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Event Recap: Security & Defense in the Gulf: Impending Regional and International Changes

On December 6th, 2018 Gulf International Forum (GIF) hosted a panel titled “Security & Defense in the Gulf: Impending Regional and International Changes.” GIF was honored to have been joined by a group of experts that included moderator Lara Seligman and panelists, Dr. Emma Soubrier, Dr. Mehran Kamrava, Dr. David Pollock and Becca Wasser. The litany of legislation that has appeared in the waning days of the 115th Congress aimed at changing US security assistance to the Gulf perhaps signals that this historic relationship is ripe for change. However, as was pointed out by several panelists, instituting alterations to one of the oldest and most important global partnerships is no simple task. Given the vastness of the Gulf’s security & defense paradigm, no single luncheon panel could possibly cover the intricacies of the total dynamic, however, each panelist was able to appeal to his or her specialty in order to shed a light on the factors that could shift Gulf security.

The Client is King

Dr. Emma Soubrier began the event with a discussion on US-GCC weapons sales, arguing that the very usage of the word sales to describe these transactions deemphasizes the role and motivations of the equally important purchasers. According to Dr. Soubrier in the 1980s – 1990s, purchasing Western weaponry was a tool of nation-building, whereby a given Gulf nation would unite their peoples against a perceived enemy, the threat of which was signaled by visible and rapid internal militarization. Additionally, purchasing weapons allowed states to brand themselves on the international stage, putting them in a position to one day be viewed as credible military partners. Equally important were the ways in which weapons-purchasing served as a foreign policy tool, nearly guaranteeing that Western arms suppliers would retain their interest in the region over the long-term.

            As this relationship shifted in the post 9/11 environment, Gulf purchases of weaponry have become less of a soft-power tool, as these states have begun actually using their weapons to further their goals in the region. In this dynamic, the Gulf states have proceeded to leverage access to Russian and Chinese weaponry, in order to attain better deals with their Western suppliers. In doing so, the dependency logic between the sellers and the buyers has shifted, with the relationship being presently being typified by the cliché, “The customer is always right.”

Pillars of Defense Cooperation

            Including the trade of arms as outlined by Dr. Soubrier, Becca Wasser argued that US-Defense cooperation rests on the additional pillars of the United States’ regional military presence, as well as the frequent undertaking of joint military training exercises.  Ms. Wasser pointed out that in each Gulf State, the United States maintains some kind of fully operational military base or installation. Such a presence has proven crucial to US interests in the past and has continued in spite of the Qatar crisis. Outside the immediate Gulf Region, Ms. Wasser also argued that prominent bases on Diego Garcia, as well as the importance of the Suez Canal position the Gulf to remain at the center of American militarization.

The third pillar of US-Gulf defense cooperation comes in the force of military training exercises. While training has always been an element of this relationship, both President Trump and President Obama have made it a policy goal to have the GCC become more militarily independent. As evidence of this goal’s paramount nature, the Gulf crisis has not affected Qatar’s inclusion in GCC-wide military operations, a testament to the power of the United States’ urgings.

The rift, however, has impacted Gulf military multilateralism, with the states seemingly more interested in developing individual bilateral relations with the United States. For those optimistic about the possibility of a Middle East Strategic Alliance (AKA ‘Arab NATO’) such a pattern does not bode well. Ultimately, however, with events such as the Gulf Crisis and the War in Yemen so blatantly opposing the interests of the United States, perhaps it is time to rethink the taken for granted assumption that the Gulf should be militarily self-sufficient.

Is there a “Win-Win” scenario?

While the ways in which the “Iranian-threat” have seemingly necessitated the Gulf’s militarization are well-known, Dr. Mehran Kamrava instead outlined how perceived external threat’s toward Iran may be influencing the rogue states’ behavior. In his opinion, by virtue of having over 1000 kilometers of coastline, the Islamic Republic indeed has reason to focus on its own security. Occurring within a context whereby the current American administration continues to say that ‘all options are on the table,’ in regards to Iran, and with several top officials actively calling for regime change, the threat Tehran feels becomes all the more palpable.

As it relates Iran’s internal policymaking apparatus, Dr. Kamrava shared a few insights in order to better understand Tehran’s actions. According to him, much of Iranian security and defense policy remains colored by the damage inflicted on the country during the Iran-Iraq war. The conflict left an indelible mark on the Iranian psyche, and Dr. Kamrava noted that the nation has been slow to forget how nations lined-up amidst the crisis. Additionally, Dr. Kamrava pointed out that foreign-policy in Iran is divided between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. While the former makes policy concerning Iran’s international relations with much of the world, policies concerning securitization and militarization closer to Iran’s immediate borders are conducted by the hyper-militaristic IRGC.

Ultimately, Dr. Kamrava concluded with an anecdote about the supposed “Win-Win” scenario, in which both Iran and the United States could each attain their desired goals, without major concessions to the other. With hawks on both sides of the aisle, Dr. Kamrava thinks it important to seek out those with the stamina to find this elusive “Win-Win.”

The More Things Change…

Informed by history, Dr. Pollock looked toward the future to give an educated opinion on how the region’s security and defense dynamic may change…or not. Ultimately Dr. Pollock believes all signs point toward the latter. According to Dr. Pollock, even though recent presidents have talked-up the idea of exiting the region, both President Obama and Trump have actually done the opposite, and seemingly doubled down on the regional defense status-quo. As it relates to Saudi Arabia, although Congress appears ready to act in response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the position of Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) is not under any credible threat in Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, although the United States is no longer dependent on Saudi oil, the Kingdom continues to play too large a role in the global economy for major action against KSA’s global stature.

A big question mark hovering over the region are uncertainties of succession amongst among the main players. In Iran, no one truly knows what will occur when the aging Ayatollah Khamenei is no longer in power, not to mention the equal uncertainties surrounding the octogenarian leadership in Kuwait and Oman.

And while each panelist would certainly have had their own unique predictions for where the region is headed, perhaps Dr. Pollock’s admitted uncertainty about what could happen is the most accurate way to summarize a conversation that will likely continue for the foreseeable future.


Issue: Defense & Security

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