On September 25, 2016, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University in Qatar in collaboration with the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA) at the National Defense University hosted a one-day workshop under the title “Strategic Forum on Gulf Security.” A number of distinguished scholars, experts, and policy-makers were convened to discuss current threats and concerns, and potential opportunities in some of the Persian Gulf’s countries, including: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Iran. Participants also discussed the United States’ (US) positions on a number of these security concerns and opportunities.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states have been keen to protect their monarchies, and maintain the status quo in the Middle East by following more assertive foreign policies, and utilizing their financial capabilities to influence the political dynamics in the region. Five main perceived security concerns have been driving the active role of GCC states in the Middle East: the instability in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; the uncertainty about the American priorities in the region; the rise of non-state actors such as the Islamic State; the profound fluctuations in the oil market; and the domestic social and economic challenges.
Regardless of internal disagreements, security remains a top priority for the GCC leaders, as do regional and domestic stability. Despite significant steps toward integration since its formation some thirty-five years ago, the GCC is still far from providing a model of security integration. GCC member states have different perceptions of their security threats, especially when it comes to Iran. Some perceive of Iran as having hegemonic aspirations in the region; and thus, pursue policies designed to undermine Iranian influence, especially in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. Many GCC states are also developing advanced security systems in order to minimize possible cyber attacks on their oil facilities and other infrastructures.
Another priority of the GCC states has been maintaining rapid economic growth, which is central to regime legitimacy, and, by implication, security. Although largely immune from it, the GCC states are also concerned about the threat of domestic terrorism. These different perceptions among GCC states have undermined attempts at security integration, and especially collective efforts to develop a common missile security system directed at threats from Iran.
Considering these perceived threats, the participants argued that each of the GCC states would continue to think in national rather than collective terms. They will also invest heavily in their own security through arms purchases and weapons acquisition. There has been an increasing perception that the US is an unreliable ally, and, as a result, there is greater need for self-reliance.
Focusing on the UAE, the country’s security mood could be described as one of confidence as well as concern. The UAE is living through one of its most confident eras. At the same time, the country remains very concerned about the region and the pervasiveness of tension, extremism, violence, and sectarianism, which may spillover into its own territories. There are five main perceived security threats facing the UAE. The first threat is Iran as both an instant and a continuous threat. With the election of the Rouhani administration, Iran is perceived as more problematic, threatening, destabilizing than ever before. This perception of Iran is shared by some of the other GCC states, especially by Saudi Arabia. The threat from Iran has also escalated from being merely security oriented, to an ideological threat, with Wahhabism versus Khomeinism.
The second threat is the prolonged war in Yemen that needs to stop as soon as possible. This directly relates to a third threat, namely “the weak links between GCC member states.” Bahrain, Kuwait, and post-Qaboos Oman, and possibly even Saudi Arabia, are all weak links that challenge a strong and unified GCC. The last threat is the “post-US Persian Gulf.” President Obama’s foreign policy has encouraged GCC states to seek a path of less dependence on the US, and compensate for that by establishing relations and alliances with other global and regional powers.
The key challenge facing the UAE’s leadership is how to navigate between these concerns and opportunities. The UAE has invested in the most advanced security systems in order to shield itself from as many security challenges as possible, and has become more assertive and preemptive in confronting security threats. It has also been playing an active role at the regional level. On the international level, the UAE, through the GCC, has been establishing stronger ties with the European Union (EU), and is in talks to sign bilateral trade agreements with Britain. This regional and international activism is designed to prepare the country for the post-US Persian Gulf.
Insofar as Qatar is concerned, there are three levels of analysis from which to examine the Qatari leadership’s behavior: domestic politics, foreign policy, and security politics. In terms of domestic politics, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa tried to transform Qatar into the Singapore of the Persian Gulf. Articulating such a vision, and at the same time diving away from the shadows of Saudi Arabia, was facilitated by three main factors: social cohesion in Qatari society; absence of sectarian divides; and the absence of a parliament that resists the Emir’s agendas.
For Qatar, threat perceptions in the 1990s revolved around possible machinations by Saudi Arabia to reinstall in power the deposed emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad. As the country became more stable under Sheikh Hamad’s rule, Qatar’s efforts at protecting its security turned into power projection. This projection of power often occurred through the country’s use of hedging as a foreign policy option. Accordingly, Qatar placed its security bet with the US, but also maintained ostensibly warm relations with states and non-state actors such as Iran, Hamas, and the Taliban. Qatar also sought to position itself as an honest broker for peace and negotiations. During and after the Arab Uprisings, Qatar saw the instability in the region as an opportunity rather than a threat, and capitalized on what it perceived as emerging opportunities.
However, Qatar’s overambitious assertions in regional foreign policy, particularly in Egypt and Libya, had some undesired consequences. A strong reaction from Saudi Arabia and other GCC actors, culminating in the withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Doha, led to a change in a chastened Qatari foreign policy direction. Currently in Syria, for example, Qatar is no longer competing with Saudi Arabia for influence. Qatar’s relationship with the US has traditionally been close at multiple levels, and there are visible signs of this in terms of diplomacy, economy, culture, and security. Due to the robustness of its cooperation with the US, Qatar appears to be less concerned than other GCC states about US foreign policy in the region. Additionally, Qatar continues to develop its security partnerships with other Western states, as the recent arms deal with France demonstrates, and is also developing a strategic relationship with Turkey.
Iran’s perception of its security interests and threats have been going through a transitional phase following the signing of the nuclear deal. The Iranian leadership had assumed that the deal would help the country reprioritize its security threats and open up new opportunities for international engagement, but to date little of substance has changed. While the Iranians feel that they have fulfilled their side of the bargain, US and European leaders remain skeptical. As a result, the US has been discouraging Western companies and international banks from working with Iran. Currently Iranian foreign policy aims are to enhance the country’s relations with the EU, while also cooperating closely with Russia and China. When it comes to Iran’s foreign policy towards the Arab world, although there are still tensions with a number of Iran’s traditional regional rivals, the country has been keen to develop relations with a number of Arab states and non-state actors in the region.
US foreign policy towards the Persian Gulf region is seen as also being in a period of transition, with the view from the GCC being that the Americans are shifting their priorities to the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf, namely Iran. The Obama administration is considered to be unwilling to challenge Iran and uphold the interests of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. This uncertainty around US foreign policy towards the Persian Gulf region is driving GCC states to embark on reengineering their countries’ agendas in preparation for the transition to the post-US Persian Gulf.
At the end of the forum, Mehran Kamrava, Director of CIRS, and Richard L. Russell Professor of National Security Affairs at NESA gave their concluding remarks. They stressed on this forum’s contribution to a greater understanding of the current realities and high stakes of the security environment in the Persian Gulf region.
- Read participants’ biographies
- Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Qatar University
- Gawdat Bahgat, NESA, National Defense University
- Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
- Mohammad Marandi, University of Tehran
- Rory Miller, Georgetown University in Qatar
- Richard Russell, NESA, National Defense University
- Houchang Hassan Yari, Royal Military College of Canada
- LTC Sadiam Al Dhulaimi, Representative for Yemen, US Central Command
- H.E. Bashir Al-Shirawi, Former Ambassador of Qatar to South Africa
- LTC Mustafa Abdel Haleem Mohammad Alhyari, Jordan Armed Forces
- Abdullah Baabood, Qatar University
- Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
- Daniel Baltrusaitis, National Defense College of the UAE, and NESA, National Defense University
- Kai-Henrik Barth, Georgetown University in Qatar
- Abdelwahab El-Affendi, Doha Institute of Graduate Studies
- Afyare Elmi, Qatar University
- Glnar Eskandar, US Embassy
- Ibrahim Fraihat, Brookings Doha Center
- Lauren Granger, Georgetown University in Qatar
- Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
- Hussein Heydari, Embassy of Iran
- Ludovic Hood, US Embassy
- H.E. Willy Kempel, Ambassador of Austria to Qatar
- Kentaro Niimi, Embassy of Japan
- CSM Cynthia Pritchett, (retired) US Central Command
- James Reardon-Anderson, Georgetown University in Qatar
- Jean-Marc Rickli, King’s College London
- Marta Saldana, Georgetown University in Qatar
- Youssef Shatilla, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology
- Rana Shayya, US Embassy
- Douw GJ Vermaak, Embassy of South Africa
- Steven Wright, Qatar University
- Luciano Zaccara, Qatar University
Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS