Gulf Roundtable: The Expected and Unexpected Challenges of Building Partner Capacity in the Middle East
The United States embarked on efforts to build Gulf partners’ capacity in the 1980s and escalated these efforts substantially in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners allocated substantial increases in their defense budgets and made strategic investments in air defense systems and surface-to-air-missile platforms, Exum said. These efforts have yielded considerable gains in some areas, particularly ballistic missile defense, helping to lessen the burden on the United States to maintain deterrence. However, other gaps remain, and U.S. and Gulf perspectives on where future investments should be made have at times diverged.
Capacity Development Challenges
From a U.S. vantage point, Gulf states’ investments do not necessarily align with the nature of the threats they face, Exum said. Iran, which Gulf states consider the principal threat to their security, employs mostly asymmetrical tools, including armed proxies and special operations forces, in overwhelmingly land- and sea-based operations. However, Gulf states’ heaviest investments have been acquiring state-of-the-art systems for air-to-air combat. Considerably fewer resources have been dedicated to strengthening general purpose ground forces and naval forces. With the exception of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), most Gulf states have also not made strategic investments in the development of special operation forces or the particular capabilities needed for close air support.
From a U.S. vantage point, Gulf states’ investments do not necessarily align with the nature of the threats they face.
Exum posited that perceptions of prestige play a role in Gulf states’ preferences, as does the history of air power in recent Gulf military history. The hesitation of some U.S. decisionmakers to meet Gulf buyers’ demand for high-end aircraft has become a point of frustration in U.S.-Gulf defense relationships. Pressures also exist on the U.S. side, where some elected leaders have political incentives to keep production lines open to support a large number of jobs tied to the defense industrial base.
A key challenge for Gulf states moving forward will be better integrating their defense systems. For example, ballistic missile defense would be significantly enhanced by an integrated network of systems, not least because a network would give much quicker and more unambiguous information about the direction and speed of incoming missiles. Even so, political and structural factors have blocked the introduction of such a network, and existing multilateral bodies such as the GCC have failed to facilitate effective security cooperation. Exum argued that there is still a preference among many Gulf partners to work bilaterally with Washington rather than multilaterally with each other.
A key challenge for Gulf states moving forward will be better integrating their defense systems.
More broadly, differences between U.S. and Gulf goals and priorities raise questions for U.S. capacity-building efforts. One of the United States’ primary interests in developing partner capacity is to promote burden sharing, both politically and militarily. Yet, Gulf states have been reluctant to invest in some of the places where the United States would hope to see them assume a more active role. Iraq, where Iranian influence has left Gulf states wary of engagement, is one example. U.S. efforts at military burden-sharing also involve trade-offs, Exum argued. The United States has prioritized working within a multilateral coalition with Sunni Arab participation to confront the Islamic State. This approach brings certain advantages by lowering the human and material costs for the United States and by deepening partners’ sense of investment in the sustainability of success. Yet, working “by, with, and through” a diverse collection of stakeholders has also made for a more complex and protracted fight, Exum explained.
Moreover, both the United States and GCC powers have shown a degree of ambivalence towards the prospect of building fully independent Gulf defense capabilities, Exum argued. The Gulf is wary of a more extensive withdrawal of U.S. troops and infrastructure, which they view as a cornerstone of their deterrence against external threats. Meanwhile, the United States is mindful that greater self-sufficiency by allies may reduce its own degree of influence and access to partner operations. The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen has demonstrated some of these challenges, Exum argued. There, the United States sought to maintain a limited support role despite its differences with Gulf partners over tactics and strategy. In the end, the United States found itself absorbing the political costs of the war domestically and internationally while having a constrained ability to shape the conduct of the campaign.
Both the United States and GCC powers have shown a degree of ambivalence towards the prospect of building fully independent Gulf defense capabilities, Exum argued.
The Yemen conflict has been the first large-scale sustained combat experience for most Gulf forces, Exum argued. Most importantly, the campaign has highlighted weaknesses and gaps. Some countries, such as the UAE, have responded by expressing a desire to more actively review performance internally and by engaging U.S. counterparts in a dialogue about specific training and development needs. This openness represents a significant shift, Exum said, from the habitual reluctance of many Gulf partners to draw attention to perceived weaknesses. Yet, the reserved approach still prevails in much of the region, Exum assessed, noting that Saudi Arabia has shown less inclination to systematically analyze or disclose lessons learned. It may be difficult for Riyadh to do so while embroiled in an active conflict, Exum argued, but delaying until the conflict’s end may decrease the sense of urgency to make the generational investments needed to identify and act on areas for improvement.