American Studies, Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

The Changing Security Dynamics of the Gulf

The Changing Security Dynamics of the Gulf

On October 25-26, 2014, CIRS held its first Working Group under “The Changing Security Dynamics of the Gulf” research initiative. Academics from various disciplines gathered for their first meeting to discuss evolving national and regional security dynamics, and to identify research gaps that need to be addressed. The group drew attention to different, prevailing definitions of security, including military, regime, and human security.  Amongst other themes, participants debated existing security arrangements in the Gulf and how regional relations may pose security threats to individual Gulf states’ national interests.

Opening the discussion, participants focused on the concept of securitization theory. Classical approaches to security focus on the measurable characteristics of a threat, such as balance of power and military capabilities. Securitization theory examines how certain issues are transformed into security concerns by the state or by political actors and other stakeholders.

State security usually hinges upon military, regime, and resource stability. As a result, state surveillance mechanisms are effective safeguards in ensuring the legitimacy and stability of the regimes in power. In places such as Bahrain, there are sectarian angles associated with regime security. Other forms of threat perception identify political, human and environmental concerns, all factors that can contribute to a populations’ feelings of “relative deprivation”.  More recently, in the Gulf, human insecurity has been exacerbated by the interventions of non-state actors such as ISIS.

During the Working Group the “personality element” of regional rulers was also discussed. Often in Gulf states there is no differentiation between the type of threats that are perceived as impacting the personal security of regime leaders and those that affect the security of the state as a whole. Questions were raised as to the relevance of critical security perspectives to the Gulf context, particularly when there is a proliferation of fragile institutions. Oftentimes, the severe demographic imbalances in the Gulf lead to a general consensus amongst the indigenous population to accept the regime’s definitions of what constitutes a security threat

Participants also discussed the weaknesses of collective security arrangements in the GCC. During Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, GCC member states were immobile for several weeks and unable to provide a unified, robust response. This inaction resulted in the Kuwaiti royal family having to escape to Saudi Arabia until the monarchy was restored. Commonalities in security concerns amongst the ruling Gulf regimes reinforce the shared security interests dominant in this region and the institutional importance of the Gulf Cooperation Council in highlighting these concerns. The Council also contemplated extending membership invitations to both Jordan and Morocco, at a time when the GCC felt that it had barely survived the first upsurge of revolts threatening its stability. The invitations were an act of commitment on part of the Gulf states towards monarchic regimes in the region. However, working group participants questioned the purpose of this collective security arrangement, considering the Council’s history of cooperation during times of crisis and its tendency to prioritize national interest once external threats dissipate. 

In addition to broad thematic areas the discussions also mentioned a number of specific cases, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iran. In the UAE’s case, having gone through significant foreign policy changes since the death of Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates identified the danger of militant Islamism as the biggest threat to the security of the regime and state. In March 2013, a group of activists and members of the Emirati community signed a petition urging the regime to shift to a more democratic society, calling for election of all members in the National Federal Council and the bestowing of legislative and regulatory powers upon this body. Approximately, 64 out of 94 activists on trial were found guilty and accused of having ideological sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, the UAE has made an extensive effort towards involving itself in North Africa’s politics, partly encouraged by Egypt’s support. Both Qatar and the UAE have exerted substantial effort in North Africa, in an effort to develop their geostrategic roles in the region. From a security perspective, North Africa is of utmost relevance to the Gulf, as it acts as a gateway to Europe, heightening inter-Gulf state competition over regional relevance.

In Bahrain, the lack of political institutions makes it difficult to gain insight into the political views of the Bahraini population and how they perceive threats to security. GCC states have been very deliberate in structuring political conflict and defining what constitutes a threat to the state, and have often used sectarian sentiments for this purpose. During the February 14th demonstrations state-sponsored Sunni counter-mobilization efforts were a reaction to the rebellion organized by the Shiite majority in Bahrain. One month later, over five thousand troops were dispatched by neighboring Gulf states in an effort to contain and localize the uprisings. Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province was also inspired by the uprisings taking place in Bahrain, whereby the province of Qatif, with a population of 95 percent Shiites, demonstrated in solidarity with Bahrain when Saudi troops arrived.

Working Group members also discussed how some Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have been showing greater vulnerabilities in their rentier bargain with their citizenry. Since 2011, the majority of Gulf states have reinvigorated their rentierism, by increasing salaries and providing jobs in the labor market, in an effort to discourage people from contesting the regimes’ legitimacy. Scholars suggested that not all the Gulf states are alike, and in some of the Gulf states maintaining rentier disbursements are proving challenging, as state capacity to deliver is stretched. Certain Gulf states with larger indigenous populations and less financial transparency such as Saudi Arabia, have been facing serious cracks in the rentier bargain, whereby 70 percent of Saudi nationals live in rented accommodation due to the inability of the state in providing national housing for its local population. The growing demographic imbalances in Gulf states have only added to the complexity of the local population relationship with the labor market, often intensifying underlying tensions between locals and expatriates. This proves to be problematic for the regimes in power considering that the rentier bargain is the foundation of Gulf regimes’ legitimacies.

The most common explanation for the success of Gulf State’s domestic security and the continuity of the ruling elites has been the presence of hydrocarbon energy, which guarantees geostrategic value to the West and protection for the Gulf states. The management of domestic security has generally been conducted through the strategy of combined cooption and repression of the masses. Such tactics can be witnessed in Bahrain during the 2011 uprisings where sixty people were killed and numerous political activists were jailed and detained for indeterminate lengths of time. In the case of Saudi Arabia, cooption lead to the creation of hundreds of jobs for people in an effort to remedy the economic situation within the country. Working Group members also discussed linkages between religion, tradition, and oil, arguing that Gulf states often cultivate national identities that are corresponding to their domestic security interests.

When Gulf states were granted their independence in 1971, it was apparent that a Gulf “national” identity was not based on principles of self-determination or collective history. This was due to the fact that the trucial states were only under a British economic and political protectorate, having not experienced or been inherently changed by a colonial process. At the time, most coastal states in the Gulf were comprised of either nomadic or seafaring tribes. Amongst these tribes were substantial populations of Iranians and Indians who were part of the mercantile classes. In more recent times and with the creation of city states, there has been an active rejection of external and non-indigenous identities. Gulf regimes have also made a conscious effort to create a national identity that is based on tribal and religious heritage in order to enforce their domestic legitimacy. The question of whether the creation of national identities can lead to “imagined communities” was problematized by the discussants. Namely, the idea that Gulf states revalorize national and tribal ties as a way to construct a narrative based on national and sectarian sentiments. 


Participants and Discussants:

  • Rogaia Abusharaf, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Haya Al Noaimi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Alanoud Al Sharekh, Secretariat of the Supreme Council for Planning and Development in Kuwait
  • Khalid Almezaini, Qatar University
  • Abdullah Baabood, Qatar University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Gawdat Bahgat, Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Study, National Defense University
  • Patricia Duran, Independent Researcher
  • Nader Entessar, University of South Alabama
  • Justin J. Gengler, Qatar University
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Joseph A. Kéchichian, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies
  • Anatol Lieven, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • 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
  • Jean-Marc Rickli, Kings College London
  • David Roberts, Kings College London
  • Marc Valeri, Center for Gulf Studies, University of Exeter
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Ole Wæver, Center for Resolution of International Conflicts,University of Copenhagen
  • Luciano Zaccara, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar


Article by Haya Al-Noaimi, Research Analyst at CIRS