At the recent Manama Dialogue on Gulf Security in Bahrain, a brief debate between allies showed how the strategic posture of western nations in the Middle East is slowly changing. As a result, GCC states, working together, will have to play a more active role in the region’s security.
Dr Liam Fox, the UK secretary of state for defence, outlined the traditional stance while stating Britain’s policies of strategic reassurance and deterrence: a “flexible and agile” British military “providing nuclear and conventional deterrence” would not stand for “an Iranian nuclear weapons capability”. In short, the UK and others would intervene, militarily if necessary, should Iran obtain nuclear weapons.
In response, Jean-Claude Mallet, arguably France’s top national security strategist, asked a series of questions, which should serve as a wake-up call: “What does this mean to France, the UK and others to utter this sort of sentence? What is it we can say to them as we did in Europe here, in a different part of the world with different logic?”
The thrust of Mr Mallet’s question is that the UK and other western powers must be cautious in assuming that military intervention, nuclear or otherwise, is what this region wants. The subtext, of course, is that the Gulf is not Europe, the GCC is not Nato, and that the UK and France just signed an historic defence cooperation agreement. France would probably prefer its new partner not commit itself to war with a potentially nuclear armed enemy.
More importantly, though, is how Mr Mallet’s comments should be read by a region lacking military unity.
Greater GCC military cooperation should take on renewed urgency, not simply because of Iran’s ambiguous plans for its nuclear programme and its steady, if slow, mastery of ballistic missile technology. The GCC must improve the ability of their militaries to work in concert, because they are increasingly going to have to take greater responsibility for their own security.
That is happening gradually. The UAE’s purchase of advanced missile defence capabilities, its highly capable air force, increasing integration with Nato through deployments and joint training exercises, as well as its investment in surveillance aircraft and equipment, are all gradually transforming the Emirates into a deterrent force in its own right.
Other Gulf states have made similar expenditures, with Saudi Arabia spending far more on its armed forces than any regional country. Yet little has been done to unite these forces in an effective manner.
There has been talk of a Gulf missile defence shield for some time, most recently at the Middle East Missile and Air Defence Symposium, which ran concurrently with the GCC summit. With Kuwait and Saudi Arabia planning to join the UAE in purchasing the latest version of the Patriot missile, something approaching a unified missile defence infrastructure looks to be occuring.
To date, though, Gulf security has been backed chiefly by the United States, while the UK, France and Australia also maintain a sizable military presence in the region. A domestic regional security infrastructure has never grown out of infancy.
Reliance on the US and other allies to guarantee the stability of a region surrounded by volatile neighbours has worked thus far, but Mr Mallet’s words is a reminder that Gulf States will play a much greater role in the region’s stability. They have to live with the consequences of regional hostilities in a way the French, the British and the Americans don’t.
Furthermore, the reductions in the size of European militaries should lend an additional sense of urgency. The US went through its own round of reductions after the end of the Cold War, and it too concentrated on building what Dr Fox called a “flexible and agile force”.
Admittedly, the current cuts to the UK and French militaries are not crippling, but they do represent the broader trend.
The main goal of both Gulf and foreign forces in the region is the deterrence of enemies and the reassurance of allies. Deterrence requires an enemy that sees a credible opponent, and reassurance is effective only if your allies believe you can deliver on those threats. Recent conflicts have shown the region – and especially Iran – the limits of the West’s military capabilities.
In the game of nuclear brinkmanship, the perceived cracks in western military power may have changed the calculus of Iran’s strategic thinking. For many reasons, Iran is feeling emboldened and its regional ambitions have broadened as a result.
Where deterrence falls short, those gaps must be filled by indigenous military prowess, working not just individually, but in concert. This is not simply because it is proper, but also because the West is looking for them to do so. As the British government and military leadership were keen to emphasise, western powers rarely go to war alone, therefore they don’t need huge armies anymore. The trend may reverse itself at some point, but for now, as Mr Mallet reminded us in Bahrain, multilateralism is the watchword of the West.