Journal Essay

Security Assurances for the Gulf States: A Bearable Burden?

Jerome H. Kahan

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

Mr. Kahan is an independent analyst with over 40 years of experience in the field of national security, having held senior positions in the Department of State and the Brookings Institution, where he authored a book titled Security in the Nuclear Age.

Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar — closely followed negotiations between Iran and the five Security Council members plus Germany (P5+1) that led to agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), unofficially known as the Nuclear Deal. In commenting on this outcome, an experienced former U.S. diplomat argued that the JCPOA might well take care of Iran's nuclear-weapons ambitions for the medium term but warned that, with sanctions lifted and more resources available for Iran to conduct disruptive activities in Yemen and Syria, this accord might have the effect of increasing the current sense of insecurity on the part of the Gulf countries — and then observed, "That's why strategic reassurance is necessary."1 Indeed, two months before the JCPOA was signed, the UAE ambassador to Washington, speaking at an Atlantic Council Forum, expressing concern over the continued destabilizing behavior of Iran and the overall dangerous regional environment, claimed that the Gulf states have become interested in a formal security guarantee from the United States: not a "gentleman's agreement," [but] "something institutionalized."2 A week later, President Obama invited leaders of the Gulf states to a rare summit meeting at Camp David, where mutual security relations were discussed.3


At the summit, President Obama applauded progress made by the recently formed U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum (SCF) in building a collective capability to address more effectively the range of threats facing the region: acts of terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and dangers to regional stability. Anticipating the interest of the Gulf states in a more formal security relationship with the United States, Obama explained that such an approach would not be fruitful, since treaties or other legal pacts "would have to be approved by a Congress wary of being legally sucked into any future conflicts in the region."4 However, in defending our de facto security assurances, the president reaffirmed "our ironclad commitment to the security of our Gulf partners, [and reiterated] that the United States is prepared to work jointly with GCC member states to deter and confront an external threat to any GCC state's territorial integrity, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, ... for the defense of our GCC partners."5 The president also made clear to Gulf leaders that the credibility of our security guarantees has been enhanced through such cooperative endeavors as forward basing for U.S. forces, mutual exchanges of intelligence information, joint military exercises, and U.S. provision of sophisticated military equipment and training to GCC members.

Before the summit ended, Gulf-state leaders responded positively to the U.S. proposal for establishing a new strategic partnership aimed at enhancing cooperation between the United States and the GCC collectively as well as with the Council's individual members.6 The United States declared that it would contribute to this partnership by providing assistance in such areas as counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, maritime and cybersecurity, and interoperability of military forces, as well as air and ballistic-missile defense. The United States also agreed to help its Gulf partners "accelerate the acquisition and fielding of key capabilities, [by taking] steps necessary to ensure arms transfers are fast-tracked..." and granting special status to all the Gulf states so they can obtain arms-purchasing benefits from NATO countries.7

In addition to a political agenda, the GCC for over three decades has sought to establish a collective-defense capability to protect its members from external aggression, rather than remaining reliant on the United States and other Western nations for security.8 A Joint Defense Agreement was formed among all GCC member nations to institutionalize the concept that "an attack on any member State meant an attack against all of them," and a unified military command was established for officers from each of the individual militaries to gain joint force experience.9 Despite these initiatives and the spending of many billions of dollars upgrading the military capabilities of individual Gulf states, progress towards a fully integrated GCC defense system has been hampered by several factors: the lack of equipment interoperability, the absence of cooperative combat, the need to enhance the professionalism and performance of military personnel serving in each state, and the inability of the member states to develop common threat perceptions. In short, efforts over the past three decades have not led to a GCC force that can assure the security of its members against growing external threats.

The failure of the GCC to develop the capabilities to defend its members has made U.S. security assurances to the Gulf states vital, requiring more emphasis on deeds than words. For example, the United States conducts exercises in conjunction with all six GCC states, offers combined training for their military units, and assists in making purchased equipment more interoperable — all essential building blocks for a potential GCC force. Additionally, the United States continues to base its forces on the territories of the Gulf states, with their consent. Currently, Saudi Arabia provides the United States with air and army bases; Kuwait, air and staging as well as critical port facilities; Bahrain, a critical base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet; Qatar, a major headquarters center with air bases and ports; the UAE, extensive docking and ship-repair capabilities as well as intelligence cooperation; and Oman, air and naval staging and prepositioning facilities.10

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