RSIS presents the following commentary Gulf Security: A Risky New US-Saudi Blueprint
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No. 225/2013 dated 10 December 2013
A Risky New US-Saudi Blueprint
By James M. Dorsey
Eager to reassure Saudi Arabia that the United States remains a reliable partner
despite its apparent rapprochement with Iran, Washington has backed a new Gulf
defence arrangement which would strengthen Saudi Arabia’s regional hegemony that
has sparked criticism from other Gulf states.
IN A BID to reassure Gulf states worried about a US-Iranian rapprochement and
critical of American Middle East policy, the Obama administration has opted to back
Saudi efforts for regional hegemony through greater integration of Gulf military
capabilities in the framework of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The United States-backed Saudi blueprint would effectively establish the kingdom as
the region’s military superpower and first line of defence while allowing the US to
balance its commitment to the region with its goal of pivoting towards Asia. But it
risks splitting the GCC which was established to enhance Gulf security.
Giving Saudis what they want
Speaking at a think-tank dialogue just a stone’s throw away from Bahrain’s restive
Shiite neighbourhoods, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel made this move on his first
visit to the Gulf since last month’s agreement between the United Nations Security
Council permanent members – the US, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus
Germany and Iran aimed at resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis. Hagel handed Riyadh
what it wanted: a first step towards a union of the GCC member states – Saudi Arabia,
the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman – with the kingdom as
the dominant power.
In doing so, Hagel went beyond seeking to reassure Saudi Arabia and its closest allies
within the GCC that its rapprochement with Iran would not be at the expense of the
energy-rich, fragile Gulf autocracies. The US also wanted to show that it would remain
committed to its defence umbrella for the region despite focusing increasingly on Asia.
Confidence between the US and Saudi Arabia, home to a fiercely anti-Shiite puritan
interpretation of Islam, has eroded as a result of Saudi opposition to the Iranian
agreement because of the prospect of Shiite Iran reintegrating into the international
community and emerging as a power house capable of rivalling the kingdom.
Saudi confidence has been further undermined by American support for the popular
uprisings in the Arab world; failure to provide Syrian rebels with the arms needed to
defeat the regime of embattled president Bashar al-Assad; inability to force a
resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and an increased US focus on Asia rather
than the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi concerns have sparked a series of critical
statements of US policy and persuaded the kingdom to demonstratively refuse to join
the UN Security Council when it was elected to a seat.
Fear of being swallowed
By laying out a series of steps to put the GCC, in which Saudi Arabia is by far the most
powerful member, rather than individual Gulf states at the centre of US defence policy,
Hagel effectively endorsed Saudi calls for a union of Gulf states. This is a move that so
far has been thwarted by fears among some of its smaller members that they would be
swallowed by their big brother. Indeed, the Saudis failed in their initiative in the last year
to forge a union with Bahrain, where Saudi and UAE troops are based since the brutal
squashing of a 2011 popular uprising to bolster the regime.
In a rare public statement against Gulf union, Omani minister of state for foreign affairs
Yousef bin Alawi Al Ibrahim, a onetime representative of a separatist movement,
confronted his Saudi counterpart, Nizar Bin Obaid Madani, in no uncertain terms. “We
absolutely don’t support Gulf union. There is no agreement in the region on this …. If this
union materialises, we will deal with it but we will not be a member. Oman’s position is
very clear. If there are new arrangements for the Gulf to confront existing or future
conflicts, Oman will not be part of it,” he said.
Al Ibrahim suggested that the Gulf’s major problems were internal rather than external
and should be the region’s focus. Last year, Ahmed al Saadoun, at the time speaker of
the Kuwaiti parliament, rejected a Gulf union, saying that as a democracy Kuwait could
not united with autocratic states.
Barely a hundred metres from where he spoke, police vehicles and machine-gun
mounted armoured vehicles patrol the perimeter of the Shiite neighbourhood of Karbad.
Graffiti on its walls reflects the area’s mood. Slogans include: ‘Down with King Hamad’,
‘Martyrdom is our habit’, ‘Our goal is toppling the regime’, and ‘we bow only in front of
God’. A local resident said: “This will never end. It’s gone too far. Reform is the only way
Saudis pleased, but not smaller Gulf states
Hagel couched the new US approach in terms of “strategic agility” and “wise deployment
of our influence”. The US would help the GCC integrate its missile defence capabilities, he
added, by emphasising the GCC as a “multilateral framework that is the best way to develop
an inter-operable and integrated regional missile defence”. This would include missile
defence in annual meetings of US and Gulf air force commanders and officials; making
missile defence, marine security and counterterrorism-related sales to the GCC as a group
rather than to individual member states; and instituting an annual US-GCC defence ministers conference. Hagel said the first such conference should be held in the next six months.
Saudi officials, endorsing Hagel’s proposals, said the defence secretary had understood the
kingdom’s needs and in doing so had supported their effort to achieve a Saudi-led Gulf
union. “This fits our agenda perfectly,” one official said.
Integrating regional defence as a step towards union is likely to prove easier said than done
due to more than just political resistance by smaller Gulf states. The GCC for one has no
mechanism to make military purchases despite its members having signed a joint security
agreement a year ago. Even if it did, Gulf states would likely squabble over every detail of the
In addition, smaller Gulf states are hesitant to rely on Saudi Arabia for their defence not only
for political reasons but also because of the kingdom’s checkered military record. Saudi
Arabia was unable to defend Kuwait against Iraq’s 1990 invasion of the Gulf state. More
recently, Saudi troops had a hard time confronting Houthi rebels on the other side of their
border in the north of Yemen.
“The Omani foreign minister’s remarks were unprecedented. Other Gulf states may not say
publicly no, but they certainly won’t buy into it,” said an analyst from one of the smaller
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title
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