The Gulf currently lacks the political will and capacity to protect the region from security threats emerging in this new and volatile environment.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has security implications well beyond the borders of the European continent. Russian aggression has upended the international order, exacerbating tensions between NATO and the West on one side, and Russia and its allies Iran and China on the other. These changing dynamics could have drastic security implications for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states must be thoroughly analyzed.
History has taught that if the world ignores a superpower invasion of one of its smaller neighbors, the invader will continue the aggression against other smaller states and might influence other superpowers or middle powers to do the same. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and China’s expansion of influence in Hong Kong were warnings. This aggression could lead to a larger war, exacerbate polarization globally and spark conflicts in other theaters.
Setting a Precedence
Russia violated international laws enacted after World War II to prevent the invasion and annexation of another sovereign state. The damage to international order created by this aggression will affect the GCC states. The West’s sanctions on Russia have dramatically affected the Russian economy, but the consequences have also damaged Western economies, kicking off increases in the worldwide price of food and energy. The spike in oil and gas prices has benefitted Russia, which aims to deter or stop NATO support for Ukraine. In turn, European countries are working hard to mitigate the effects of energy inflation by finding new energy sources and reducing domestic consumption, as well as managing other adverse economic developments.
These duels over energy have made the GCC states an important fulcrum in the conflict. Both Russian and European officials have lobbied GCC leaders to pursue energy policies favorable to their cause. It is no secret that the GCC states are in a tough position between Russia and the West. Taking a side, or even staying neutral, could have serious security consequences on the GCC. The Russian invasion of Ukraine could also start an international trend of super- or middle powers using security concerns as an excuse to invade or destabilize neighboring smaller states.
The Gulf is surrounded by many powers that have justified interventions in neighboring countries using allegations of religious, historic, or ethnic threats as an excuse. Iran and Turkey are the clearest examples; both are intervening in their neighbors’ affairs—directly or indirectly through their proxies—and it is not unlikely that Ankara or Tehran would use their proxies to meddle with the GCC states by instigating domestic conflicts or causing disorder or disturbing energy supplies by closing waterways.
Many researchers consider two main variables in discussions about the future of Gulf security. The first is oil and energy prices. Experts expect oil prices to remain high enough to sustain GCC state economies over the coming decades. However, the war in Ukraine has further incentivized Western countries to increase research and development of alternative sources of energy. Some of these alternatives include reviving reliance on nuclear power and finding new ways to use renewable power. Research methods also evaluate the accelerated transition to less polluting power resources. In the end, oil’s value will inevitably fall, but the prices of commodities and services will remain high. Declining revenues coupled with ballooning expenses will put extreme pressure on Gulf government treasuries. This situation will probably lead to political and social crises. So far, efforts at reforming economies to deal with this threat have failed or stalled because of administrative problems, intense consumerism, and corruption.
The second variable is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s harassment of Taiwan have given other, smaller powers an appetite to expand their influence either through premeditated invasion or expanding hegemony grounded in religious or historical pretexts. The Gulf’s most recent experience is Iran’s claim of influence in the region, expansionism grounded in official policies and an interpretation of religious laws that give Tehran a right to control the region. Its policy successfully takes advantage of tensions between the region’s sectarian divisions while advancing the country’s foreign policy goals. Similarly, Turkey has used several opportunities to increase its influence in northern Iraq and Syria and has mobilized proxy groups to expand its influence in countries beyond its borders like Libya and Azerbaijan. Technological advances in social media has created new methods for the remote training of armed groups making surreptitious infiltration much easier to execute.
The Gulf currently lacks the political will and capacity to protect the region from security threats emerging in this new and volatile environment. The GCC states should develop a system to support each other and deter novel security threats. Some states in the region are more vulnerable than others, lacking the manpower and size to deter an encroaching menace. The destabilization of one country would directly affect other GCC states. GCC states must take it upon themselves on protecting themselves in a rapidly changing international order.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.