ABU DHABI // The chief of the Navy yesterday called on GCC countries to co-operate on naval defence because of growing fears of terrorist and missile attacks that threaten the vital shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz and infrastructure in the Gulf.
"The GCC states face potential security problems because of the location and the nature of their critical infrastructure," said Brig Gen Ibrahim al Musharrakh, Commander of UAE Naval Forces. He said this "increases their vulnerability to conventional and asymmetric threats by terrorist and non-state actors".
Gulf countries needed to reassure the world that energy supplies were secure. In a notoriously thirsty region, desalination plants were also vulnerable, he said.
"For these reasons, Gulf states need to build an active and passive defence of critical infrastructure, and a response capability, and should co-operate to reduce vulnerabilities."
Calls for broader Gulf military co-operation have been a subject of debate since Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but observers say there has been little effective integration.
UAE officials have in the past expressed their eagerness to co-ordinate on missile defence, with frequent pronouncements that the spread of missiles among states in the region as well as smaller militant groups poses a threat to oil shipments.
Brig Gen al Musharrakh was speaking at a gathering of top military officials in the capital at the Gulf Defence Conference, before the opening today of the International Defence Exhibition (Idex). Running alongside Idex for the first time will be the Naval Defence Exhibition (Navdex).
At the conference, organised by the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma), a Dubai- and Beirut-based think tank, military officials outlined what they identified as the top threats to Gulf security.
Brig Gen al Musharrakh said "asymmetric" warfare was now one of the most crucial challenges.
"The end of the Cold War has brought an end to the prospect of confrontation of organised naval forces on the high seas," he said.
He predicted that militant groups were likely to make more use of agile remote-controlled boats and suicide attacks on ships.
They were also likely to attempt to acquire missiles and artillery, as were some of the region's less predictable states.
"This means, for the GCC navies, a mandatory ability to work in a combined but also joint ambience," he said.
The general also said GCC countries might be interested in smaller submarines that can operate undetected in the Gulf, mostly for surveillance and intelligence purposes, although there were also underwater threats such as mines and rival submarines.
A top American general also argued for greater co-operation among not only Gulf countries, but the international naval community operating in the region, as a deterrent to Iran.
"The only counterbalance to a resurgent Iran is a resurgent counterbalance in the region," said Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette, deputy commander of the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet. "It's mandatory for GCC navies to work in a joint fashion."
Despite Iran's protestations to the contrary, its nuclear programme is perceived by many in the West to be a precursor to building nuclear weapons.
"Iran is perceived as continuing to modernise its naval capabilities and creating more anti-ship missiles, which appears to make it a more formidable foe," said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at Inegma.
Gerald Howarth, the UK's minister for international security strategy, a key speaker at the conference, said Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons was a threat to "not only regional security but the international community too". He added: "You can be assured that we will not pass by on the other side of the road".