USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN // US military commanders in the Gulf say they are hopeful that GCC countries will accept assistance in the event of a major disaster and stress that any humanitarian assistance in the region will be delivered with no strings attached. A recent series of natural disasters, such as the 2005 earthquakes in Pakistan and the tsunami in South East Asia the year before, have allowed the US military to show its ability to provide large amounts of aid quickly. But Gulf countries have been reluctant to accept such aid, as analysts have increasingly warned of hidden strings attached. Last year the government of Oman was reported to have rejected US offers of assistance after the country was struck in June by Cyclone Gonu which killed more than 40 people and forced thousands from their homes and cut water supplies.
"I think we've demonstrated that we can provide assistance and then we can leave - there are no strings attached," said Capt Patrick Hall, the commanding officer of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier currently patrolling the Arabian Gulf. "That is a tremendous benefit and I think these countries understand that." But some analysts caution that allying too closely with Washington, including its humanitarian programmes, could grant the US leverage for its political interests.
"It's too dangerous for the Gulf states to be sitting too close to Washington at this point in time," said Prof Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University. "Trumping up its humanitarian assistance can be for political ends. We have to be careful not to take what the Americans say at face value." The discussion has begun against the backdrop of new strategic relationships being set up by GCC navies to counter emerging security threats around the region as well as to better deal with humanitarian issues, operating under the umbrella of combined taskforces created with the backing of the US Navy.
The taskforces, set up to patrol the Arabian Gulf and parts of the Indian Ocean, are understood to include all GCC navies as well units from the US, UK, France, Canada, Australia and other western countries. Last week, at a meeting attended by senior US Navy officers, regional naval commanders discussed the possibility of forming a single navy to improve security in the Gulf. The navies of the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already sharing intelligence and participating in joint operations to improve their ability to cope with potential hostilities in the region. The collaboration marks a dramatic departure from attitudes a decade ago when national navies were reluctant to share information.
Rear Adml Mohammed al Tanaji, the commander of the UAE Navy, said at last week's conference that the country and its neighbours faced a growing threat from terrorism, piracy and smuggling. US officials clearly believe, however, that aid can help to win the country friends. US military might was deployed to deliver more than 4,000 tonnes of relief supplies to Pakistan in the wake of the devastating 7.6-magnitude earthquake that struck the country in Oct 2005. The operation helped to engender goodwill, including among some Islamists who were previously hostile to the US, said officials.
"Their comments were, 'We thought all you guys did was drop bombs, and now you're dropping food, tents, heaters and that type of stuff'," said Capt Hall. "It was tremendous and I think the benefit we received from that was significant because some of these countries only see us in one way - as the intimidator." In the Gulf, however, America suffers from serious image problems. Its invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq and its stance on the Israel-Palestinian Territories issue have marred its reputation.
Some are sceptical about America's ability to co-ordinate aid operations in light of its record of handling emergencies at home. Its much criticised and tardy response to its own worst natural disaster in recent memory, Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, had sullied its image as a competent provider of humanitarian assistance, said Prof Abdullah. "I'm not convinced that the Americans are as experienced with natural disasters as they claim to be," he said.
Nevertheless, he said if the Gulf faced a large scale natural disaster American aid would be welcome. "When there is a natural disaster, of course we all need each other." The US military has unparalleled capacity to deliver relief to the region, with a navy that spans the globe and military hardware capable of delivering large volumes of supplies in a short amount of time. The US has a special unit, Combined Task Force 59 (CTF 59), based at its Fifth Fleet naval headquarters in Bahrain, that is dedicated to responding to humanitarian and other emergencies, such as oil spills and evacuations.
CTF 59 holds regular exercises in the Gulf, the most recent in May, and has participated in major operations, including the evacuation of nearly 15,000 US citizens from Lebanon during the 2006 fighting. It also had flexible plans in place to respond to crises in the region, said Lt Nate Christensen, a public affairs officer at the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain. "Amphibious vessels typically perform this type of mission and are equipped with large hospital facilities," he said. "Helicopters embarked aboard amphibs also provide heavy lift capability and can reach remote areas that vehicles cannot.
"The amount that could be delivered obviously depends on what is requested." After Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh last year, killing more than 3,000 people, the US Navy sent 3,400 marines and two amphibious assault ships to the area. The USS Kearsarge alone provided an estimated 93,181 kilograms of supplies. In the Gulf, the US military says it is on alert to help in the event of natural disasters or - more likely - incidents such as oil spills.
This capacity could prove to be of crucial importance to the UAE where, off the coast of Fujairah, there are concerns that authorities are unprepared to tackle large oil spills because of scant monitoring of coastal waters and lax enforcement of regulations. Small oil spills are a constant reality and residents fear local authorities would be caught off guard by a massive spill. @Email:email@example.com