A big rethink: Security in the GCC

Money and expensive toys don’t buy regional stability.

Turkish President Erdogan in Saudi Arabia
Erdogan gives his prayer beads to the son of Prince Faisal bin Salman as a gift [Getty]

One could be forgiven for thinking that the Arab Spring never really occurred in large parts of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Cushioned by plentiful hydrocarbon reserves and healthy government budgets, and (with the exception of Bahrain) populations who largely prefer stability to chaotic political change, the GCC has been able to avoid instability reaching its own territory. In contrast to the horrors of Iraq and Syria and the ongoing problems in Libya, Egypt, and Lebanon, GCC leaders have had it relatively easy. 

But since 2011 there has been an increasing realisation among GCC members that the United States, so long their guarantor of security, is losing interest in the region. In response, the GCC, and particularly Saudi Arabia, have become increasingly frustrated as their traditional security calculations have been radically shaken, and this frustration has bubbled over into more activist regional policies in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain, with not all the Gulf states agreeing on how best these policies should be conducted.

Inside Story – The GCC’s role in regional conflicts

There are a number of serious headaches the GCC states currently must contend with, and for an organisation founded primarily as a collective security agreement in response to the Iranian Islamic revolution, its collective resolve is under severe test. With Syria, Iraq, and Yemen proving staging posts for radical Sunni extremism and Iranian meddling, the GCC sees nothing but trouble all around its borders.

Creative thinking

But there has been very little creative thinking emerging as to how to stabilise the region. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad must be removed from power, and his Iranian backers made to accept that he is as much a cause for regional misery as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which must also somehow be destroyed.

Yet what solutions exist to solve these dual and contradictory problems? Outside of a prolonged western military intervention (which is no solution at all), very few.

The biggest worry, however, is the soap opera like saga that has engulfed Yemen, the GCC’s troubled southern cousin. Instability in Yemen produces a myriad of security challenges both externally and internally, and, as in Syria and Iraq, contains the double challenge of expanding Iranian influence on one hand, and extremist Sunni Islam on the other.

Zaidi Shia of the Houthi insurgency have taken over the capital of Sanaa, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power, only for the detained president to escape captivity and flee to the southern port city of Aden. The Gulf states consider the Houthi takeover as an illegitimate coup, and their support for the ousted president was confirmed last week when all six states took the decision to move their diplomatic representations to Aden in a direct message to the Houthis that their control over the country will be resisted.

Yemen cannot be isolated from the GCC, although the Saudis have taken steps to build a security barrier in the provinces of Jizan and Najran, the Yemen connection to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula is long ingrained. In all the Gulf states, a sizable population of nationals trace their lineage directly to Yemen as close as one or two generations, and the yearly movement of Yemenis north into the Hijaz has existed long before the al-Saud finally wrested control of the province from the Hashemite dynasty in 1925.

Instability in Yemen produces a myriad of security challenges both externally and internally ... contains the double challenge of expanding Iranian influence on one hand, and extremist Sunni Islam on the other.


With a new king at the helm in Riyadh, how the GCC reacts to the crisis in Yemen will show just how determined the GCC is to solve security crises in its immediate region – the coming months will be critical. But burned by an unsuccessful military adventure against the Houthis in 2009 the Saudis will be hesitant to cross their southern border again.

More likely will be a UN-led effort which the Saudis will spearhead to try and force the Houthis to relinquish control over the embers of the Yemeni state, but again it is difficult to see how such a reality will come to pass without boots on the ground.

Joint military command

The much vaunted new GCC joint military command of 100,000 men may be the beginning of a process that will afford the GCC with better expeditionary capability, and certainly if the current GCC Peninsula Shield force were ready to do the job the Yemen question might be far easier to solve.

But numbers do not equal capacity and to be clear, the GCC may spend tens of billions per year on military purchases, training and skills transfer, but with the exception of the UAE, the Gulf states possess almost no ability to operate in an external and sustained military conflict.

Although the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are contributing positively to the international coalition against ISIL, via the use of airpower, the notion that GCC forces would intervene in Iraq or Syria on the ground in the form of stabilising missions is a long way off.

This year marks a real opportunity for the GCC to begin getting these questions right, and putting in place workable resilient security structures that afford greater operational autonomy and defence capability. The GCC’s fear of lessening western interest in the region is to some extent true, and if the vacuum opened up by less assertive western power presents an opportunity to Iran, then the GCC has to step up and do more. Money and expensive toys don’t buy you regional stability.

Time will tell if the all the money and the tough talk translate into real security solutions for the GCC, but if the Gulf states are to have any influence at all over the direction of a chaotic region beset by war and instability, change has to start now.

Michael Stephens is the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, and head of RUSI Qatar.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.