Neutrality is not an option: The GCC states need to take a clear position on the Georgian crisis

Posted in Russia , Broader Middle East | 22-Sep-08 | Author: Abdulaziz Sager| Source: Gulf Research Center

GCC leaders attend a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting.

The crisis over Georgia should give the GCC states a reason to be concerned. Far from being confined to its immediate neighborhood, the crisis between Russia, Georgia and the international community has broader and emerging geopolitical implications as well. One immediate area of concern is Iran's continued march toward a military nuclear capability and the role of Russia in this equation. This has direct consequences for the security of the entire Gulf region. As a result, the Arab Gulf states cannot afford to stay quiet in the current discussions and they must make their concerns known and state their policy positions clearly. A strategy of not taking sides, maintaining strict neutrality, and avoiding a clear position in fact can have counterproductive results.

Overall, relations between the GCC states and Russia have improved in the last few years with trade volumes increasing six-fold since 2000 and with former President Putin's visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in February 2007 outlining numerous areas of additional cooperation. To be sure, there are concrete interests at play when it comes to GCC-Russian relations. These concern counter-terrorism efforts, the role of the Muslim community within the Russian republics, the possible sale of military equipment to the Gulf region, cooperation on energy issues and finally, Iran's nuclear program, which has the potential to upset the regional strategic balance in a fundamental manner.

In all of these areas, concrete cooperation is possible but only if Russia displays a stabilizing attitude towards the broader region. With its actions in the Georgia crisis, the fact is that Russia has not only jeopardized the expansion of the north-south economic corridor from the Gulf to Russia but its military campaign has also had a direct negative impact on Gulf investment in the Caucasus. For example, the Georgian port of Poti, which is majority-owned by UAE's Ras al-Khaimah Investment Authority, sustained heavy damage in the Russian air raids. Such action is certainly not the right signal as far as the region is concerned.

In light of such events, it is necessary for the GCC to take a clear position and make sure that Russia understands the possible consequences of its actions also for GCC-Russia ties. Three concrete steps can be taken. First, the GCC should come out clearly in support of the efforts of the European Union (EU) to resolve the crisis diplomatically and to work out a solution that serves as the foundation for a broader European security order. Europe is the chief interlocutor between Moscow and Tbilisi, and the EU is the only institution available at present that can not only serve as a basis to restore confidence but, more importantly, prevent the crisis from deteriorating further and beyond its immediate neighborhood. The deployment of 200 ceasefire monitors in the buffer zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, ahead of an expected Russian troop withdrawal by October 10, is a step in the right direction toward de-escalation and the GCC should support it.

Second, the GCC states have to make it clear to Russia what is expected of it. As far as Iran is concerned, it has to be conveyed to Moscow that this in no time to use the Iran card as a bargaining chip in its broader confrontation with the United States. Given that Iran is in direct violation of three UN Security Council resolutions to cease its uranium enrichment activities, it remains in the interest of the international community to see that Iran does not attain a nuclear capability while at the same time ensuring that the current stand-off is resolved peacefully. The report released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on September 15 once again underlined that the agency is not able "to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran." In this light, Iran cannot be allowed to reap the indirect benefits of this crisis by being allowed to use Russian obstructionism to stave off further action against the Islamic Republic in case it fails to fulfill its obligations to the Security Council.

In this context, Russia needs to underscore that there exists no linkage between Iran's nuclear activities and the Georgia crisis. Furthermore, the GCC states should demand of Moscow the assurances that any item delivered to Iran as part of the work on the Bushehr reactor is strictly limited to civilian applications only. Better yet, Russia should not provide any nuclear assistance to Iran at all. In addition, Russia should also not allow the sale of the Russian S-300 anti-air defense system to Iran to proceed as this would most certainly be a wrong signal at a wrong time.

Third, the GCC states should strengthen their relations with NATO through the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI). As far as Gulf security is concerned, Russia is no alternative and certainly not a replacement for the US in the region. While the US military role in the region does come with its own problems and complications, it does remain an integral part of assuring the independence and sovereignty of the GCC states in a dangerous and unpredictable neighborhood. Here, NATO is a viable alternative that can assist the region with the stability it requires while at the same time tempering the more objectionable unilateral tendencies of the US. Moreover, ICI is the right platform to enhance regional cooperation and coordination. Consequently, it is time for the GCC to send a strong signal to NATO of their desire to see cooperation under ICI deepened and expanded, including seeing Saudi Arabia and Oman signing up to the initiative. The GCC states should also make it clear that they support NATO's position with regard to the situation in Georgia.

While one can understand the case for neutrality as some have called for in the GCC, such a stand is not the right one to take at this time when key security and strategic issues are involved. If the GCC states want to play an active role in shaping the regional security environment, their position must be clear and straightforward. The crisis as it relates to Georgia and Russia provides them the opportunity to play such a role.