TSG IntelBrief: The GCC Assertive Foreign Policy: Force Multiplier for the United States
May 9, 2012
As of mid-May 2012, the Arab Gulf monarchy states, linked in a political and economic alliance called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Oman) continue to play a far more active role in the Middle East than at any time since this alliance was formed in 1981. Always fearful of the ambitions of Iran, for much of its first decade, the GCC states protected their interests by financially supporting Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. As that war spilled over into the Arab Gulf itself in the mid-1980s, threatening GCC oil exports, the GCC began to enter into a close alliance with the United States as a security guarantor for the Gulf.
The U.S.-GCC alliance solidified after the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which essentially swallowed up a GCC member (Kuwait) until U.S. forces expelled Iraq in February 1991. For the subsequent ten years, under formal defense pacts signed between the United States and most of the GCC states, the Gulf countries hosted U.S. air operations, prepositioned U.S. armor, and provided bases for U.S. troops to contain Iraq power and deter any Iranian aggression. The strategic threat from Iraq was extinguished with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but the aftermath of the invasion resulted in significant expenditures of U.S. lives and money, and produced a sense of war-weariness in the United States. Still, it was clear to all the GCC rulers that they must continue to rely on even a war-weary and fiscally troubled United States to be the ultimate guarantor of Gulf security.
Arab Spring Brings Change
The Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011 convinced the GCC leaders that they could use to great effect their ample financial resources – as well as their tribal, language, and cultural ties throughout the Middle East ― to partly compensate for U.S. war weariness, financial difficulties, and fading influence in the Middle East. The first opportunity was found in Libya, where the United States and its European allies were willing to intervene to assist the rebellion, but with limited air operations and no ground intervention whatsoever. In this instance, several Gulf states undertook perhaps the most assertive action outside the Gulf ever undertaken by these countries. Qatar provided approximately US$ 400 million worth of equipment and training to the Libyan rebels, and its Special Forces reportedly aided the rebels in their August 2011 drive that captured Tripoli. Qatar, along with the UAE, devoted strike aircraft in support of the no-fly zone as well as precision bombing munitions. The rebellion succeeded and, perhaps in recognition of the leading role of Qatar, hoisted the Qatari flag over Qaddafi’s captured Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli.
The GCC states, as part of the “Friends of Syria” international working group, have attempted to adapt the Libya playbook to Syria. Their purpose in doing so is to support a goal they share with the United States ― to topple Bashar Al Assad, Iran’s closest Arab ally, and thereby weaken Iran strategically. With the United States attempting, with mixed success, to work diplomatically to build a U.N. Security Council coalition designed to push Bashar Al Assad from power, the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have already begun to provide funds ― and reportedly also arms ― to the Syrian opposition. The United States has refused to provide the Syrian rebels with anything other than humanitarian aid, though not because it believes more lethal support would be counterproductive, but rather because diplomatic efforts have not yet persuaded Russia and China that Assad must be toppled.
In Yemen, the GCC has achieved perhaps its most significant diplomatic success. Without intervening directly as it did in Libya or is doing in Syria, the GCC leveraged its aforementioned cultural and tribal connections within Yemen ― as well as its considerable financial muscle ― to become the lead diplomatic actor in brokering a roadmap for a transfer of power from longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. GCC diplomacy ultimately proved successful as Saleh finally, after many months of delay, left Yemen permanently in January 2012 and handed power to his vice president, the key provision of the GCC roadmap.
Causes for Concern About GCC Assertiveness
Although the three cases above demonstrate how the GCC states can support U.S. goals in the Middle East, the GCC states often have their own agendas that can be at odds with the United States or, at least, dissonant with U.S. values. No clearer a case is there than that of Bahrain, which is itself a GCC state and therefore falls under the GCC rubric that the council must manage its own affairs. The uprising in Bahrain that began in February 2011 poses a clear challenge for the GCC states in that a majority Shiite population has risen up against a Sunni minority-dominated government that is solidly aligned with its GCC sister states. While the United States has sought a middle ground ― criticizing the government of Bahrain for its use of force against protesters and urging additional reforms while, at the same time, praising the government’s past reforms ― Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states have drawn a line in the sand.
With the GCC military intervention in Bahrain in March 2011 in support of the government, Saudi Arabia and the other council leaders signaled that a Shiite rebellion in a GCC state would not be allowed to succeed, and that the organization would collectively take action directly to protect one of its members even if doing so contravened the wishes of the United States. Saudi Arabia has decisively sided with hardliners in the Bahrain royal family who oppose dramatic reform, even though the lack of such reform has prevented resolution of the Bahrain crisis. Like the GCC states, the United States fears that Iran might benefit if the Shiite majority were to come to power in Bahrain, but America’s prominent international role as a forceful advocate for human rights and democracy has forced it to mute that concern in the case of Bahrain.
There are other cases that suggest the United States should hesitate to provide unconditional support for a more assertive GCC foreign policy. The GCC states are Arab Muslim states with highly problematic human rights records and far less skepticism about empowering Islamist movements than is the United States. The GCC states have also been far less worried than the United States that Islamist movements might benefit from the revolutions in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria. For its part, the U.S. is deeply concerned that the Arab Spring is far more likely to produce tension in the region than it is to foster a more constructive development such as an Arab-Israeli peace.
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