Reform prospects in GCC countries and the establishment of a new Gulf security order

Posted in Broader Middle East | 24-Jun-05 | Author: Nadim Hasbani

We have to build a cultural bridge between the West and the Islamic World and we have to start an…
We have to build a cultural bridge between the West and the Islamic World and we have to start an open dialogue about our values, human rights and a better future.
The US long term dependence on Gulf oil is evolving. The United States depend vitally today on an integrated and inter-linked world economy. Therefore any instability in oil supplies, not necessarily to the US, has an impact on the world economy and thus on that of the United States. Since the 1971 British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf, the US has maintained a strong presence in the region motivated by this dependence and implemented various reactionary visions of security arrangements that should insure uninterrupted oil supplies but not necessarily regional security.

Consequently and seeing the Gulf’s instability and wars, one is to question if the United States have been more of a destabilizing factor to the region, or as believed, the world’s oil circulation and price watchdog? Was the 35 year American presence in the Gulf a strategic success? After the Iraq war, what are the possible prospects for future security arrangements in this volatile region currently at crossroads between evolving political systems, apparent pressures to reform in an environment with new threats?

I- Regional failure of past security arrangements for the Gulf

The guiding principle of U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf is to prevent any country from regional hegemony leading to an oil dependency. With its strong military presence, the United States emerged as the most powerful state in the Gulf region. However, due to its vast territory, demography, coastal line, history and as it name indicates, the Persian Gulf’s natural dominant regional power is Iran. By preventing Iran from fulfilling this role for the above mentioned oil dependency reason the US are inevitably in constant confrontational relation with Iran over Gulf hegemony.

After the US replaced British troops in the Gulf during the 1970s, a new US Gulf security system called “Pillars Strategy” was built around two main regional allies. Iran and Saudi Arabia were charged with securing the area against possible foreign threats. The dependence of the United States on these two pillar countries tied its fortunes to regimes of frail legitimacy.

Since the replacement of the pro-American Shah in 1979 by one of the fiercest anti-US regimes in the world, Washington was confronted with a new threat originating from within the region. Accordingly, the US adapted a new Gulf security strategy “the Carter Doctrine” built on what will become the US Central Command (CENTCOM). Its mission consists in planning and executing military operations in the Gulf.

After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, a new complementary strategy was put in place, “Dual Containment”. It called for the enforcement of sanctions and embargoes on Iraq and Iran. At the same time, the rotating US troop presence in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was reinforced but locally perceived as a permanent US military presence.

After 9/11, and under great domestic pressure, Saudi Arabia ended massive US troop presence on its soil. The “Pre-emptive Strike Doctrine” was then enforced by the US with a broadened number of regional allies. Thus US Gulf security’s reliance on one major Gulf state was reduced. The US deployed thousands of rotational man in small Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman), through several bilateral agreements. Consequently it puts enormous political strains on Gulf sheikdoms and makes them more vulnerable to domestic problems.

These short term strategies were reactively changing every decade. This confusing and constant change prevented GCC countries from building sustainable and consistent strategies; defense policies adapted to a long term US Gulf security system insuring stability. Furthermore, one can not but notice that the Pillars Strategy and later on the Containment Strategy both ended by world scale wars either as direct or indirect consequences of the US security policies in the region; Iraq-Iran war during the 1980s then the Gulf war liberating Kuwait and later on the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime. Two main oil producers were first at war (Iraq-Iran), then Kuwait, a major oil supplier was invaded.

Meanwhile, US reactions to these events such as blunt military presence in the Gulf and backing-up local unelected allied regimes created, among other factors, a favorable environment for the upsurge of terrorist networks that reached the US soil. Finally, US presence in Iraq endangered local regimes by pushing them to reform without possible political alternatives as it will be described later on. Thus, it created a very insecure political situation in the Gulf.

Even though they have experienced several wars, the Gulf region’s undemocratic oil producing regimes remained internally stable for the past 30 years. Noteworthy, oil prices and oil circulation remained relatively stable assuring a steady path towards globalization and growth. From the US perspective the target was reached in spite of reactionary short term Gulf security strategies. Stability of oil markets was ensured.

However in terms of the region’s interests, US back-up of authoritarian regimes for decades resulted in serious repercussions on its development. This includes three wars and unprecedented low political, economic, socio-cultural and technologic development characteristics requiring virtually impossible political reforms.

Gulf Cooperation Council - an important alliance
Gulf Cooperation Council - an important alliance
II- Reforms, a necessity, but a dangerous one

Since the 9/11 attacks, most of the Arab Gulf States are reassessing their external-security priorities. At the same time, they seem to be embarking on “domestic reforms”. Both initiatives have been taken in parallel because domestic threats are increasing since 9/11. Also, the US security cover is perceived as less reliable since then. Moreover the attacks themselves are, to many, a consequence of the lack of reforms.

Indeed, if previous Gulf related wars were solved through military solutions (the Tankers War, the Gulf War…) Potential serious internal unrest in GCC countries can not be solved by military means. Recent confrontations between Saudi security forces and Islamists, as well as the recent bombings in Qatar and Kuwait proves it.

Potential unrest in GCC States or widespread unrest in Saudi Arabia, for example, would threaten oil exports and prices just as surely as a hypothetical Iranian invasion. Saudi Arabia (like Bahrain) perceives reforms as a threat more than other GCC countries. Domestic and international pressure to reform amplifies even more its anxiety about internal reforms and results in violence against internal opposition and liberals. A possible toppling of the royal family is not an exaggerated hypothesis. In a worst case scenario Saudi Arabia would even fragment along tribal and confessional lines. The Shia minority has long been unsatisfied with the wealth division and the Hijaz tribes and elite were the last to surrender to the Saoud family and kept a somehow bitter taste of it. The eventual return to Saudi Arabia of Saudi Islamist fighters reported by the Arab press to be in Iraq would reignite violence. Shia in eastern Saudi Arabia are particularly concerned by the anti-Shiite nature of some insurgents coming back from Iraq. Moreover, socio-economic and political malaise when oil prices are down raises concerns over Saudi social stability.

Therefore political reforms should be addressing two main issues: implementing international criteria and democracy standards on one hand and on the other, response to domestic reform challenges that resulted previously in the birth of several terrorist cells and increase of the fundamentalist’s popularity. Attempts to reform are however facing two main obstacles.

First, suggesting reforms in the Middle East is an absolute irony. The pace of reform, if it exists at all, is irrationally dictated by states: calls to reform means asking these regimes to help toppling themselves since no other viable political force exists to do the reform work. Asking Arab regimes to let go the power they held, reinforced and maximized by all means for the past 35 years and moreover step aside will not through the own regime’s dynamics of reform. Arab dictatorships rhetoric about reforming themselves while they have nothing to gain out of it is and will remain limited to cosmetic half-measures targeting the ease of pressure. Bahrain is the best example illustrating the irony of reform demands. The Bahraini government led initiative for reforms that began in mid 1990s failed. Democracy in Bahrain obviously means the power should be given up to the Shia majority representing more than 70% of the population, thus the end of the effective rule of the Khalifa dynasty. On the longer term, a Shia dominated Bahrain will naturally favor close links to Iran and not to Saudi which, in the eyes of the Sunni dominated GCC states is not an option. Therefore, they will keep on backing-up the unpopular Khalifa royal family.

Assuming for a second that under tremendous pressure GCC States will effectively reform and hold free and fair elections resulting in constitutional monarchies, there are only two scenarios, one could think of: Islamists gaining the majority or a military coup resulting from marginalization of the military institution in highly militarized societies.

So why would Islamists win elections? During the past 35 years Arab countries have been frozen in a political status-quo that transformed political life into a political desert. Political class and politicians capable of expressing different points of view are absent and no organized political alternative with a programme seems to exist. Besides the current regimes, only Islamist movements and to a far lesser extent tribal considerations could draw significant amount of votes. As a result, the elections in Arab countries and in GCC - besides Kuwait and its parliamentary system - are likely to see Islamists sweeping most of the seats. Local elections in Saudi Arabia are the latest example and proof that though an uncontested necessity, the reforms are potentially dangerous when civil society and political alternatives are absent.

Second, the myth of “overnight” democracy through reforms should be questioned. Gulf countries are expected to evolve quickly from tribal and nomadic societies, into 21st century Western like democracies. Such brutal reforms are likely to cause a collapse of the Gulf social systems. That is precisely why the so-called Arab reformists are emphasizing the fact that reforms should result from a domestic dynamic rather than international pressure seen as a move to export Western values. First of all, in the Middle East more than elsewhere, democracy is a matter of generational education. It is value learning process of notions such as accountability and culture of political participation … values that need at least a generation to reach the collective unconscious of an entire society.

In the absence of sustained domestic and/or international pressure to reform, the current regimes have nothing to gain of reforms and risk loosing everything. Naturally they will attempt to avoid change at any cost. Thus, for the moment reformist attempts are limited and if real change is to happen it would involve some disruptions. Moreover, the perceived continuous US back-up of Israel resulted in the US being viewed by most Arabs as an enemy. Therefore, US initiatives for reforms in the Arab world will be apprehended as pro-Israeli and thus anti-Arab. Furthermore, reform attempts could backfire on American interests. GCC governments are angry at the US for sponsoring reformists, and the few reformists are angry at the US for backing the governments they are trying to influence.

III- New threats in the Gulf

Both oil interests and nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf mean that the US has a clear long term interest in ensuring regional stability and the build-up of a pro-Western Gulf security arrangement. However, a future Gulf security system will have to face new additional threats. Destabilizing factors prior to 2001 such as Arab-Israeli relations, economic dependence on oil and Iran will remain. Additional issues to be addressed include the risk of domestic political upheaval. Furthermore, should the Iraqi reconstruction and stabilization processes fail it will effect the stability of Gulf States, with possible consequences on their economies and the unleashing of a domino effect related to the bourgeoning Sunni-Shia political conflict throughout the Middle East. Notwithstanding the possible Iranian nuclear proliferation which could totally shift the Gulf security equation and its military equilibrium.

The Gulf Cooperation Council - an island of stability in a volatile geo-strategic environment
The Gulf Cooperation Council - an island of stability in a volatile geo-strategic environment
A global Shia-Sunni conflict

The US invasion of Iraq is undoubtedly stirring up long dormant hatreds between Sunnis and Shia all over the Middle East possibly in a much larger scope than the Iranian revolution. This time the source of this Shia political awakening is a major Arab country. The domino effect between Arab countries is more likely to take place. Indeed, no Arab country has ever been politically dominated by Shia.

As Lee Smith puts in a New York Times article in May 2005 titled Bush, the Great Shiite Liberator, “After nearly 1,400 years of Sunni-dominated Islamic history, for a predominantly Shiite government to preside over an Arab state is utterly revolutionary. The Sunni social order persisted through Mongol invasions, the Ottoman Empire and British occupation, until now”.

Besides Bahrain where it has been present for a long time, the sectarian sense is rising to unprecedented levels in several Gulf countries as a direct repercussion of Iraqi developments. The newly established democratic process in Iraq requires that the Shia dominated demography takes the biggest share of power. This is definitely unleashing political demands of Shia minorities all over the region including Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia where large Shia minorities or majorities exist.

Indeed, the official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Wahhabism, regards Shia as a heresy. In the Saudi case, granting political rights to the Shia would be renunciation of Wahhabism, the main religious legitimacy source of the Saudi Kingdom. So any reform granting the Saudi Shia political rights will be probably confronted to violent opposition by the hardliners. To tip back the Middle East regional scale in favor of the Sunnis, restoring Syria's Sunni majority into power instead of the Assad Alawi regime is a probability for instance, that makes proof of the wide impact of reforms in the Gulf on the entire Middle East.

Security wise, the Sunni-dominated GCC countries are not likely to offer a Shia-led Iraq membership in the organization. Furthermore the idea behind the organization’s creation was deterrence of the Iranian threat. Incorporating Iraq in the GCC will push it implicitly to take position against Iran, a situation Iraqi Shia will probably reject. Iraq, having (or not having yet) a delicate concensual political balance between Sunnis and Shia (and Kurds) will have to act as a moderate middle man between Sunni dominated Gulf countries and Shia dominated Iran. Otherwise, any clash between Gulf countries and Iran will automatically produce dramatic repercussions on the Iraqi political equilibrium. Disturbance in Iraqi political balance will influence the entire Gulf area as much as brutal changes in the Gulf sectarian equilibrium exercise a destabilizing effect on the Iraqi system.

Iran Nuclear proliferation

Moreover, with the Gulf now facing the very real prospect of Iran armed with nuclear weapons, GGC countries will feel even more threatened by Iran hegemonic views create unavoidable political nervesnous and potential clashes that repercute on Iraqi domestic politics.

Iran feels and has always felt that its rightful position as a leading power in the Gulf has been denied. Its possession of the Nuclear Bomb is considered to be a path towards becoming the natural regional power need be against the regional, European and US will.

While relatively weak militarily, Iran can also pose a sea-denial threat in the Gulf with missiles, mines, gunboats, or submarines, which could seriously disturb energy markets. Nevertheless and understandably, any state surrounded by an enemy seen as “big Satan” and/or by nuclear powers from almost all sides (Russia, Israel, Pakistan and the US which possesses around 90 nuclear heads in the Turkish base of Incirlik) will look for an equivalent deterrence measure. Therefore, even if a moderate Iranian regime replaces the Mullahs, it is likely to pursuit military nuclear programmes; the Shah was hoping to get a nuclear bomb, the Mullah’s are today and the regime that will follow them will be tomorrow.

IV- Recommendations for the future of US presence in the Gulf and for a new regional security system

In this context and for the foreseeable future, the series of bilateral agreements signed between each Gulf State and the US will remain the bedrock of GCC security. The latter will probably continue guarantying Iraq and GCC’s external security through pre-positioned material and bases equipped for military air lifts in 5 out of 6 GCC States. Noteworthy, the post 9/11 US strategy and thus its military bases are relying on the weakest countries of the regions, leaving aside the three local powers: Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. The US presence though a necessity is seen by many as a burden to the region. A new Gulf security system should take into consideration several points in order to insure not only stable oil prices but regional stability as well.

  • Gulf Emirates: With a strong dependence on stability in Iraq, risky reforms in Saudi Arabia and the increasing unconventional Iranian threat, small Gulf emirates will have to rely more than ever on the US at least for the five or so coming years. However using GCC countries by the US as a security systems and an anti-Iran alliance proved in the past to be costly, fragile and led to regional wars.

  • The threat of internal instability in GCC States: The best way for the United States to help strengthening GCC countries would be by drastically reducing its military presence in the region. New airlift capabilities and forces projection, reduced size of forces, military standardization and equipment interoperability permit today more then ever such forces reduction without loosing fire-power. American military presence should be limited to “over the horizon” naval presence, Al Udeid air base and command center in Qatar as well as pre-positioned equipment in Kuwait where it is best accepted.

  • Helping GCC countries to build true defense capabilities: The GCC states remain long way from living up to their theoretical military potential. Since 9/11, they have been reexamining their own defense capabilities fearing the US might indeed reduce its Gulf based forces. Consequently they are trying to gain independent operational capabilities. This momentum should be used by the US and Europe to help them build efficient and functional military capacities and go beyond defense equipments sales as commercial and lucrative deals with no strategic aim what so ever.

  • The Iraq war consequences on Gulf stability: As explained by the American University of Kuwait’s President in a development conference in Bahrain in February 2005, “if the US succeeds in Iraq, it will be easier for it to establish more locally accepted Gulf bases in Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain”. Four US bases seem to be already planned in Iraq as well. Ironically, “failing in Iraq means the US will need these bases to assure a minimum of security in the Gulf”. Furthermore, if the US succeeds in stabilizing Iraq and implementing military bases there, it should not use it again as a counter power to Iran. This end will surely fragilise the Iraq’s hectic new political system and lead it to explode on religious lines.

  • Saudi-US relations: Seeing the mistrust on both sides and the shared interests as well, it will remain in the mid-term a friend and foe relation. As long as the Saudi regime meets world oil demands and fights Islamist radicals as part of the “War Against Terror”, it will continue to receive tacit American support.

  • Confidence building measures with Iran: The drawdown of US forces, if well marketed, can help assuage Iranian fears of external interferences in Gulf issues. This option is precisely feared by the US. In Washington’s eyes such a force reduction will not contain Iran but on the contrary will be perceived as a weakness message which is should not be the case since forces projection capabilities can be deterrent enough.

  • China and Europe: The inevitably increasing roles of Europe and China in the Gulf are to be taken in consideration on the longer term. Since China became an oil importer in 1993 it is clearly trying to diversify its oil resources and will be willing some day to use its political and increasing military leverages to influence at least oil rich countries (like it is already doing with Sudan for instance). It will not leave the management of Gulf security solely to the US and the region might become another political confrontation arena between both major powers. As for Europe, the more it becomes a political force the more it expects a voice in Gulf and wider Middle East affairs as well.