From almost failed states like Yemen and the unprecedented growth of ISIS to plummeting oil prices and Iranian nuclear non-proliferation, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is growing increasingly complex. Under these rapidly evolving circumstances, the stability of the Gulf Cooperation Council has come under question.
The GCC was established in 1981 largely as a response to instability caused by the Iran-Iraq war. The membership of the GCC consists of six Arab monarchies: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The organization’s officially stated goals are economic promotion and regional security, which in practice often translate to containing Iranian hegemony.
Iran: To Contain Or Not To Contain?
In July, Iran reached an agreement with the P5+1, led by the United States, restrict its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. The deal signified a new era of engagement between the country and Western powers.
The United States, for over a decade now, has engaged in a concerted campaign to contain Iran. But in the wake of the deal, Middle Eastern allies of the United States, including GCC member states, started to question the legitimacy of U.S. commitment to stopping broader Iranian expansion in the region. The Obama administration made efforts to reaffirm security commitments to the GCC by selling arms to member states, and this eventually led the GCC to back the nuclear deal.
Yet despite the acceptance of the nuclear deal and a lifting of sanctions, the question still remains as to how the GCC will approach Iran on a wider range of issues. The GCC has much to gain from expanded trade and economic integration with Iran, but also much to lose from capitulation to greater Iranian regional dominance. In a conversation with the HPR, Michael Knights, a Washington Institute fellow specializing in military and security issues in the region, noted, “[The GCC] have always had the option to engage Iran diplomatically and economically, and that option will probably stay open, particularly for those GCC states that are most use to taking the route of engagement with Iran, such as Oman.”
According to Knights, GCC member states are starting to ask themselves if they can realistically fully contain Iran. The nuclear deal can be linked to a greater overall sense of fatigue among GCC states from decades of constant opposition against Iranian expansionary pursuits. Despite the opposing interests of Israel and the United States, GCC states could, “if they feel like it’s in their interest, cozy up with Iran.” This doesn’t mean that reconciliation will happen overnight, but considerable engagement by an individual GCC state is likely in the near future.
Despite ambiguity regarding what exact path will be taken, it is clear that GCC members have differing levels of propensity towards engagement. In an interview with the HPR, Rami Khouri, a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut, explained that “[the GCC] has never been fully unified; there have always been some differences between [its members],” with states like Qatar and Kuwait taking a much more apprehensive stance than Oman. But “once the Iranian market opens up and [the GCC] start[s] trading and everyone is making a lot of money, then you could get more variation between some states.” Some countries may experiment with greater engagement, but others—threatened by prospects of intrusion by a more robust Iranian economy—may actually try to chill relations even further.
A break in GCC unity on the issue of Iranian containment, therefore, appears close at hand. This lack of agreement is exemplified most by Oman. In the context of what Knights called a “sectarian cold war in the region,” the Omanis are simultaneously embracing Iran and pursuing greater integration with the GCC. Oman has a history of sustained positive relations with Iran dating back to the 1970’s. At various points in time the southern Gulf state has served as an intermediary between Iran and the other GCC states and has continually remained a friend of Iran even during times of great regional isolation. Most recently, Oman played an integral role in convincing Iran to compromise in the nuclear negotiations. The schism in approach to Iran between Oman and the GCC might be a large one, but according to Knights, “you don’t get disqualified [from the GCC] if you don’t agree with what the majority or other members do; otherwise all members would have been disqualified at one point or another.”
But despite Oman’s partial economic and ideological divergence from the rest of the GCC, it will likely nevertheless maintain its position as a close strategic partner. As recent events in Yemen have revealed, the GCC seems poised to maintain strong military cohesion if its members choose to pursue differing policies in non-defense matters.
Unity in Conflict
In March of this year, Yemen’s Sunni-led central government lost all control of its northern regions to Shia Houthi rebels, sparking the beginning of a civil war. The violence quickly turned into the latest iteration of proxy conflict between Iran and the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as Iran took the side of the insurgents and Saudi Arabia backed the central government. The conflict in Yemen quickly became a litmus test of influence for regional powers like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Today, the conflict has expanded to include a unified front of all GCC member states except Oman.
GCC members have come together and acted nearly unanimously because of the stakes at hand. Khouri explained, “The Yemen war is going to be a big problem for the Saudis and the greater GCC because Yemen is going to be a completely shattered state, with millions of people trying to cross the Saudi border to find jobs, order, and livelihood.” It is clear that on major security issues, the GCC is still willing to respond with a unified show of force.
The GCC today has formed highly integrated military capabilities. With the emergence of greater coordination in the realms of missile defense, civil defense, and naval operations, the group has placed itself as a major military player in the region. Even Oman, the group’s fringe member, is engaging in military integration and cooperation with the other member states. GCC states have started to build the endurance of their people towards conflict by framing soldiers as martyrs and exposing more men to conflict with greater troop rotation. This seems to refute any concern of fatigue and reluctance to counter Iran on military matters in the future.
Knights predicted that the Middle East might be entering a new era of sustained proxy warfare between the GCC and Iran: “I recently attended an unclassified U.S. intelligence community workshop on future trends in the Middle East, and one of the key predictions was that we may be entering 10 to 15 years of GCC-Iran proxy warfare, including at least one accidental military-military clash between the sides. Neither Iran nor the GCC would seek a destructive war within their advanced economies and societies but would instead fight in the many collapsed or failing states of the region.”
Knights added that GCC states roles’ in these conflicts could range from “providing money” to “actually providing combat forces.” These looming future conflicts would likely further reinforce GCC member states desires to stay tactically unified. GCC states are aware that they can only challenge Iran as a unified force. To stave off Iranian dominance within the Arabian Peninsula and protect members’ security interests, the Gulf States, including Oman, will likely converge on strategic matters.
In order to avoid a break in unity, however, the GCC must tread carefully in its military endeavors. Understanding that its members have differing economic interests, the group will likely only engage in conflict where there is minimal risk of economic spillover. This is the only viable approach for a cohesive security strategy in a region of increasing economic interdependence.
The GCC involvement in Yemen exemplifies this strategy. Yemen’s economy, even before the current crisis, faced serious distress from declining oil resources and high unemployment. The Gulf nation has a tiny industrial base and its main source of international trade and income is oil, the loss of which would have little economic impact given the current supply gut. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has major investment stakes in the Yemeni economy. The conflict there means little for the overall economic outlook of the region.
The GCC today is cohesive where it needs to be and flexible where it can be. The future GCC is likely to achieve greater unity by increasingly decoupling its military ambitions from the individual economic goals of its member states.
Both the Iran nuclear non-proliferation agreement and the current proxy conflict in Yemen have brought ideological differences within the GCC to greater light. Despite this, the organization today—and for the foreseeable future—is unified on matters of regional security and stability. Ultimately any divergence on non-defense issues will be overshadowed by the deep desire of GCC states to stay united on military matters.
Image source: Wikimedia // Rico Shen // StantheMan87