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The Changing Dynamics of Gulf Security in 2020

Featured Speakers: Professor David Des Roches (moderator), Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Professor Daniel Serwer, Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra, and Dr. Cinzia Bianco.


The pandemic of 2020 has brought to a head the accumulating security challenges to the Gulf region, reflecting similar developments worldwide. What appears to be a permanent decline in fossil fuel prices, combined with intra-GCC divisions, rising intra-Gulf tensions, and conflicting signals from Washington have all raised the perception of a threat to Gulf stability. The accumulated crises disrupted long-standing economic models and supply chains raising acute awareness, for example, of the need to ensure food and water security. New types of threats have reinforced the conventional challenges to Gulf security, such as the hostility – including a catastrophic proxy war in Yemen – between Tehran and Riyadh, political and economic instability in Iraq and a large and dissatisfied youth population.

In the past few years, cyber threats have increased exponentially and regional states, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in particular, have developed strong cyber warfare capabilities. These capabilities are not only directed at regional rivals but also allow regional governments to neutralize domestic discontent manifested through social media. Regional states have also employed cyber capacity against external targets, e.g., Iran against the United States and some GCC countries against exile dissidents.

Some Gulf states increased both their intelligence and cyber warfare capabilities with countries outside the region, most notably Israel. This cooperation involves both fairly well known GCC state relationships with Israeli security companies and more covertly with Israeli security agencies. These unofficial relationships have in part been driven by a shared perception of Iranian aggression and influence in the region.

What role did the Iranian threat perceptions of Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain play in the “normalization” of relations? How did other factors, e.g., Turkey, Libya, and internal GCC rivalries, play a role in the changing security dynamics of the Gulf? How did 2020 alter power dynamics within the Gulf region as a result of U.S.-Iran tension, normalization with Israel, and the continued GCC rift and Yemen war? Will cybersecurity warfare take new dimensions in 2021?


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