GCC dreams of an ‘Arab NATO’

 

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There are reports of moves to create a pan-Arab military alliance of the GCC states, Morocco and Jordan, and possibly even Egypt and Algeria to counter the threat of the Islamic caliphate, but Arab disunity haunts such an enterprise.

By ED BLANCHE

As the Middle East slides ever deeper into unprecedented turmoil, with every prospect that this will get worse before it gets better, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, increasingly concerned for their futures, are reported once more to be seeking to expand their military alliance by establishing a sort of Arab NATO with the only other kingdoms in the Middle East, Jordan and Morocco.

An alliance spanning the Middle East from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean has been mooted since the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011. But this time there are reports that the Gulf states have also approached Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and a major military power in the region, and Algeria, the military heavyweight in the Maghreb, about joining.

Meantime, the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain – are once again talking about consolidating their own military forces into a fully integrated defence alliance, something they have signally failed to achieve since the GCC was formed in 1981 because of dynastic rivalries and divergent policies.

The latest move by these hereditary monarchies, to establish a joint naval force capable of defending vital oil export routes and maritime installations, was reported in October by Maj. Gen. Ahmad Yusef Al Mulla, a leading adviser to Kuwait’s Defence Ministry, during a maritime security conference in Doha, Qatar’s capital.

Given the GCC’s record of dragging their feet on building a cohesive defence capability, fears are growing among the alliance members that they will be left in the lurch as the Americans pivot toward Asia to counter the emerging challenge of China,while scaling down their military posture in the Middle East.

Recent fractures in the GCC over the Syrian and Iraq wars and the rise of the barbarous Islamic State, primarily between Saudi Arabia and the upstart gas-rich state of Qatar, has stymied any near-term prospect of a unified GCC military capable of standing up to Iran or other threats.

That said, the GCC states’ alarm at the prospect that the US will reach a rapprochement with Iran, their principal regional adversary, on its nuclear programme that would establish a radical new strategic paradigm in the region, could well, at last, spur them to meaningful moves in that direction.

“The expansion of the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan would serve as a major boost to the limited manpower available to the GCC,” the US security consultancy Stratfor observed in a 6 November analysis. “In return for their participation, Morocco and Jordan would likely be offered much-needed financial assistance from the richer Gulf countries.”

But western scepticism runs deep. “With Iran and its allies ascendant and the United States pulling back its involvement in the region, there is no shortage of reasons for the Arab states to want to build their military capabilities through an alliance” with non-GCC powers, Stratfor noted.

“Not all these countries believe Iran to be as much of a threat as Saudi Arabia does. For instance, Oman maintains rather cordial ties with Tehran.” And as for Egypt, “the GCC member countries disagree over which factions in Egypt they support.” There are deep differences over Syria as well.

Stratfor concluded that “the widely varying interests of the individual states will make it difficult, if not impossible, for any potential defensive bloc to take collective action even if it is eventually formed.”

It conceded that there “is certainly momentum towards increased military cooperation within the GCC, which could extend to including Jordan and Morocco in the bloc’s activities. However, the significant existing tensions and differences in outlook … will prevent these countries from forming a truly effective Arab version of NATO.”

 

Egypt approached

The monarchies of the Hashemite kingdom and Morocco were first formally invited to join the GCC states – the so-called “Club of Kings” – as the Gulf rulers observed the growing pressure for reform sweeping the Arab world in early 2011 and the heightened threat from an expansionist Iran empowered by George W. Bush’s calamitous removal of Saddam Hussein, the main Arab bulwark against the ancient Persian enemy.

With Iran and its allies ascendant and the Us pulling back its involvement in the region, there is no shortage of reasons for the Arab states to want to build their military capabilities through an alliance”

Nothing much happened, even though resource-poor Jordan and Morocco could have presumably benefitted economically from such a union. Then in early 2013, Arab officials say, the GCC formally proposed a defence alliance.

This was repeated during GCC a meeting in late March this year and is under consideration, according to the US publication Defense News.

The Moroccan newspaper Al Massae reported in April that Egypt had also been approached to join. Cairo’s response is not known, but its military-backed regime under President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi is deeply indebted to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and needs their financial backing.

They have provided $20bn in economic and financial aid to Egypt since the former army commander ousted the Islamist Mohammed Morsi as president in July 2013 and unleashed a furious purge of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi monarchy considers its mortal enemy.

Al Massae reported that Morocco, Jordan and Egypt would be expected to make available some 300,000 troops for the alliance, and in return would be provided with financial support by the Gulf princes, with Morocco and Jordan getting a $5bn aid package up front.

Egyptian officials were quoted as saying that senior generals from the countries involved have met several times to discuss the proposed alliance, which would include pooling intelligence on security threats such as the Islamic State currently battling in Syria and Iraq in an increasingly Sunni-Shiite conflict that could engulf the entire region in a potentially cataclysmic sectarian superstorm.

Egyptian officials say talks are well advanced. However, there has been no official confirmation by any of the states involved that this alliance is anywhere near fruition, even though Egypt and the UAE have carried out independent air strikes against Islamist militants in Libya.

The North African oil power is currently in danger of collapse amid the anarchy that followed the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-supported rebellion in 2011, while the Saudis and the UAE have joined a US-led coalition conducting an air war against the Islamists in Iraq and Syria.

Gulf fears

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One can understand the hereditary Gulf rulers’ desire to reach out for support within the region as US influence in the Middle East wanes, and in particular the manner in which Barack Obama’s administration abandoned long-time allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, during the Arab Spring – and might yet do in the Gulf if things get worse.

While the unprecedented upheaval of the Arab Spring, which held out the hope of a new era of political empowerment for the people of the region after decades of tyranny, has seemingly collapsed, it has been replaced by an ominous surge in Islamist militancy. This has intensified the fears of the Gulf monarchies.

The Saudis, for instance, concerned about their Shiite minority which dominates the oil-rich eastern provinces, had to send troops to the neighboring island state of Bahrain, a regional financial hub linked to the kingdom by a causeway, in 2011 to help the minority Sunni rulers put down Shiite-led unrest, allegedly orchestrated by Iran.

The Bahrain trouble still simmers, while Yemen, the most populous country on the Arabian Peninsula and the kingdom’s southern neighbour, seems to be falling apart in a three-way conflict between the dominant Sunnis that include Al Qaeda, increasingly powerful Shiite Houthi rebels from the north who are steadily advancing south and have already seized the capital Sanaa, and southern secessionists.

 

Lip service

The GCC has paid lip service to the concept of joint defense since the alliance was formed in 1981 while the Iran-Iraq war raged. Every GCC annual summit for the last two decades has produced pledges to establish a united military command.

It formed a joint defence force, known as the Peninsula Shield Force, in 1984 that was planned to consist of two brigades totalling 10,000 troops from the collective Gulf states. But because of rifts within the GCC that plague it to this day, what emerged was one brigade of just 5,000 men. That was later expanded to 30,000, and now stands at 40,000 but without a functioning command structure.

On 13 December, 2013, the GCC’s Supreme Council decreed the formation of a US-backed Joint Military Command, to replace Peninsula Shield and to be headquartered in Riyadh, with a force of 100,000 troops under a centralised command.

This “highlights the increasing construction of a regional security architecture which was started with the Peninsula Shield Force and is an issue that is seen by outside observers to need more attention,” observed analyst Mathhew Hedges of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in the UAE.

The 2013 decision follows recent moves to establish a GCC-wide early warning system and a missile-defense shield, as well as standardised communications.

The Americans have been urging this for years, but in particular since it became clear they were seeking to reduce their military posture in the Gulf and adjusting their protective gaze towards Asia and the threat of a newly emboldened China.

It remains to be seen whether the Gulf states will be able to set aside these differences that have for decades blocked the consolidation of their armed forces.

Such rifts were so profound, that in August 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the greatest military threat the GCC had faced, Peninsula Shield was totally unprepared and made little contribution to Saddam’s eventual defeat by western forces.

The GCC’s response to overcoming this weakness was simply to secure bilateral defense agreements with western powers, primarily the United States, Britain and France.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London observed in the 2014 edition of The Military Balance, its annual analysis of the world’s military forces, that “to date, the GCC has failed to agree on a common strategic vision to guide the integration of military forces to establish a collective defence system capable of meeting the security requirements of member states.

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“Divergent threat perceptions, parochial interests of individual states, issues of sovereignty, lingering fears of Saudi dominance, border disputes among member states, and a general distrust of Arab military competence have all contributed to the failure of the GCC to create the viable and coherent institutions needed to sustain a meaningful cooperative security system.”

In these circumstances, and the absence of unity in the wider Arab context, makes it difficult to envisage the emergence of a functioning defence alliance. Unions such as this – the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria of 1958-61, for instance – were short-lived, victims of the Arab world’s notorious rivalries that have defeated all attempts to build such partnerships.

The Islamic Caliphate, and the threat of a barbaric militant Islam, may be the catalyst to finally bring Arab rulers together, but don’t hold your breath.

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