GCC Military Command or a More Open Society

Saudi Military exercises

On 30th April 2014, Saudi Arabia staged its largest-ever military exercises codenamed “Abdullah’s Shield” after the kingdom’s 91-year old ruler and coinciding with the ninth anniversary of his ascension to the throne. The exercises involved 130,000 Saudi troops and showcased some of the latest weapons purchased by the kingdom from the United States and China, including the Chinese CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles with a range of 2,650 kilometers (1,646 miles) which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The Chinese version of these missiles is already equipped with nuclear warheads. This was the first time that these missiles had been seen in public in Saudi Arabia.

unnamedCrown Prince Salman presided over the exercises, which were also watched by a number of prominent foreign guests, including King Hamad of Bahrain and more pointedly by Gen. Raheel Sharif, the Pakistani chief of the army Staff. There have been persistent rumors over many decades that in return for Saudi funding of the Pakistani nuclear weapons’ program, Pakistan had committed to provide nuclear warheads for CSS-2 missiles, should Saudi Arabia decide to have them. Earlier in the year when Prince Salman visited Pakistan, he personally invited Gen. Sharif to be his guest at the exercises. Pakistani media stressed the point that Gen. Sharif had gone to Jeddah “on the invitation of Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud to witness the military exercise…”1

With the exception of Bahrain’s ruler, none of the other GCC rulers watched the exercises. The guests included the crown prince of the UAE, the prime minister of Jordan and military commanders from some GCC states, but Qatar pointedly did not send any representatives. This was yet another sign of a growing rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A unified GCC Command and Monetary Union

At the GCC summit held in Kuwait in December 2013, the Saudis called for a unified GCC military command to have 100,000 forces, half of which would be contributed by the Saudis. 2 However, other GCC members opposed the idea as they saw it as a way of consolidating Saudi domination of other GCC states and affirming Saudi Arabia’s position as the big brother. Many smaller GCC states value their independence, and while they would like to cooperate with other GCC members, they do not wish to be absorbed into a unified military alliance as junior partners. Oman openly expressed its opposition to the proposal and Qatar and Kuwait also followed suit.

Having failed to bring about a unified GCC command, the Saudis invited Jordan and Morocco to form a military alliance.3 After the military coup in Egypt, the Saudis warmed to the new military government and donated billions of dollars to keep it going. They are hoping that their military union will also include Egypt. With Saudi’s close links to Pakistan, whose current president Nawaz Sharif spent many years in Saudi Arabia when he was forced to flee Pakistan, the Saudis hope to form a large Sunni military alliance consisting of GCC, Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco and Jordan, to counter what they see as a Shi’a crescent involving Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Lebanese Hizbullah.

It should be borne in mind that the GCC was initially formed with US encouragement in May 1981 in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran, mainly to counter what they saw as the Iranian threat. Before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the GCC also had very close relations with him and spent billions of dollars supporting him during the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war. In 1984, the GCC decided to create a joint military force of 10,000 soldiers, called the Peninsula Shield Force, based in the King Khalid Military City at Hafar al Batin in Saudi Arabia. However, during Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait the force proved totally useless and was practically disbanded. The first time that there was a military deployment in the name of the so-called Peninsula Shield Force was on 14 March 2011 when Saudi and UAE forces invaded Bahrain in the wake of the Arab Spring to quell the Bahraini uprising for greater democracy.

Apart from trying to build a military command, the GCC had also decided to have a common currency by 2010. However, in 2006 Oman announced that it was not able to meet the target date. As the Saudis decided to locate the central bank for the monetary union in Riyadh and not in the UAE, the latter also announced its withdrawal from the project in 2009. So, the monetary union did not materialize either. As nearly all GCC members rely on the export of oil and gas, their economies are not complimentary, and consequently there is relatively little trade between them. Being so reliant on their customers in Europe and the United States, the GCC countries were the first to be hit by the economic crisis in the West. However, due to their vast foreign currency reserves, they have managed to weather the storm, although they have been criticized for doing little to combat the economic downturn, as well as undermining the private sector and long-term economic stability.

Disagreements between GCC members

The disagreements between GCC members were not limited to a unified military force and a common currency. The most important problem that the GCC faced followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of the minority Sunni government of Saddam Hussein. Although nearly all GCC countries approved of the invasion of Iraq and provided many forms of assistance to the US action, as Saddam was replaced by a mainly Shi’a government, most GCC countries particularly Saudi Arabia opposed the new government, and in the case of the Saudis they have refused to send an ambassador to Iraq. In fact, they have been among the main supporters of Sunni militants that have been fighting against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government. In 2012, Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi stated that Iraq wanted to join the GCC as a Persian Gulf littoral state. Kuwait supported Iraq joining the GCC but Saudi Arabia strongly opposed it.4

The Arab Spring and Opposition to Muslim Brotherhood

In the wake of the Arab Spring, GCC monarchies felt very vulnerable. In a short period of time, demonstrators calling for greater freedom and democracy toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia who has been given asylum in Saudi Arabia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and Colonel Mu’ammar Qadhafi who was toppled with the help of NATO bombings. Meanwhile, after Mubarak’s fall, Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia, which in the past had backed the Brotherhood, called it a terrorist organization and supported the military coup against President Muhammad Morsi.

This has caused a rift between the two countries, which came into the open during a March 2014 meeting of the council, after which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors to Qatar.5 Meanwhile, the Egyptian military government led by General Abd al-Fattah el-Sisi openly welcomed the Saudi move and announced that its envoy to Doha would not return either. Although the main reason given for the rift is Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the tension between the GCC countries runs deeper, as Qatar which is a major gas producer, feels independent of Saudi Arabia and with its vast wealth and influential Aljazeera television network vies for leadership in the Arab world.6

The decision to recall the ambassadors, unprecedented in the GCC’s history, hints at significant changes in the GCC, and may even signal its eventual disintegration. The member states disagree on a whole host of issues, including support for the Sunni militants in Syria, the approach towards Iraq, relations with Iran, the attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood, the coup in Egypt and many longstanding territorial disputes.

Conflict in Syria

The conflict in Syria going into its fourth year and military forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad doing better than had been expected, and especially the US decision not to attack Syria and to hold nuclear talks with Iran, have forced Saudi Arabia to face a number of daunting challenges. Saudi Arabia wanted to remove Bashar Assad at any cost, but disunity among the Syrian opposition and the ascendancy of the jihadi militants in the conflict have persuaded the United States that any alternative to Bashar al-Assad may well be much worse than the present incumbent. Saudi Arabia had also called for US attacks on Iranian nuclear sites, but instead there is a strong prospect for a rapprochement between Iran and the United States.

The recent visit by President Obama to Saudi Arabia to some extent calmed the nerves of Saudi leaders, but did not dispel many mutual disagreements. One of the positive effects of the visit for the Saudis was the U.S. agreement to supply anti-tank missiles to the “moderate” rebels, although the White House is opposed to providing the rebels with anti-aircraft Manpads, in case they may be used against Israel at a future date.

Saudi Arabia has recently purchased some 25,000 Tow missiles from the United States. In view of the fact that there is no conceivable threat of a tank attack on Saudi Arabia, it is assumed that the missiles are mainly intended for the Syrian rebels. A Syrian opposition figure has already confirmed that it has received a dozen BMG-71 TOW missiles and is being trained on them by an allied country.7 It remains to be seen if those missiles will change the course of the conflict in Syria or not.

US Military Sales to GCC

In recent years, the Americans have been urging greater defense cooperation in the GCC, including block sales of American arms to the organization.8 As a result, on 11 December 2013 the GCC proposed the formation of a joint military command. Since the start of the Islamic revolution, Washington has been pumping advanced weapons into the GCC member states in an effort to form an effective regional security force that would confront Iranian ambitions.

Therefore, despite the rift between the United States and Saudi Arabia, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the United States sold a total of $66.3 billion in weapons system in 2013 (75 percent of the global market) and a large chunk of it went to GCC countries.9 In 2012, Saudi Arabia alone purchased helicopters and fighter jets worth $33.4 billion.10

Recently, despite a provisional agreement with Iran over her nuclear program, the Americans have been promoting a policy of providing compatible equipment and communications systems to GCC countries that in the event of a direct threat could all function in coordination with each other and with the U.S. Central Command. These efforts are, of course, reminiscent of US warnings about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism. Although in the wake of North American shale oil and gas boom, the United States is less reliant on Saudi or GCC oil and gas, nevertheless, America cannot overlook the lucrative arms market that the GCC provides.

Whether the sale of massive quantities of most advanced arms to the GCC states, on top of all that they already possess, is a good thing or not, the direction of the developments and the forming of a mainly Sunni alliance with potential nuclear weapons to counter an alleged Shi’a Crescent is worrying. There have already been enough wars and bloodshed in the Middle East. What the region needs more than anything else is not more wars but an attempt to resolve some of the existing conflicts. The tragedy in Syria will not be resolved unless Saudi Arabia and Iran can overcome their differences and push both the Syrian government and the insurgents to think of Syria and find a way out of the present carnage.

Enlarging the GCC

The insecurity in the Persian Gulf cannot be enhanced by supporting the Sunni militants in Iraq or intensifying hostilities towards Iran. On the contrary, one way of resolving most of the regional conflicts is to enlarge the GCC and, as its name implies, to admit the other two major Persian Gulf littoral states, namely Iran and Iraq, as members and conclude a regional security agreement that would turn hostility into harmony and cooperation.

After all, during Presidents Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (1989-97) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) terms and even at the beginning of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) term Iran and Saudi Arabia had cordial relations, but Ahmadinejad’s radical rhetoric and fears about a possible Iranian nuclear weapons program caused a rift between the two countries. Ever since coming to power, the more moderate President Hassan Rouhani has said that he intends to improve relations with all Iran’s neighbors, “especially with Saudi Arabia”.

He has also said that Tehran-Riyadh proximity would positively affect the whole region. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran prioritizes ties with Saudi Arabia. Abdur-Rahman bin Gharman al-Shahri, the new Saudi ambassador in Tehran, met with the Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and renewed an invitation to him by King Abdullah to visit Saudi Arabia. A new rapprochement between Iran and the United States should not be seen as a threat, but as a factor that will establish greater security in the region as a whole.

Domestic Reforms

Finally, the main problem that the GCC countries face is not external, but is much closer to home. The real reason for their deep anxiety and uncertainty is the political and social earthquake that has shaken the Middle East during the past few years, and they know that the aftershocks of that massive earthquake will engulf them too. The problem with these conservative monarchies is that they wish to perpetuate a medieval system of government and society, with no public representation, with all the power and wealth being concentrated in the hands of a few members of various tribal families, with women having little or no role in the society, and trying to export a very violent and fundamentalist version of Islam. This is at a time when their own young people are rejecting that medieval worldview and are thirsty for real change. No amount of military spending and military agreements can resolve these problems.

Instead of trying to look for real or imaginary enemies abroad, those monarchies and other regional countries would do well to look at their own societies and to bring about real social and political change before it is too late. That mighty flood of the “Arab Spring” that has swept everything before it, is unlikely to be pushed back up the hill again. The only thing that traditional societies can do is to learn to deal with it. This requires representative government, more equitable distribution of wealth, a more open society, equal rights for women and for religious and ethnic minorities, a reformed interpretation of Islam that is compatible with the modern world, and learning to live in peace with their neighbors in a pluralistic world. Any attempt to stem the tide of history is futile and is bound to fail.

  1. “Saudi Military Exercise: Army Chief Leaves for Saudi Arabia”, The Express Tribune, April 29, 2014. []
  2. “GCC military command to have 100,000-strong force,” Saudi Gazette, December 22, 2013. []
  3. “GCC Seeks to Form Military Bloc with Jordan, Morocco”, Defense News, April 14, 2014. []
  4. “Kuwait stresses necessity for Iraq to join GCC, Alsumaria, April 27, 2012. []
  5. “Three Gulf Countries Pull Ambassadors From Qatar Over Its Support of Islamists”, New York Times, March 5, 2014 []
  6. Emile Nakhleh, “Ambassadorial Recall Signals Deepening Rifts Among Gulf Sheikhs”, LobeLog, March 6, 2014. []
  7. “Supplies of Antitank Missiles Will Test Whether Fighters Can Keep Arms Out of Extremist Hands”, The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2014 []
  8. Awada Mustafa, “Hagel: US to Sell Weapons to GCC States as a Block”, Defense News, Dec 7, 2013. []
  9. “Geopolitical Friction Not Slowing US Arms Sales to GCC”, Middle East Briefing, February 10, 2014. []
  10. “US arms sales hit record high over deals with Arabian Gulf countries”, The National , August 28, 2012. []

TFF Associate Professor Farhang Jahanpour is a part-time tutor in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford and a member of Kellogg College. Read other articles by Farhang, or visit Farhang's website.