Confusion in the Gulf

DAVID B. ROBERTS — A proclivity for adventurism in Riyadh, Doha, and Abu Dhabi may strain existing inefficiencies within a disunited GCC. 

Historically, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have shown reluctance to deploy their armed forces in interventionist actions. However, since 2015, Saudi and Emirati leaders in particular have sent ground and air forces into Yemen’s conflict, and sought to exert greater influence in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia recently surpassed Russia as the world’s third-largest military spender. How do policymakers in Doha, Riyadh, or Abu Dhabi understand evolving threats — what factors prompted Arab Gulf nations to pursue more regionally aggressive policies over the past year?

The ongoing Saudi-led operations in Yemen demonstrate an ability on the part of Gulf States  — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular — to undertake remarkably kinetic and, as some might say, adventurist campaigns. However, within the context of a slightly longer reading of Arab Gulf history, these recent military endeavors are not groundless. The UAE, for example, has committed forces in several key interventions over the past decade. Most notably, they contributed to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. During the Arab Spring, the UAE joined with Qatar in Libya, deploying 12 aircraft — six F-16 and six Mirage 2000 jets — to enforce the NATO no-fly zone; following the collapse of Mummer Gaddafi in Libya, the UAE launched its own unilateral bombing and support of proxy forces in the country. And recently, Abu Dhabi has undertaken assorted missions and force deployments to various corners of Africa, in places like Eritrea or Djibouti.

Although the UAE, as well as other Gulf States, have tended toward more interventionist policy in the past few years, the recent shift in Yemen nevertheless does broadly represent a paradigm shift in terms of Gulf State activism. What are the roots of this new strategy? To begin an answer it is important to understand the GCC’s evolving relationship with the United States. There is a perception among Gulf states that a very serious transformation is underway that will negatively impact this vital connection. Since the early 1990s — after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (1990) and the subsequent American-led Operations Desert Shield and Storm (1990-1991) — military agreements between the US and GCC have been the overt bedrock of the latter’s security regime.   

American responses to popular unrest during the Arab Spring shattered this sense of friendship. Many Gulf leaders believed that US policy represented an abrogation of Washington’s various responsibilities. For example, the Obama Administration’s quickness to abandon Hosni Mubarak, following what they perceived of as simply unrest in the streets, showed that the American Government was unwilling to uphold long-term friendships with Arab rulers. This realization desperately angered and concerned leaders in Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Manama. Even after Arab Spring-style protests erupted in Bahrain, the Americans again were reluctant to bolster the country’s embattled government. While GCC leaders never thought that Washington was actively undermining the al-Khalifa royal family, they did believe that the US should have been far more outspoken in their support for the regime. In response to this lukewarm response from Washington, the GCC states put together a force of their own — the so-called “Peninsula Shield” under Saudi leadership — to enter Bahrain as a stabilizing force.

If there is one reason underpinning new, activist foreign policy in the Gulf, it is the prevailing feeling that the GCC states can no longer trust the United States. The P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran solidified this fear in summer 2015. The fact that Washington has so eagerly pursued negotiations in Tehran has only provided motivation to take a more leading role to ensure Arab Gulf security.

Notwithstanding the 2011 Saudi-led “Peninsula Shield” intervention to crush a popular protest movement in Bahrain, the Arab Gulf states have never agreed on a formal, treaty-enforced collective security alliance. Instead, regional security is premised on shared economic objectives and power balancing between GCC states. How has this focus on competitive regional defense, rather than mutually-beneficial security, shaped intra-Arab Gulf political dynamics in the face of increasing threats from Iran, as well as ongoing conflicts against extremist factions in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq?

The GCC is truly ineffective as a security organization. It was born out of the united fear after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, at the prospect of Iran’s export of revolutionary Shi’ism across the Middle East. One might assume that, given its origins, the GCC would have countless reasons and notional commonalities to coalesce into an efficient military and economic entity: they have the “perfect enemy” in Iran — culturally, politically, historically, and socially. The story of GCC military operation has nevertheless been utterly lamentable. The organization remained moribund for decades, despite some limited operations in the 1980s. By the mid-2000s, it had been all but abandoned as a feasible political or military concept.

Today, there has been a renewed desire to transform the GCC into a meaningful military organization. The ongoing conflict in Yemen will be instrumental in shaping this process, and demonstrating how effective various Gulf states can be at coalescing together. Ultimately, however, there are still seemingly insurmountable problems within the GCC that, in the next decade, will prevent the development of any meaningful, organized regional security force. The very fact that, for example, key actors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE continue to pursue diametrically opposed policies within the post-Arab Spring context highlights a problematic diversity of strategies.

One of the central dynamics driving these intra-GCC difficulties is the misbalance of power in the region. For the smaller GCC states — the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, or Kuwait — the last 200 years of history have been defined not by concern for various Ottoman or British imperial machination, or even Iranian development. Rather, the most active security concerns for these weaker rulers in the last two centuries have been the various forces operating out of Saudi Arabia. Practically, if there ever emerges a tight, close GCC or cohesive Gulf Union, Saudi Arabia will automatically dominate the organization by virtue of its size and 20 million-strong population. Smaller Gulf States do not want to submit themselves to that kind of arrangement.

Finally, looking to Yemen, Emirati and Saudi forces have cooperated well. However, politically, both countries have fundamentally different conceptions of which groups and personalities to support — as is most noticeable in the city of Taiz. These latent concerns are not historic, but instead hot-button issues that continue to divide GCC leaders.

The Iran nuclear negotiations in 2015 caused policymakers in Riyadh great concern, as they perceive in Tehran a rising military and economic threat. However, leaders in the UAE and Qatar — and, to a lesser degree, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman — have expressed less vitriolic or anxious reactions to Iran’s nuclear development and the summer 2015 nuclear deal. How have different GCC states adapted their foreign policy in reaction to power shifts in the Gulf, as well as in the Levant and Mesopotamia?

It is instructive to again examine GCC state reactions to the Arab Spring. The best example would be the differences between Emirati and Qatari perceptions of the popular movements. Qatar saw great opportunity in the ascent of Islamist Muslim Brotherhood groups as a result of Arab Spring transformations. The reasons for this outlook have to do with former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa (r. 2005-2013). He was fundamentally more open-minded and less focused on security than his contemporaries; Qatar does not suffer from the types of internal cleavages to which its neighbors must attend; and he supported the Muslim Brotherhood as a pan-national organization.

By contrast, the UAE saw widespread protests as something about which to be concerned. The country is a federal state comprising seven components. Abu Dhabi is exponentially richer than, for instance, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, or Fujairah. Although there is no immediate threat of discord between the united emirates, these divisions represent an underlying concern for Emirati leadership. The Muslim Brotherhood has historically existed within these poorer, northern emirates, and presents a security concern to rulers in Abu Dhabi. The UAE’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed, has long been worried about the Brotherhood’s “perfidious growth.” The Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power in Egypt was the sum of all fears for Abu Dhabi, confirming the worst of Sheikh Mohammad’s fears.

In terms of the Iranian nuclear deal, all the GCC states are pretty much on the same page — excluding Oman, which seems to believe that conflict is not healthy. The other Arab Gulf countries — led by Sheikh Mohammad and Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman — all view Iran as a relentlessly hostile enemy. This relatively cohesive outlook is manifest in the joint operations in Yemen. Before Yemen, the international consensus regarding Arab Gulf state militaries was that their leaders purchase a great deal of weapons that will never be used. These enormous purchases — worth tens of billions of dollars — provided a “glitter factor” for these regimes; by employing American contractors, the GCC states were essentially renting protection from the United States by proxy. At a social level, too, the Gulf states were never considered viable military entities, due to rentier bargains among the ruling classes and general lack of popular representation.

At face value, Yemen has shattered these clichés. The level and skill of deployment there has been astonishing, including highly-precise amphibious landings executed in Aden. Yet under the surface, these operations have run into a bit of difficulty. There have been significant losses among the Gulf coalition — a single Houthi rocket attack in September 2015 killed 45 Emirati soldiers. More recently, it appears that the Emirati commanders have broadly withdrawn their troops from the Yemeni theatre. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has primarily employed air strikes conducted from high altitude, a strategy that causes widespread damage to non-military targets as well. There has been a noticeable lack of ground-level fighting against Houthi forces. The role of Gulf ground troops is therefore somewhat of a mystery. Although reports have identified as many as 1,000 Qatari soldiers operating in Yemen, it is quite literally impossible to tell what these forces have been doing there.

Military analysts have traditionally placed very little confidence in the military capabilities of GCC states — particularly when it came to adventurist or international operations. How have Arab Gulf militaries, command structures, and capabilities — particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — evolved to undertake more aggressive operations in the region?

While regular GCC state militaries have proven themselves limited, the region’s various special forces remain genuinely well-trained and effective — particularly in the UAE and, to a slightly lesser degree, Saudi Arabia. The amphibious landings in Aden were thus quite surprising for most observers. What are the roots of this shift toward more conventional military capability? In the UAE, where the shift is taking place most rapidly, it is fair to attribute recent changes almost solely to Mohammad bin Zayed. He has managed to instill an atypically level of competence and importance in the military. It is hard to say exactly how he has achieved this result, but the outcome is clear. Ultimately, the story of military reform in the UAE — and in other GCC states — is not one of structural change, but rather a narrative driven by individual personalities and political figures.

During the 2011 Libyan Revolution, UAE and Qatar contributed fighter jets to the NATO no-fly zone, demonstrating that Arab militaries could play an active role in regional defense. How did the Arab Gulf experience in Libya shape the development of Emirati and Qatari military posture — were operations against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime proving spaces for Gulf military power exertion and increased Gulf leadership across the Middle East and North Africa?

The utility of fewer than 20 Emirati and Qatari jets for the NATO mission in Libya was relatively small. The real value of the Gulf involvement was in terms of Arab political cover, ensuring that the operation was not simply another western coalition bombing an Arab country. While Libya was an unbelievably tough proving ground for the UAE’s and Qatar’s air forces, their capabilities were tremendously enhanced through this “on the job” training. Their participation also opened the eyes of leaders in Abu Dhabi and Doha to the possibility of acting as small force multipliers in larger coalition operations — a means to gain critical leverage in shaping both military and diplomatic outcomes.

Yet this realization has not reshaped the overall strategies employed by Arab Gulf states when constructing their militaries. Each of the GCC states has sought forces able to fulfill comprehensive air, ground, and sea functions. The result has been a duplication of six full-spectrum militaries in the region, which is quite an inefficient structure for any sort of collaborative framework. If the GCC acted instead as a strong, homogenous, and consolidated group, each state would perform functions best tailored to its resources, size, and expertise. Theoretically, the tiny state of Qatar should not have tanks or attack helicopters; it should lead all heavy-lift programs. The UAE should coordinate all fast jet operations. Saudi Arabia could handle ground-based maneuvers. This outline of course represents an oversimplification, but nevertheless could help Gulf leaders re-conceive of collective security contributions. Although operations in Libya showed that GCC states could perform these smaller roles, but rulers still pursue full-spectrum capabilities.   

In March 2014, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors to Qatar. These developments fit into a more general divergence in regional and foreign policymaking between Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh. How has the shift in overall GCC regional policy and strategy impacted the organization’s cohesion as a (relatively) unified politico-economic body?

From the late 1980s the Qatari relationship with Saudi Arabia has steadily deteriorated. In simple terms, the recent tension was born from events in the past two decades. In 1995 Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani took power in Qatar, replacing his father who had essentially followed Riyadh in all political affairs. This leadership transition deeply angered the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia allegedly sponsored two unsuccessful counter-coups, one in 1995 and another in 1996. Also in 1996, Qatari state authorities launched their state-funded media organization, Al Jazeera, which quickly became an annoying voice constantly poking at the Saudi government. Saudi-Qatari relations were ultimately broken in 2002, when Riyadh withdrew its ambassador. Only in 2008 did the Saudi envoy return with the understanding that Al Jazeera would behave itself.  This six-year absence of the Saudi ambassador in Doha represented the culmination of brewing issues, and the ultimate acceptance by Riyadh that Qatar — a geographically tiny appendage on the Saudi state — was genuinely a sovereign state.

The most recent ambassadorial issues in 2014 played out against this historical background. The tensions flared only a few months after Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani took power in Qatar from his father, Hamad bin Khalifa. The new Qatari emir was only 33 years old, and immediately challenged with this tripartite ambassadorial withdrawal from its three most powerful neighbors. During this moment of transition in 2014, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador primarily to impact and effect change in Qatari foreign policy — to change the country’s strategy through blackmail. The UAE operated with similar motivations as did Saudi, attempting to entirely roll back the strand of support that Qatar had been providing to Islamist factions across the Middle East.

Ultimately, these plans failed: Qatar very gently expelled a few Islamist figures to Turkey, but Doha would never burden its Brotherhood contacts. Recently, the Qatari leadership announced the opening of an enormous Turkish military base. This move presumably indicates that Qatar wishes to keep its access to Turkey’s government, which is founded on a mutual belief in the importance of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

Gulf states, specifically the UAE and Qatar, initially agreed on their support for Arab Spring movements, most notably in Libya. However, policymakers in Doha and Abu Dhabi soon diverged: Emirati and Qatari leaders supported competing factions, and have expressed deeper acrimony over the power-change in Egypt (the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain backed anti-Islamist Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood). Have developments since 2011 across the Middle East introduced new politico-military factors with which these leaders must grapple?

If the Gulf states’ ambassadorial maneuver in 2014 did extract any concessions from Qatar, they were on the issue of Egyptian governance. Al Jazeera did broadly stop its negative coverage of President Sisi. However, within the context of the Arab Spring, all the many other latent differences — many of which did not seem that important before 2011 when oil prices were high and each country could pursue its own agenda — bubbled into open discourse. These concerns became existential for some actors in the region. Ultimately, the upheaval in 2011 was largely significant because it made these existing divisions far more visible and immediate.

Whereas Saudi Arabia and the UAE have shown greater ambition in their foreign policymaking, Qatar has noticeably toned back its own once-adventurist and aggressive posture. For example, the rapprochement in recent months between Qatar and its former rivals in Riyadh, marks a shift in strategic thinking. Why has Qatar’s foreign policy shown inverse relationship to its neighbors’, and do Doha’s decisions represent a generational shift in strategy?

In broad terms, there has been an overall quieting of Qatar’s foreign policy under Tamim. In June 2013 Qatar lost Hamad bin Jassim, who had served as the country’s Prime Minister since 2007, its Foreign Minister since 1992, the head of Qatar Airways, and chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). He was a true force of nature. Any nation on earth that lost a grand statesman like Jassim would be hard pressed to find a suitable successor that did not pale in comparison. This power transfer resulted in a softening of Qatar’s international tone as new leadership attempted to orient themselves in office. These new ministers predicted a growing fiscal emergency as oil prices dropped, and were perhaps horrified by the unregulated expenditure across Qatari government agencies. Abdullah bin Nasser, who replaced Jassim as Prime Minister, came from the Ministry of the Interior — he was naturally focused more on interior than on foreign issues. 

However, it is crucial not to overemphasize this shift. Qatar is currently doubling-down on its patronage of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. The fruits of this relationship can be seen every few months, when Qatar negotiates the releases of two or three people who have been kidnapped by these organizations, and it has offered to mediate between the Muslim Brotherhood an the Egyptian Government. Doha also still works with the Taliban in Afghanistan, a reality that continues to provide utility for the Qatari-American relationship. While the pace of its international engagement may have slowed — largely due to the loss of Hamad bin Jassim — Qatar has not ceased its activities.


DAVID B. ROBERTS is an Assistant Professor in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. He formerly served as Director of the Qatar office of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.


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