars of Intimidation”

The fact that the GCC is the major threat to the GCC does not mean that Iran does not pose real and tangible threats, or that the Southern Gulf states can ignore the risk that other neighboring states, or non-state actors, pose a threat in the form of asymmetric warfare.
The most likely real-world threats do not come from formal conflicts, but rather from a wide range of low level conflicts, threats or “wars of intimidation,” and unofficial wars of attrition. Many of these potential conflicts have already taken place in a previous form. The GCC states also cannot afford to ignore the particular threat posed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, particularly its naval branch and Al Quds force. These latter forces are particularly important because a number of their exercises – although nominally defensive – practice tactics and actions that lend themselves to the use of threats and asymmetric warfare against Southern Gulf states.

The GCC states also need to pay careful attention to the worst-case scenario for such Iranian action: major efforts to limit maritime traffic through or into the Gulf. As is the case with less severe scenarios, the problem is not that Iran has any clear intentions to initiate such conflicts today. It is rather that these are the most likely forms of Iranian attack in some unforeseen crisis, represent the most severe challenges to GCC forces organized to meet more conventional threats, and are the highest priority in terms of maintaining a high level of deterrence and rapid response capability.

Iranian Missiles and Proliferation

US intelligence estimates, and IAEA reports, indicate that there will probably be several more years to attempt diplomatic solutions to Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, although Iran is already actively acquiring long-range missiles and may be developing chemical and biological weapons for them.
While Iran has denied that it has a nuclear program, and has described its missile programs largely as threats to Israel and the US, it is clear that most of its current forces have ranges suited to strike targets in the Gulf, and that its efforts to strengthen such forces are largely directed towards enhancing its security presence in the Gulf region, and giving it more deterrent capability and leverage against the US and GCC states.
The GCC can wait for diplomacy to determine whether there is a nuclear threat for time being, but its need to start considering the following alternatives now:

  • Ballistic and cruise missile defenses maybe cost-effective simply to deal with conventional threat.
  • A number of systems offer both improved air and missile defense.
  • Need quiet talks with US on containment options; extended deterrence.
  • Open support for IAEA and diplomatic options key passive approach.


Iraqi Instability

Regardless of what the GCC states think of the US invasion of Iraq, they will face a massive increase in their future threat level if Iraq does not remain unified, if the US fails to help Iraq achieve security and stability, and if Iraq does not move forward in political accommodation and development.
Helping Iraq build up its own forces, actively supporting efforts at political accommodation from within Iraq, and foreign aid are all key steps the GCC state could take to enhance their security and help the Iraqi people.

Energy and Critical Infrastructure

The GCC states face special security problems because of the location and nature of their critical infrastructure. This increases their vulnerability to Iranian threats and use of asymmetric warfare, but also to terrorists and states using non-state actors as proxies.

It is also critical that GCC states recognize that if they do not create effective deterrent and defense capabilities, outside states will come under extreme pressure to intervene to protect their energy supplies. Energy also is only part of the problem. The GCC states already have an extraordinary vulnerability because of their dependence on desalination and electric power facilities located on or near the Gulf coast. This vulnerability will increase readily, growing by some 60% by 2020.

As a result, the Gulf states need to give the active and passive defense of critical infrastructure, and suitable response capability, higher priority in the future, and examine ways to cooperate to reduce the vulnerability of any one set of facilities or GCC state.


The threat of terrorism remains a major problem, and one that requires steady improvements in GCC cooperation, both within the GCC and with outside states. It also requires a steady improvement in “jointness” between military, paramilitary, law enforcement, and intelligence forces.

Region-wide impact of Neo-Salafi Islamist extremism. Franchising of Al Qa’ida, Sunni vs. Shi’ite tension, and its impact inside and outside the region
While counterterrorism capabilities in the GCC states have improved strikingly since 2001, there is still a wide range of hostile organizations in the region. Al Qa’ida in the Peninsula also remains a serious problem, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Further major action is needed to:

  • Directly engage in ideological struggle for the future of Islam and religious legitimacy.
  • Continue to strengthen counterterrorism forces and capabilities.
  • Improve cooperation in GCC in counterterrorism and intelligence.
  • Strengthen border, coastal, and port security.
  • Reduce sectarian tensions and discrimination.
  • Fairer treatment of foreign labor.
  • Strengthen bilateral cooperation with U.S. and Europe.
  • Strengthen cooperation with Interpol, UN, and other regional counterterrorism centers.
  • Aid Yemen and poorer regional states.

War in Afghanistan, potential destabilization of a nuclear Pakistan, and impact on proliferation and Islamist extremism in the Middle East

US intelligence estimates indicates that the center of Al Qa’ida activity remains in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the fighting in Iraq is now almost peripheral to the broader threat that Al Qa’ida poses to the region. The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is also deteriorating in spite of NATO/ISAF and US tactical victories in Afghanistan.

The GCC states cannot intervene in this situation in a military sense, but they do have several options that can reduce this threat from outside the region:

  • Help Afghanistan and Pakistan directly engage in ideological struggle for the future of Islam and religious legitimacy.
  • Development aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Continued support for US and NATO/ISAF deployments.
  • Act to prevent transfers of funds, “volunteers,” and suspect personal movements.

Demographics, Foreign Labor, and Social Change

Finally, the GCC states should not see security solely in terms of military threats or terrorism. GCC security depends at least as much on successful development, job creation and productive employment, and equitable income distribution. Much depends on meeting two key challenges: finding jobs for a wave of native young men and women that will steadily increase the size of the labor force through 2050. The second is to ensure that foreign labor is given proper wages and protection.

The GCC states face a steady near term population growth. Their population rose by 5 million during 2000 and 2005 and will rise by 6.6 million more between 2005 and 2010. At the same time, the GCC states already have the lowest native participation in the labor force in the world, and a nearly 40% overall dependence on foreign labor. There are also gross differences in per capita income even from state to state and these are even more acute within given states.

More broadly, population growth will continue to be a major problem through 2050, and a youth bulge will present major problems for job creation through at least 2030.

If the GCC states are to deal with security with any real effectiveness, they must also consider the following realities:

  • There is no lasting hope of security that does not offer Gulf youth meaningful careers and fair distribution of income.
  • Economic and social development are critical aspects of security and key aspects of counterterrorism.
  • Job creation means reducing dependence on foreign labor, but security means give foreign labor more rights, protection, and fair wages.
  • Education and private domestic and foreign investment are twin tools to making native labor globally competitive.
  • Must develop the GCC, not leave some states with critical disparities in per capita income.
  • No global competitiveness if women are excluded.