The Arab Spring, proxy wars between Iran and the Arab states and spread of extremism – all related – have reached appalling levels creating the uncomfortable feeling of external and internal vulnerability (real and perceived). A regional typhoon of every major geo-strategic potential threat has started to materialise – almost simultaneously.
This dangerous mixture of security threats, always been present in their neighbourhood, has combined with the plunge in oil prices. GCC countries have responded with the adoption of a new policy of interventionism, whose outcome is uncertain, taking on a new course where they will no longer be idle spectators.
The GCC states certainly face one of the most challenging periods in their history. Will they get through it? Tobias Borck, assistant course tutor for International Diplomacy from prominent London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) says it depends on how they handle these challenges.
“I believe the key lies in cooperation. I don’t just mean military cooperation – like we have seen in Yemen – but much more importantly, political and economic cooperation. It is relatively clear that if the GCC states try to just protect themselves and the clearly fragile status quo, they will struggle to get through these issues,” he tells bq magazine.
Some of these challenges are transforming and taking different shapes through the dynamic course of events, creating new issues, and demanding immediate response.
Ferry de Kerckhove, retired Canadian senior diplomat and a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa notices the Arab Spring has more or less vanished as a political force with the maintenance or return of authoritarian regimes under the guise of fighting religious extremism. A popular uprising has mutated into a multiplicity of both sectarian and political-military conflicts, clearly affecting the region’s economic prospects.
“Yet, the Arab Spring has left an indelible mark on young and educated people’s aspirations, duly stifled by the perspectives of other groups of population, such as the fellahin’s resentment against instability and lack of progress post revolution, or previous beneficiaries of authoritarian regimes’ distribution of spoils,” de Kerckhove tells bq.
This is why it is important for the GCC states to prepare themselves to accommodate the aspirations of the next generations and avoid the pitfalls of the earlier counter-revolutions. The transition must be evolutionary while avoiding extremism through an adequate redistribution of wealth and balanced social programmes. In achieving this, GCC countries should follow Singapore’s model rather than West’s, de Kerckhove suggests.
Conflicts will remain for a long time
The internal and external pressures are not going away any time soon. However, if governments work together to shape change, to implement economic reforms, and seek political, rather than military solutions to the challenges in the region, then they can cope with these threats. This is also one of the main reasons why the governments in some states in the region completely failed.
Wars and turmoil outside and inside the countries weakened already dysfunctional governments unable to provide services and perspective to a vast majority of their people. Conflicts disrupted the lives of millions of young people, making many of them to feel even angrier and more powerless, and driving them to support the gruesome violence that has become the calling card of extremist groups.
Borck is convinced there is no other alternative than confronting ISIS for example with military means. But there is more to it.
“There has to be a discussion about why so many young men and women in the region have joined these groups. Governments need to have the confidence to engage with these issues in an honest and decisive way,” says Borck.
Joint cooperation is essential in dealing with regional threats as well. But the recent turmoil in Yemen, combined with the threat of terrorism and possibility of conflict spillover to the neighbouring GCC countries raises more questions than provides answers.
For de Kerckhove, “The pause in the Saudi air campaign is most likely a tactical move to allow the opening of negotiations towards a potential political solution to the crisis. But there is no assurance that the campaign would not resume were such negotiations to fail.”
The real threat is represented by the presence of ISIS fighters who, alongside with notorious Al Qaeda Arab Peninsula (AQAP), which controls vast parts of the country, has opened a new chapter in conflict. For Borck the question if and how extremist groups in Yemen, including AQAP and IS, may benefit from the fighting between the Houthi/Saleh alliance and the Saudi-led coalition and the resulting power vacuum in some areas, is important and is not receiving enough attention.
“There is a clear danger that extremist groups could expand in ungoverned areas and use this greater freedom of movement to launch attacks beyond Yemen’s borders. However, whether this has significantly increased the threat from terrorism to other GCC states is unclear,” explains Borck.
Kerckhove believes the neighboring countries have partially adjusted to the potential spillover of the conflict, and the most significant change is not so much the presence of ISIS as such, but rather a clear disengagement on the part of the US and the West in general in the Yemeni situation which, in fact, is one of the factors that led to the proxy conflict waged between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen.
It is clear that current Riyadh and Teheran’s stands over Yemen (and other troubled hotbeds of violence) will only further destabilise the region and amplify sectarian division. Long-lasting Saudi-Iranian rivalry can only be restrained by convincing both sides back on speaking terms.
If this fails, the GCC countries can be dragged into never-ending conflict repeating mistakes of Western states and their military adventures in the Middle East. The GCC countries have given themselves as much leverage as possible not to be dragged into the conflict in Yemen, along the lines of Pakistan which saw its parliament vote against the country’s engagement despite the request of its erstwhile ally Saudi Arabia.
It is still unsure what the outcome of military actions in Yemen will be and if interventionist policies will bring greater stability in the Arabian Peninsula or create long-term tensions and refugee flows into and out of the Arab world.
Borck believes that there is no clear way out for Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen. While a military victory against the Houthis is highly unlikely, the leadership in Riyadh will have to find a way to get out of the conflict without losing face. If they cannot manage this, they will indeed likely get stuck in a conflict that only gets worse as time goes by.
And this could be a very costly adventure. “Even without military engagement on the ground, the costs of defense in the region for each country have gone up considerably as evidenced notably by recent fighters aircraft procurements,” Ferry de Kerckhove adds.
Militarisation of the Gulf will continue
Indeed, the Middle East has been for at least six decades a theatre of combat and therefore one of the most lucrative weapon sales markets in the world. However, weapon purchase has exploded in recent years, due to unrest, tensions, terrorism threats and wars. The US accounts for almost half of all arms sales to the Middle Eastern countries, followed by Russia and the UK.
Ongoing wars and armed conflicts in the region perfectly suit weapon exporters, especially the US as well as the others as has recently been highlighted in a New Your Times report which says: “The drive for corporate profits has unleashed an arms race with perilous human consequences and no end in sight for people living in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere.”
The Middle East’s tense environment comes as blessing for defence contractors in the times of Pentagon budget cuts. It comes as no surprise that Boeing has opened its office in Doha and Lockheed Martin will follow as well.
According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) 2015 fact sheet (for 2014), Saudi Arabia spent USD 80 billion dollars on weaponry while the UAE spent nearly USD 23 billion. Qatar was also a lucrative destination for the arms sellers spending USD 11 billion purchasing sophisticated Patriot missiles, Javelin air defence systems and Apache helicopters.
Since various intelligence reports and analyses forecast conflicts in the Middle East could last for many years, the region will continue to be a gold mine for the military industry who is the only true winner in the Middle Eastern conflict. A statement by weapons industry analyst, William Hartung, explains everything: “If there’s one thing we should have learned over the past 13 years of war, it’s that war is good business for those in the business of war.”
Beside purchase of classic weaponry, GCC states have been forced to strengthen border security, command, control, communication systems as well as cyber surveillance and reconnaissance. Most of the colossal projects are taking place in Saudi Arabia, which is working hard to secure its northern borders with Iraq, from where ISIS strikes could be expected, while rushing to complete a 1700 km wall on its border with Yemen.
Whether or not this precautionary measure will be successful in providing security to the largest GCC member remains to be seen. However, long-lasting conflicts in the Middle East, are extremely profitable and on many occasions talks about loyalty to the Gulf allies and the need for diplomacy coming from many foreign politicians often sound hollow, as peace does not pay the bills.
GCC economies likely to remain stable
So far GCC economies remain relatively stable and quite resistant to troubles in the neighbourhood. But will this remain so in the future? “There is no question that the level of tension in the region has impacted investment flows to the area.
Yet, GCC countries have demonstrated considerable resilience and efforts at greater economic diversification which make them still highly desirable destinations for investment and employment,” says de Kerckhove Matter of fact, foreign investors are eagerly waiting for Saudi Arabia to open its market and stock exchange to international investors, which are expected to bring significant inflow.
De Kerckhove adds Oman is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to the Strait of Hormuz with its major oil and gas terminals and refineries in Sur and Ad Dqum. The Emirates and Qatar continue to attract human and financial capital. The only problem that may pose a real threat here is if AQAP or IS becomes an active force in one of the GCC countries.
For London-based bank analysts, for example, the civil strife and terrorism in Yemen could pose a greater threat to the Gulf countries than tumbling oil prices, especially if the turmoil in Yemen has the potential to spill over into nearby countries. According to them, while negative impact on the GCC remains limited and low in the absolute sense it is still much greater that it was some years ago.
Borck does not believe this could have a big impact at present, although, “These groups have proven their ability to conduct significant and surprising operations in the past. For now, however, I think the GCC is seen by many as a kind of island of stability in the region.”
Beside investments the real issue for the GCC countries remains the situation within oil/gas and the ongoing glut in oil in the world markets and the consequent concerns within the business community of the mixing of politics into the economics of hydrocarbons pricing. Long term perspectives are marked by a heretofore unwitnessed level of uncertainty.
“The low prices are most likely the result of a Saudi policy to harm Iran and other international players dependent on oil. At some point, Saudi Arabia may have to change this policy in order to protect its own economy and the economies of its GCC neighbours,” believes Borck.
Interventionism- new policy
A tsunami of threats has demanded an effective response from the GCC states, in order to reduce these dangers and it seems the new generation of Gulf leaders have taken a more proactive stance in quickly changing the troubled neighborhood, while promoting their own protection and safeguarding their own national and economic interests.
Many believe Saudi military action in Yemen, despite its outcome, may be the beginning of new interventionist policy of the Gulf countries. According to Borck, a lot will depend on the outcome of the Yemen intervention.
“If the Saudi-led coalition can achieve a successful result in Yemen (whatever that may look like), it has the potential to encourage much needed regional security cooperation and integration,” he adds.
A new policy of interventionism requires much more coordination and a clear-eyed view of the endgame and exit strategy, and the GCC states have acquired enough maturity to establish their own “mini-max” in any given situation indicates de Kerckhove.
But “without clear priorities and consensus on how to achieve these, one-upmanship will only lead to disasters. Right now, the threat is ISIS and all peoples of the Book should be united in fighting that scourge,” he continues. Nevertheless, the Gulf States have already engaged in interventionist episodes with different levels of success.
So far they have used multiple policy measures, such as massive financial support, military assistance to ideologically close regimes as well as military interventions which have been most obvious in Yemen’s case and to a lesser extent in Libya, Bahrain and Iraq. In Syria, we are currently seeing what a more united policy can achieve: recent gains by the rebels are clearly also the result of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey working together in supporting certain groups in the country.
All these hotbeds of conflict require the region’s countries’ systemic engagement. Military force will only get one to a certain distance but it is clear the militarisation of the Gulf countries will continue, says de Kerckhove, leading to an arms race notes Brock, despite the plunge of oil prices. The threats (both real and perceived) continue to exist and outside powers (US, UK etc.) are clearly not willing to deploy their own armed forces at the same scale as they have done in the past. They will, however, provide armed forces in the region with the training and equipment to cope with the challenges, Brock continues.
Can heavy military spending in an era of low oil prices slow down the economic development and ambitious projects within the GCC countries? According to Brock, this question should certainly be taken into consideration as spending on defence may eventually affect other areas. “Security cooperation in the region is important, but governments need to remember there are other challenges that require urgent attention: economic, social and political,” he continues.
De Kerckhove warns that as oil prices are bound to rebound, it is the non-oil producing countries of the region which have not created the conditions for long-term growth which will suffer the most. “The GCC countries have no choice but to pursue their projects and development objectives but without regional peace, the bubble could burst,” he concludes.