Background and Scope of the Project

The prevailing security architecture that has emerged in the Persian Gulf since the 1980s inheres two fundamental flaws. First, with its overwhelming reliance on the objectives and components of US power, it is based on the premise of excluding, containing, and marginalizing two of the region’s largest and most important states, namely Iran and Iraq. Doing so has necessitated the commitment of extensive, and therefore inherently risky, American military forces to the region. The US may have indeed neutralized one of the perceived threats, Iraq, but only after a costly invasion and  occupation,  a  repetition  of  which  in  relation  to  Iran  seems  highly  unlikely. Instead, the US and its regional allies have sought to contain and marginalize Iran through extensive military presence and deterrence in the Persian Gulf. However,  despite  extensive  military  commitment,  coupled  with  crippling  sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program, efforts at establishing an American-led security architecture in the Persian Gulf have failed to make the region secure.

A second flaw inherent in the prevailing Persian Gulf security architecture has been its neglect of some of the more pervasive security threats the region faces and its exaggeration of others for seemingly political and ideological reasons. For much of the GCC states, before the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, regional threats emanated from two states: Iran and Iraq. The convergence of the priorities of local political elites with US policy objectives has resulted in a neglect of those security threats that are a products of the political economies of the GCC states. Instead, there have been exaggerated assumptions about  Iran’s  hegemonic  ambitions  and  its insidious intentions of using local Shia populations as its fifth column. In simple terms, current  security  arrangements  in  the  Persian  Gulf  only  partially  address security threats, namely perceived threats emanating from Iran and Iraq to Saudi Arabia  and  the  smaller  GCC  states,  and  ignore  more  deep-seated,  structural challenges inherent in regional political economies. 

Prevailing Security Challenges

In broad terms, security challenges to the Persian Gulf may be divided into three, interrelated   categories.   These include more conventional security challenges that revolve around regional and international balance of power dynamics; more recent security challenges that arise out of greater levels of globalization and economic development; and security  challenges whose  roots  tend to lie in the domestic and regional political economies.

As a strategic region with its share of cross-border tensions and international competition, the Persian Gulf has seen some of the bloodiest conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries so far.  The security concerns that arise as a result generally revolve around balance-of-power considerations, regional rivalries, and domestic and regional instability. The Persian Gulf has been a fertile breeding ground for multiple, interlocking rivalries and competitions, many of which have at one time or another spilled over into open conflict. Some of the more notable examples of these regional tensions have revolved around Iran’s supposedly “revolutionary” posture toward its Arab neighbors, Iraq’s policies in the 1990s and the reverberations of its civil war in the  2000s,  restive  Shia  populations  in  Bahrain  and  Saudi  Arabia,  Saudi-Qatari rivalries, and US policies across the Middle East and especially in relation to the region, particularly insofar as its military bases are concerned. These balance of power rivalries will continue to pose challenges to the security of the Persian Gulf in the foreseeable future.

A second, related set of security concerns revolve around less conventional, newer challenges that have arisen mostly as a result of the Persian Gulf’s more intimate nexus with the global market economy. These more recent security concerns, many of which are the result of the region’s phenomenal economic growth and development in recent decades, revolve around issues such as food security and guaranteed access to uninterrupted food supplies, cyber security, and the issue of migrant workers, both white and blue collar, and the protection of national identities and entitlements in the face of ever-expansive expatriate populations in countries such as Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and even Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Both of these sets of security challenges figure prominently in the calculations of policymakers in the region as well as in Washington and elsewhere. And both, to one extent or another, continue to be valid concerns insofar as domestic and regional calculations and power politics are concerned. The more conventional security concerns, which are anchored in regional balance-of-power dynamics, appear more deeply entrenched and depend as much on larger, global dynamics as on regional ones, thus invariably drawing in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain and the rest of the European Union.

A third, related category of security challenges arise from domestic and regional political economies, especially insofar as the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are concerned. Three particular security challenges in this category stand out, and all three overlap with the others mentioned. The first has to do with energy security, both in terms of uninterrupted flow and access to open to transportation routes and also insofar as shale gas is concerned. Energy security has different meanings for different actors. For the West, it means “the availability of sufficient supplies at affordable prices”,  while  for  energy  exporters  it  means  “security  of  demands”.  The very strategic significance of the Persian Gulf derives from its rich deposits of oil and gas. With the Strait of Hormuz as a potential chokepoint, and with the potential threat of regional conflict ever-present—between Iran and Israel, for example—the flow of oil and gas supplies from the Persian Gulf to importers in Europe and East Asia is a matter of considerable security concern. Also consequential are advances in the search for alternative energy sources, especially shale gas, some of the richest deposits of which are found in China, the United States, and Canada (as well as in Argentina, Algeria, and Mexico). Although shale gas is yet to pose a serious commercial challenge to global producers of oil and natural gas—especially Qatar, Iran, and Russia—its future commercial potentials are estimated to be considerable and therefore of serious concern to the Persian Gulf.

A second security challenge arises from the consequences of having collapsed states in the proximity of the Persian Gulf. In the 2000s, the collapsed Iraqi and Afghan states became fertile breeding grounds for Jihadist militants whose focus was as much transnational as it was national. By and large, however, the chaos which these two countries experienced remained contained within their own borders. In the current decade, with reconstituted states in Iraq and Afghanistan so far unable to establish  law  and  order  in  any  meaningful  way,  there  are  additional  potential collapsed  states  in  the  form  of  Yemen  and  Syria.  Especially given the intimate involvement of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Syrian civil war, and the permeable nature of the Saudi-Yemeni border despite Saudi Arabia’s construction of a security barrier between the two countries, the potential fallouts of collapsed states in Syria and Yemen remain especially problematic for the Persian Gulf.

The third security challenge has to do with the possibility of cracks in the rentier bargains on which Persian Gulf states rely for governance and political legitimacy. Some of the less wealthy GCC states are particularly vulnerable. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar each have inordinate financial resources and relatively small populations of nationals, and therefore their vast and expansive rentier bargains are  unlikely  to  face  serious  challenges  in  the  foreseeable  future.  Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman, however, where state revenues per capita are not as extensive, tend to be less well-equipped to deal with fluctuations in oil revenues or with other economic and political disruptions. Widespread unrests in Bahrain, scattered protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and instances of disquiet in Oman are already indications  that  these  states’  efforts  at  buying  off  political  legitimacy  through financial and economic largess are not having universal success. In each case, the state has responded with a combination of reinvigorated authoritarianism on the one hand and more extensive rentierism on the other. Nevertheless, especially as the events of post-2011 have demonstrated, the possibility of political instability in the GCC states is not beyond the pale.

In the mid-2000s, an observer of the region warned that the most serious challenge facing the GCC states isn’t a nuclear Iran but rather internal socioeconomic and political changes that leaders can no longer control. More specifically, the “greatest threat” facing the GCC is not WMDs but Saudi fragmentation, the spillover consequences of the Iraqi civil war, and the spread of radical and violent jihadism.

Today, the continued reverberations of political instability in Iraqi and the Syrian civil war, and the involvement of Saudi and other Arab youth in the Syrian conflict and in Al-Qaeda offshoots compound the issue. Additionally, though pervasive US presence may be comforting to Gulf leaders, it is not universally welcomed by their citizens and is, in fact, often resented. Bueno de Mesquita has shown that there is a positive coloration between perceived threats to Islam and support for terrorism, and those who perceive that such threats come from the United States are especially likely to support terrorism and attacks on American targets. Not only does the current Persian Gulf security architecture fail to account for many of the actual security threats the region faces, it actually has the potential of aggravating them.

Academic interest in Persian Gulf security has continued to focus on traditional notions of zero-sum security threats emanating from Iran or Iraq, or the role of the United States. There has been limited exploration of the deeper, structural issues which threaten the region. In line with this, in the 2014-2015 academic year CIRS is launching a new research initiative on “The Changing Security Dynamics of the Persian Gulf.” The purpose of this project will be to scrutinize the ways in which domestic security threats in the region are evolving, and how newer challenges related to human security are being reinforced by—and in some ways actually replacing—military threats emanating from regional and outside actors. This project will bring together a number of distinguished scholars who will examine a variety of relevant topics. Some of these topics will include: 

  • The evolution of the prevailing security dynamics in the Persian Gulf;
  • Energy security or lack thereof;
  • Threats to human security in the region, including food security, demographic and population (in)security, challenges to local identities, and the sustainability of local ruling bargains; and,
  • State weakness and emergent Jihadism in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.


Article by Dr. Mehran Kamrava, Director of CIRS