x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

US plans to boost military presence in Gulf after leaving Iraq

Gulf countries have been deeply disturbed by Iran's growing power and influence in the region.

WASHINGTON // The United States is planning to bolster its military presence in the Gulf region, according to US media reports, as it withdraws its remaining troops from Iraq at the end of the year.

Quoting officials and diplomats, including Gulf diplomats, The New York Times reported on Saturday a repositioning of US forces in the region could include new combat troops in Kuwait as well as more naval forces in international waters.

News of the plan comes on the background of a spike in defence spending by Gulf Corporation Council countries in recent years, especially by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Gulf countries have been deeply disturbed by Iran's growing power and influence in the region.

In 2010, the UAE became the world's fourth largest importer of weapons, the largest in the region, and eclipsed globally only by China, India and South Korea. The focus of that spending, part of a US$67 billion (Dh246bn) 2007 US arms package, has been air power, where analysts say the GCC region needs to bolster defences against ballistic missiles.

The UAE is expected to soon finalise a $7bn deal with Lockheed Martin for the high-altitude THAAD system, including 147 missiles. That would be the first foreign sale of THAAD, and forms part of a US commitment to establish a Gulf-wide shield against offensive missiles.

Even though the GCC has yet to decide whether to deepen a multilateral security alliance among its members and with the US, as the latter has proposed, GCC countries will welcome the plans by the US administration to expand its own presence in the region. The plans being finalised by the Pentagon are in part a response to criticism the current administration has not been firm enough in signalling its commitment to Gulf security.

US-Gulf relations were strained this year when protests broke out in Bahrain and the GCC sent in a force to help the Bahraini government quell the unrest even as Barack Obama, the US president, urged the Bahraini authorities to exercise restraint.

Bilateral military ties between the US and Gulf countries remain strong, and that the US military is willing to maintain a robust force in the region constitutes a serious attempt at allaying Gulf countries' fears over Iran and regional security generally.

Mr Obama's announcement this month that the US was pulling its troops from Iraq, after failing to reach agreement to extend a presence on the ground, had raised concerns in the region that this would only further empower Tehran, a possibility US officials have been keen to dispel.

Immediately after that announcement, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, was quick to emphasise the US would maintain a "robust" presence in the region in order to "stand with our allies and friends… in defence of our common security and interests".

Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Bahrain's foreign minister, said the administration's proposal to expand its security relationship with the Gulf nations would not "replace what's going on in Iraq" but was required in the wake of the withdrawal to demonstrate a unified defence in a dangerous region.

"Now the game is different," he told The New York Times last week after meetings with US officials in Washington.

"We'll have to be partners in operations, in issues and in many ways that we should work together."

okarmi@thenational.ae