US-GCC security partnership under new pressures
DUBAI - Concerns over an Iranian threat, instability the “Arab spring” has planted in regional political discourse and now the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) should have added new impetus to the defence relationship between the United States and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain.
However, the US-GCC alliance is being driven increasingly by reactivity to regional events at the cost of a holistic approach that ought to have fast-tracked predetermined strategic goals designed with clearly sequenced milestones to measure progress. For lack of capacity, the technical and operational requirements of the US-GCC defence relationship are increasingly being managed in ad-hoc ways as regional threats outpace the ability of the alliance to react quickly and dynamically.
There is little doubt that the United States has failed to live up to GCC expectations of critical regional security priorities. Now, as the US and the GCC face an increasingly complex regional environment characterised by unprecedented state fragmentation, the rise of transnational non-state actors, a new generation of terrorist groups and the proliferation of weapons, there is no strategic alternative to developing a truly collaborative regional security architecture.
The US and the GCC must work together to develop a regional security architecture that builds on existing capabilities, plugs critical gaps and delivers interconnected forces between the alliance members. In doing so, the US and GCC would operationalise regional security burden-sharing and position themselves to meet emerging challenges. The White House has repeated its commitment to upgrading US-GCC defence cooperation, but progress has been slow.
Despite the apparent US-GCC consensus on the need to improve regional security, progress continues to be impeded at both political and technical levels.
At the political level, the GCC as a whole is hardly in a position to praise US efforts either to allay regional concerns about Iran, the situation in Syria, and the rise of non-state actors such as ISIS around their periphery. Indeed, many intellectuals in the region debate the real motivations behind key decisions the US has made with regards to commonly shared threats and how these decisions are undeniably in tension with the needs of its regional allies.
If there is one common theme in how regional crises have been managed and mismanaged at the political level, it appears to be the unexpected and perhaps unjustifiable reluctance of a superpower such as the US to demonstrate decisive leadership. While the GCC has invested deeply in relations with the US, a serious credibility crisis has formed surrounding what precisely can be expected from the US by the GCC and other regional partner nations.
The regional security environment could continue to disintegrate, creating more space and opportunities for non-state actors to consolidate their influence and support networks. Already, the fight against ISIS is set to last years by most estimates. What is needed today is a radical change in approach to US policy for the Middle East, as well as how the US chooses to lead an effort together with its regional allies and international partners.
Technical impediments also continue to hinder progress on US-GCC defence cooperation. In maritime security, progress has been limited to military exercises and efforts to develop tactics, techniques and procedures. On more important issues such as information-sharing, the US tendency to highly classify information continues to hinder the kind of cooperation expected and required by GCC partners.
In fact, information-sharing at a regional level continues to remain inadequate. It is vital that the US works with its GCC partners to ensure it contributes towards the shared intelligence, surveillance, tracking and reconnaissance network the GCC requires by fast-tracking equipment sales of relevant capabilities such as remotely piloted aircraft, removing restrictions that hinder operational integration between GCC allies and helping develop technical capacities for regional operators to improve effectiveness.
Failure to step up efforts that synchronise the approaches to regional security in and around the Gulf threatens negative and costly impacts upon US and GCC security interests and indeed on the survivability of their alliance. Volumes of GCC-bound defence sales in themselves cannot be used as the test for US commitment to regional allies and regional security or act as a substitute for a truly collaborative security architecture.
The bottom line, simply, is that the US – as a superpower and as a partner with tremendous resources, capabilities and technical expertise at its disposal – is failing to assure the level of operational capability, interoperability and joint readiness required in the Arabian Gulf by its partners.
The emerging strategic environment makes it increasingly necessary for the US and GCC states alike to take a more proactive role in regional security.
As such, if the US-GCC strategic alliance is to survive the global and regional rebalancing of power, the United States must fix the problem of its lack of direction, commitment and leadership at the political level and remove those policy and technical barriers that prevent the realisation of a collaborative regional security architecture. The US-GCC alliance must successfully position itself to face the complex threats of the emerging strategic environment through a holistic, forward-looking approach rather than be constrained by red tape and shortsightedness.