• Home
  • The GCC’s Joint Security Vision: Reading Between the Lines
A Qatari man is walking past the flags of the Gulf Cooperation Council at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar, on December 3, 2023, two days prior to the start of the GCC leaders' summit. (Photo by Noushad Thekkayil/NurPhoto via AP)

The GCC’s Joint Security Vision: Reading Between the Lines

On March 29, Jasem Mohamed Albudaiwi, the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), introduced the GCC’s Vision for Regional Security, the first publication of its kind. The 15-page document offers the common view of the local security environment held by the GCC’s six member states. The paper covers perennial security issues, such as terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation, as well as emergent ones like climate change and cyber.

In the four decades it has existed, the GCC has played a limited role in security affairs. Though the grouping is often described as the “NATO” of the Gulf monarchies, the GCC has long been reluctant to transform its political linkages into military ones. The Council was created in 1981 amid the Iran-Iraq War, but its founding charter focuses purely on economics, education, and the health sector—making no mention of security issues or defense cooperation. For this reason, the organization was powerless to prevent Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 or mount a coordinated response in its aftermath. Indeed, it only played a secondary role in the subsequent U.S.-led Gulf War.

However, the topic of GCC security cooperation grew in earnest in the 2000s after a series of decisions that focused on tactical and operational, rather than strategic, matters, including the inauguration of a Joint Defense Treaty and the establishment of a Joint Military Command. Against this backdrop, the Vision for Regional Security represents a major milestone in the strategic coherence and cohesion of the GCC.

What’s In a Vision?

Initially adopted at the last GCC Ministerial Council in Doha in December 2023, the Vision may disappoint security experts interested in the granular details. The wording of the document is cautious, and it remains vague on the many threats facing the Gulf region. Although one section of the document calls for a coordinated fight against “financing and arming terrorist militias and sectarian groups, including supplying them with ballistic missiles and drones”—an obvious nod to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen—neither the militant group nor its primary state sponsor are named in the document.

The ongoing war in Gaza looms large in the document’s subtext, though it is never explicitly mentioned; the document calls for the resurrection of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, but makes no other reference to the Israel-Palestine issue. Finally, the Vision says nothing on what will perhaps be the defining factor for Gulf security in the 21st century: the ongoing global competition between the United States and China.

Papering Over the Cracks

If the GCC’s Vision lacks substance, why does it matter at all? The document may not reveal the Gulf states’ actual views on today’s security environment, but it helps observers gauge the internal cohesion of the GCC. The development of a joint security document is an exercise in consensus-building among six countries that traditionally disagree on critical issues.

For instance, the GCC member states’ relations with Israel differ greatly among each other. Two of the Gulf states, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, have already normalized ties with Israel. Qatar’s government has not extended de jure recognition of Israel, but because of Doha’s role as a mediator in Gaza, it maintains extensive de facto contacts with the Israeli government. Prior to October 7, Saudi Arabia and Israel were engaged in intensive negotiations on a normalization deal, and Riyadh clearly remains open to the idea of official diplomatic recognition—though its insistence on the establishment of a Palestinian state has no doubt risen since the start of the war. Meanwhile, although Oman extended overtures to Israel under the late Sultan Qaboos—even hosting a visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu to Muscat in 2018the Omani government has since made clear that it is not interested in joining the Abraham Accords. Kuwait went a step further: its officials recently asserted the country would be the “last to normalize” ties with Tel Aviv.

Gulf views on Iran are even more complicated. Oman traditionally keeps good ties with the Islamic Republic, but other regional member states are more suspicious of Iran’s malicious policies across the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have toned down their anti-Iran rhetoric in recent years, but their decision-makers remain deeply concerned by Iran’s regional agenda. Meanwhile, the Bahraini monarchy is the most suspicious of the Islamic Republic, which it believes played a key role in the protests that destabilized the country in 2011.

Looking beyond the region, the GCC states have grown apart in their policies towards the United States and China. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have made no secret of their desire to engage more closely with China, including military cooperation such as arms sales or joint drillseven if these steps have meant triggering tensions with Washington. Oman has also reportedly talked with China of the possibility of opening a facility for the Chinese Navy, a step that the other GCC states have thus far been reluctant to take. For their part, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain—the locations of the three largest U.S. military bases in the region—are adamant that the United States remains their closest security partner.

Saudi and Emirati leaders clearly recognize that their newfound ties with China are not a substitute for good relations with the United States. When push comes to shove, both countries still rely heavily on America for their defense, and Beijing is simply not a credible alternative to the U.S. security umbrella—at least for the time being. As a result, Abu Dhabi recently announced that it would sell its shares in the Chinese social media giant ByteDance, the owner of the popular app TikTok, after U.S. lawmakers voted to ban the app unless ByteDance divests. The UAE’s decision suggests that U.S. pressure on Gulf partners may actually work, and that Abu Dhabi remains closer to the United States than certain developments would suggest.

Keeping Perspective

The divergence among the Gulf’s Arab states on key matters of national security would suggest that the writing of a common Vision on Regional Security is doomed to fail. In the end, the substance of the document reflects what the member states agreed upon—that is, almost nothing.

Diplomats would argue, however, that observers should focus less on the final outcome of the intra-Gulf discussions and more on the discussions themselves. Dialogue among the GCC members was almost certainly tense, and generating a common security document requires significant investments of time and diplomatic effort. To be fair to the GCC, similar documents issued by European nations, such as NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept or the EU’s 2023 Strategic Compass, are not groundbreaking either. The result of difficult concessions among their member states, they are meant to offer a policy mix akin to the “least common denominator”—a framework that all can agree upon.

This may sound like a low, and unexciting, bar to set. However, the fact that the GCC can articulate a common vision for regional security less than four years after the end of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar is remarkable on its own. During the 2017-2021 Gulf diplomatic crisis, any political initiatives at the GCC level were put on hold. Back then, the idea of a Vision for Regional Security signed by all member states that declares on page one that “the security of GCC states is indivisible” would have sounded preposterous. When viewed from that perspective, the new document is welcome news for those in the Gulf, and in the West, who hope to raise the profile of the GCC in regional governance.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: GCC

China as Peacemaker? Iran-Israel Hostilities Undermine Beijing’s New Role

May 13, 2024

Iran and Israel’s “shadow war” descended into direct state-to-state attacks and counterattacks in April 2024, dragging the Middle East into an unprecedented and dangerous era….

From Concerns to Collaboration: Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and the Development Road Initiative

May 10, 2024

Turkey’s diplomatic skill and mediation have been central to its relationship with Kuwait, particularly during the Gulf crises and regional instability. As Ankara mends ties…

Analyzing the Iran-Israel Conflict in a Regional Context

April 22, 2024

There Is No Silver Bullet to Stop Escalation Ambassador Patrick Theros Strategic Advisor and Senior Scholar, Gulf International Forum This recent series of performative actions…

GCC

Gulf States’ Interests in Mediating Ukraine Peace Initiatives

Commentary

Once again, Qatar finds itself in the international spotlight for its high-profile international mediation efforts....

GCC

The GCC’s Joint Security Vision: Reading Between the Lines

Commentary

On March 29, Jasem Mohamed Albudaiwi, the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),...

GCC

Analyzing the Iran-Israel Conflict in a Regional Context

Commentary

There Is No Silver Bullet to Stop Escalation Ambassador Patrick Theros Strategic Advisor and Senior...

GCC

Bridging Dreams and Reality: Masdar, NEOM, and the Future of Sustainable Living in the Gulf

Commentary

In the vast expanse of the Arabian Peninsula, an ambitious vision is gradually coming to...

GCC

From Past to Present: Ghabga, Gargeean, and the Gulf’s Ramadan

Commentary

In the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, after the sun goes down,...

GCC

Shaping the Future: The 7th GECF Summit and Geopolitical Realities of the Gas Market

Commentary

The 7th Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) Summit in Algiers marks a crucial moment for...

Jean-Loup Samaan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore, as well as a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council. He is the author of New Military Strategies in the Gulf: The Mirage of Autonomy in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar published by Bloomsbury/I.B. Tauris in 2023.


GCC

Gulf States’ Interests in Mediating Ukraine Peace Initiatives

Commentary

Once again, Qatar finds itself in the international spotlight for its high-profile international mediation efforts....

GCC

The GCC’s Joint Security Vision: Reading Between the Lines

Commentary

On March 29, Jasem Mohamed Albudaiwi, the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),...

GCC

Analyzing the Iran-Israel Conflict in a Regional Context

Commentary

There Is No Silver Bullet to Stop Escalation Ambassador Patrick Theros Strategic Advisor and Senior...

GCC

Bridging Dreams and Reality: Masdar, NEOM, and the Future of Sustainable Living in the Gulf

Commentary

In the vast expanse of the Arabian Peninsula, an ambitious vision is gradually coming to...

GCC

From Past to Present: Ghabga, Gargeean, and the Gulf’s Ramadan

Commentary

In the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, after the sun goes down,...

GCC

Shaping the Future: The 7th GECF Summit and Geopolitical Realities of the Gas Market

Commentary

The 7th Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) Summit in Algiers marks a crucial moment for...

Subscribe to Receive Latest Updates from GIF.