The Gulf Union: defense first

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

In 2011, when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced the intention to create the Gulf Union, one facet of the initiative stood out immediately—that of defense.

The idea of the Gulf Union is to unify many aspects of the GCC under a new mantle, across a number of fields from economics to social issues to defense. Defense of the GCC is a paramount concern in the current regional environment, especially considering Iran’s assertive behavior in the Arab states.

There is even the possibility, that because of threats from the Syrian battlefield, Jordan may join the GCC as a security partner

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The Peninsula Shield forces are a stepping stone towards creating a Gulf Union. The Peninsula Shield is becoming a robust force and protector of the GCC. In the past, the Peninsula Shield was used in Kuwait and in Bahrain as a protective force against outside hostility. Currently, Peninsula Shield numbers are growing, new equipment is being added, and with the GCC under threat from events in Syria and from Iran’s growing arsenal of conventional weapons and asymmetric warfare capabilities, now is the time for greater unity of the GCC under a GCC Union. Joint exercises to protect air, land, and sea from foreign threats are increasing, including the “Islands of Loyalty” war games conducted last year.

A stepping stone towards harmony

There is even the possibility, that because of threats from the Syrian battlefield, Jordan may join the GCC as a security partner, thereby guaranteeing that the Peninsula Shield could be used if Amman is in trouble. In other words, the Peninsula Shield forces are a stepping stone towards harmony and an agreement between all member states and neighbors towards a Gulf Union.

Within the realm of defense, there is also the fact that Iran, as a threat to the GCC, helps to unite the GCC, under a unified defensive umbrella against Tehran’s sophisticated ballistic and cruise missile systems. Ballistic missiles were used in previous wars in the Gulf littoral region and will be used in any future conflicts so hedging against them is very important. The fact that the United States has placed PAC-3 systems in almost all the GCC states, and has already sold a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD system to the UAE, helps to unite the member countries together in anti-ballistic and cruise missile defense systems. The U.S. is now pushing the GCC states to act directly with each other in a multilateral system. Currently the GCC is working with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency on creating a true, integrated defensive system. In addition, the GCC states themselves, besides the UAE, are discussing with Washington D.C. the possible acquisition of the THAAD system. Slowly but surely, a defensive shield will help bring together the GCC states into a unified Gulf Union based on defense.

Areas of potential

The interoperability of GCC air forces is another arena that boosts the potential for a Gulf Union. GCC countries operate the F-15, F-16, F-18, Tornado, and Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft as their front line defensive systems. These aircraft and the systems onboard are highly interoperable with the appropriate technological adjustments and links, especially with the Link 16 system. Currently, the GCC states are buying up dozens of sophisticated fighter aircraft, mostly relying on the UK’s Typhoon jet. It is critical for the GCC air forces to be interlinked together and, with the use of the same jet fighters, interoperability becomes more effective both in terms of systems and with regards to the manpower plus the maintenance and training involved. No better example of joint operations and interoperability was seen in the air than during the campaign over Libya, which featured both UAE and Qatari air forces playing a major role with NATO forces. The future use of GCC aircraft in regional contingencies helps to build the case for a Gulf Union based on the dominance of airpower capabilities.

Finally, the unification of the defense industry may be another significant building block for a GCC Union. Based on the UAE’s own Tawazun and Mubadala and their successful joint ventures and subsidiaries, other GCC states are starting to create their own projects such as Saudi Arabia’s Taqnia. The point of the creation of these indigenous defense industries is clear; to be able to employ nationals and give them the training and knowledge management skills necessary to promote regional defense industries that helps the GCC states to become producers, not buyers. Over time, the GCC states can unite in this important area in forming a GCC Union.

Overall, despite hurdles, defensive unity promotes the foundation of a GCC Union. Once established, other pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. We must not forget that defense is the one aspect of the GCC states that is unbreakable and a necessary component in a changing and evolving regional security environment.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.