Security ramifications of the GCC’s 35th annual meeting
The GCC is witnessing one of the most critical periods in its history
This past week, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held the 35th Ministerial and Heads of State Summit in Doha, Qatar. This meeting was one of its most important gatherings ever:the results were impressive in terms of unity in the face of unprecedented threats and security issues facing the GCC. The wide-ranging results showed that much of the bickering between member states may finally be in the past. At the same time, however, new issues are cropping up that illustrate the difficulties, old and new, that lay ahead.
In the weeks leading to the GCC meeting, numerous press reports stated that a joint military force with headquarters in Riyadh would be announced. Although there was not much fanfare about the joint military force at the actual meeting, the Dir Al-Jazeera (Peninsula Shield) joint military force established in 1982 and headquartered in Saudi Arabia appears to be strengthened with 4000 land-based forces that include all of the GCC states. This will bolster further the ability of the GCC states to conduct joint and bi-lateral exercises.
According to an Arab official, the ability of GCC states to coordinate at U.S CENTCOM FORWARD in Jordan played a role in terms of further coordination within and development of the Dir Al-Jazeera. At US CENTCOM FORWARD, several GCC members including those at “each other’s throats” recently have been working on policy planning ever since US CENTCOM FORWARD took place However, more work is needed on the Dir Al-Jazeera force in order to give the armed contingent teeth.
The GCC leaders also announced a regional police force in addition to a joint naval force. The idea of a regional police force, known now as GCC-POL, and a separate joint naval force has been in the works for the past three years. GCC-POL is based out of Abu Dhabi and the joint naval force is located in Bahrain. It is telling that in the case of the joint naval force that Bahrain and the UK announced that Britain is to have a new base in Bahrain for its maritime forces. This development, announced the day before the GCC ministerial meeting, is significant not only because it signals the UK return to the Gulf 43 years after it pulled out of the region but also commits Britain to help the joint force police Gulf waters and confirms the UK plan to implement its resurgent “East of Suez” policy.
The reason behind the development of GCC-POL is to focus on two key threats: The internal present and future extremist threat in the GCC states, particularly from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as state meddling in the GCC by neighboring powers, notably Iran and Turkey. GCC-POL will also focus on drug trafficking, money laundering and cyber-crime within the GCC as well as external illicit crime networks. Although GCC interior ministries maintain information sharing, maritime security in the Arabian Gulf needs to be joint and it is critical to coordinate not only to protect sea-lanes and fisheries but also energy platforms and shipping. Here, unity of the GCC’s maritime littoral is an important requirement that requires immediate attention. Most GCC states are upping their shallow water operations and coordination through procurement.
A united front
The dangers of the security situation in the region were also on the GCC’s agenda. The summit focused on the threat posed by ISIS and other extremists, Iran’s regional ambitions, the Houthi expansion in Yemen, the situation in Libya, and relations with other Arab states such as Egypt. The GCC is considering the adoption of terrorist lists issued by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in March and November 2014 respectively. According to an Arab official, the GCC move is meant “to close ranks with its GCC brothers, because both the United States and Britain are rejecting these terrorist lists.” Indeed, the GCC seeks to create a united list of groups deemed to be extremist, independent of Western definitions of “fanatical”, to show the world that the extremist universe is wide and threatening to Arabian Peninsula states and their neighbors and hostile to their achievements.
The GCC is witnessing one of the most critical periods in its historyDr. Theodore Karasik
The GCC also focused on Egypt and Libya: two major countries to the GCC west that are threatened by extremists of various hues. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi was given a strong endorsement by the GCC as did the Libyan government of Prime Minister Abdullah Al Thinni in Tubruq as the legitimate government of Libya. Both of these validations should be seen as confirming regional requirements where the GCC will become increasingly involved if security in Egypt and Libya deteriorates even further. Despite the decline in oil prices, we should expect more money and support to go to the two countries than ever before with southern European powers also sharing GCC concerns regarding Mediterranean security. In the prelude and aftermath of the GCC summit, the Al Thinni government and General Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity ramped up their fight against the Libya Dawn forces allegedly with Egyptian support. Al Thinni also began the process of cutting off overseas assets from the Libyan Central Bank to squeeze Libya Dawn. Clearly, the GCC summit endorsed these moves by giving support to the legitimate government in Libya.
A critical time
Resolving issues surrounding Iran did not gain much momentum at the GCC summit. Significantly, in the run-up to the GCC annual ministerial meeting, Saudi Crown Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulazziz and Iranian President Rowhani met secretly in Muscat to try to settle differences on a host of issues including oil prices, the fight against ISIS, and other security questions. According to a Jordanian diplomat, “The two sides didn’t get past the letter “I” in ISIS in their discussion. The discord between Riyadh and Tehran is still high because of the P5+1 nuclear negotiations and the impact on GCC security of an agreement with the Americans. This is in addition to the perception of Iran’s support of the Houthi in Yemen especially in the wake of the Houthis power-grab in Saana, and the declining price of oil.” It was hoped by many that an accommodation could be reached between the GCC and Iran on ISIS because of Tehran’s air strikes against the extremist group. But too many other issues still stand in the way from the GCC point of view. Consequently, the debate about Iran’s place in the region is still subject to interpretation of Tehran’s behavior in the coming six months, especially at the end of the second quarter of 2015.
Overall, the GCC is witnessing one of the most critical periods in its history.
The region surrounding the GCC sphere of influence is inflamed with what can be described as a regional transition and creation of a new security architecture. The GCC is making the right steps at the right time. It is vital to secure their homelands through first the GCC-POL and joint maritime force and to bolster ahead Dir Al-Jazeera as soon as possible. Rectifying the situation in Syria seems to be a longer term project that will receive more GCC attention in the coming months since there is much work to be done—from the fate of Bashar Assad, which might be decided in Moscow, to the crushing of ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. Now it seems the GCC is moving towards more integration and putting major differences aside. The next step is likely to be ending foreign attempts to interfere in the affairs of the region: Most notably Turkish and Iranian designs from the GCC perspective. All of these moves in the last week are a step in the right direction to bring law, order, and stability in 2015 and beyond.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Senior Advisor to Risk Insurance Management in Dubai, UAE. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets: @tkarasik