American Studies, Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

The Changing Security Dynamics of the Gulf: Working Group II

The Changing Security Dynamics Working Group II

On May 13-14, 2015, CIRS held its second Working Group on the “The Changing Security Dynamics of the Gulf” research initiative. Academics gathered for the second time to discuss their research findings and gather opinions on their papers from their fellow working group members. The topics that emerged covered a wide range of issues such as the politics of succession in Gulf monarchies, the rise of ISIS, business and politics, and the emerging energy landscape.

Scholars debated the strengths and limitations of a succession model in Gulf politics. Research findings showed that in the case of Oman, despite the absence of a son or a publicly designated heir, the political mechanism in place allowed for senior elders to choose the next heir to the throne when a death occurs. In Saudi Arabia, succession tends to be a more complicated process, as sons in line could be skipped based on senior Saudi leaders’ choices. Participants asked for a broader analytical context in order to contextualize the two case studies and further explanation on the rapid pace of change taking place in Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates’ behavior as a small state was also put into question. Due to the size and capacity of the Emirati army and air force, relative to other small states in the region, small state theory could not be applied to the UAE’s foreign policy decisions that encompass both soft and hard power. Participants speculated whether the generational change in power coincided with the distinctive shifts in foreign policy and how this contributed to the UAE’s ‘activist foreign policy’ within the region.

Undoubtedly, in the wake of the Arab uprisings in 2011, the Gulf regimes in power have been facing severe policy dilemmas.  During the periods of 1980-2003, the three Gulf wars altered the positioning of the GCC states vis-à-vis Iran and Iraq and accelerated their integration into the Western military and security umbrella. The emergence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the occupation of Iraq demonstrated how non-state violence was replacing inter-state conflict as the primary threat to regional security and stability in the Gulf. During the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the six GCC states provided varying degrees of political and logistical support. Policymakers were placed in the complicated position of having to balance their security relationship with the US against high levels of domestic opposition regarding the invasion. More recently, the threat to regional security posed by the Islamic State is confronting all the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is particularly at risk from the ideological threat that ISIS presents. ISIS impacts both the internal and external security interest of the GCC, due to the existence of a network of IS cells within the Gulf states, and also as a result of the flow of Gulf nationals who are joining IS fighting forces.

In addition to the rise of ISIS, the United States’ perceived reluctance to intervene more aggressively in the Syrian civil war has also contributed to the GCC states taking on a more active role in regional security. At the current juncture there is an unprecedented willingness by GCC states to embrace military leadership in the region. Yet there is no coherent or coordinated response by the six states. The escalating ideological tensions between different states and the lack of trust and intelligence sharing amongst them have negatively impacted the development of a collective security architecture. From 2011 onwards we have witnessed a distinctive shift in the foreign policies of Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Participants at the working group suggested that this new form of interventionism displayed by some of the GCC states brought with it severe risks that could directly impact Gulf security. For example, GCC interventionism in North Africa has come with extensive financial commitments. Meeting this commitments and managing their relationships with North Africa may increasing pose a challenge to the GCC states particularly if oil prices continue to plummet.

The production of oil and shale gas in the United States as a result of fracking and horizontal drilling has had significant strategic implications for the energy landscape in the Gulf region. Participants hypothesized whether the United States’ changed energy outlook corresponded with a reduction in its military and strategic engagement in the Middle East. India, for example, has an overwhelming dependence on oil from the Gulf, whereby oil imports from the Gulf constitute eighty percent of their annual need. Moreover, approximately $32 billion in annual remittances are sent back to India every year from the six million expatriates that live in the Gulf region. Despite these strong energy and commercial ties, India has been significantly absent in its engagement with the Gulf region, choosing instead to become increasingly closer to the United States and the European Union. Nevertheless, India is a rising, albeit reluctant power in the region.

Diversification of economies in the Gulf has been a long stated goal for the Gulf Cooperation Council, but in light of falling oil prices, the need has become even more essential. In fact, economic diversification may be difficult in the Gulf due to the protective business system in existence. In the majority of the six Gulf states the business communities have a history of political influence and often support the socio-political order in place. In recent years, Gulf ruling family members have entered the business and private sector in growing numbers. This can be attributed to the growing amount of ruling family members who are unable to assume positions in politics, thus pursuing economic ventures. As the Arab Spring has shown, the business elite continue to benefit from the political status quo. Protests and political unease in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman were initially triggered by youth’s anger and resentment towards the unequal distribution of rent and rising unemployment. Additionally, youth in the region are not separate elements from the tribal networks in place. However, generational differences exist in terms of their perception of themselves as stakeholders in society. Inevitably, ruling elites will face conflicting priorities between the nation’s interests in promoting youth employment, social services and personal stakes they may have as businesspeople. Participants questioned the nature of the new ruling bargain in the Gulf – if ruling families continue to believe that security requirements trump democratization processes, what are the implications for Gulf societies in the future?


Participants and Discussants:

  • Haya Al Noaimi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Khalid Almezaini, Qatar University
  • Alanoud Alsharekh, Supreme Council for Planning and Development, Kuwait
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Gawdat Bahgat, Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Study – National Defense University
  • Nader Entessar, University of South Alabama
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Joseph A. Kéchichian, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies; Kéchichian
  • Dionysis Markakis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Toby Matthiesen, University of Cambridge
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Marc Valeri, Center for Gulf Studies – University of Exeter
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nussaibah Younis, Project on Middle East Democracy


Article by Haya Al-Noaimi, Research Analyst at CIRS