Qatar crisis likely to alter GCC defence cooperation strategies
When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established in 1981, bringing together Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the pursuit of collective security was a driving force alongside the economic rationale of an alliance.
However, the Saudi-Emirati- Egyptian-Bahraini boycott of Qatar — the most serious fall-out between GCC states — has effectively brought the process of GCC defence cooperation to a strategic crossroads.
The US military has been a key supporter, catalyst and beneficiary of GCC defence cooperation since 1981, sometimes placing itself as a focal point around which to concentrate future defence cooperation and development.
The US Air Force Central Command’s (AFCENT) regional headquarters, at Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar, has been a key component of the regional defence capability architecture. Indeed, if the fallout with Qatar had not taken place in the way it did, AFCENT and its regional headquarters would have continued to spearhead US involvement in a more militarily integrated GCC. That role seems improbable if AFCENT remains in Qatar.
Progress in resolving the dispute with Qatar has been slower than expected and the possibility for a decisive breakthrough appears slim. During a talk to Chatham House in July, Anwar Gargash, the UAE state minister for foreign affairs, laid out the position of key GCC states vis-à-vis Qatar when he said: “You cannot be part of a regional organisation dedicated to strengthening mutual security and furthering mutual interest and at the same time undermine that security.”
Qatar will find it difficult to completely substitute its security reliance on the GCC with an alliance with Turkey, Iran and other countries. It can hope to strategically rebalance but rebalancing needs time.
However, Qatari rapprochement — if it happens — may not necessarily guarantee a complete or immediate reset as far as defence cooperation is concerned. Indeed, it could take years of confidence-building following any Qatari rapprochement for trust to be restored with its heavyweight neighbours in the GCC.
As such, regardless of whether Qatar withdraws from the GCC, is suspended or expelled or even if an unexpected rapprochement were to occur, the direction of GCC defence cooperation will need to be revised.
GCC defence cooperation cannot be left in limbo too long and hindering factors such as the fallout with Qatar will need to be worked around. Keep in mind the GCC maintains a policy of unanimous consensus between members to endorse resolutions on cooperation activities, so any paralysis the fallout creates is not sustainable.
Behind the scenes, GCC militaries have spent years working on integrating air forces as well as coastal and critical infrastructure protection, much of which is offshore. However, the United States recently called off major military exercises with the GCC that had been held annually since 1999 due to the dispute with Qatar. Other programmes have also been affected.
The United States would like to see a resolution of the Qatar boycott but if that does not occur soon, the US military will need to look at alternative formulas to stay engaged with its other important partners.
The United States will eventually be forced to reconsider the utility of Al Udeid as its regional headquarters for AFCENT. The Americans may opt to retain Al Udeid for other purposes but its air operations centre would need to be relocated if AFCENT is to effectively spearhead US contributions to future GCC-level or GCC-based defence with its larger and more important allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, among others.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis has noted the interest of several countries keen to host US bases, including for AFCENT, but the UAE would appear the strongest and most suitable host. AFCENT relocating its operations centre to the UAE would bolster US-UAE ties while lending great support to wider US defence objectives in the region in the long term.
Another consequence of the Saudi-led bloc’s fallout with Qatar may be for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to become more open with their approach to regional defence cooperation, more readily bringing in non- GCC countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, as core partners.
GCC defence cooperation may thus evolve from its inward-looking GCC-focused past to a more outward-looking GCC-led outlook on defence and security cooperation. Such an evolution is arguably in incubation mode with the Saudi-led Arab bloc and we may see more focus placed on such a strategy in 2018.
Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.