Triggering an Arms Race in the Middle East?

Arms Race
By Ramee Mossa

The Arab Spring has forever changed the course of politics in the Middle East. The ongoing developments are forcing experts to discard former strategic analyses and re-evaluate short and mid-term strategic forecasts of the region. In less than three months, circumstances in both Libya and Bahrain resulted in foreign power military interventions with noticeable consequences. On one hand, the gains of Libya’s pro Gaddafi forces seem to have weakened the NATO alliance, which was also harmed by the increasingly diverging strategies amongst its member states. 

On the other hand, Bahrain has brought the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members closer together and made them increasingly ambitious. The fall of Mubarak and the West’s weak position towards the Bahraini protests has made it clear to Gulf rulers that they must take their security into their own hands.

The GCC is a political and economic union of six Gulf monarchies: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The GCC was formed on 25 May 1981, and in 1984 the GCC also took on a military facet by creating a joint military force dubbed the Peninsula Shield. It has been called to action only three times since its inception: the first and second Gulf Wars, as part of the American led coalitions, and more recently to quell the protests which had engulfed  Bahrain in March 2011.

The intervention in Bahrain was different, however. The invasion, or more precisely the circumstances under which the invasion was launched, have changed the strategic posture of Middle Eastern powers. Before Bahrain, a basic assumption seemed to exist among Arab rulers that if the worst were to happen, the Americans would either support drastic measures undertaken by rulers or even participate in such measures in defence of the status quo. In other words, the maintenance of the status quo fell under the American mandate.

When the protests broke out in Egypt, it was therefore widely assumed that the US would not let one of their closest and most important allies fall under the pressure of pro-democracy protests. The Saudi royal family was utterly shocked when the Obama administration finally shifted its position in support of the protesters in Egypt. Basic Saudi assumptions also shifted: if the Americans let Egypt fall, then surely its own monarchy’s position was also at risk. As a result, the Saudis geared up and prepared to take their destiny, and that of their GCC allies, into their own hands. Only a few weeks after the fall of Mubarak, with near complete silence by the Americans and despite worldwide condemnation, a Saudi-led GCC invasion of Bahrain ensued.

In the short time since the Bahrain invasion, the GCC’s ambitions seem to have ballooned. In a clearly laughable comment, the Peninsula Shield force commander Mutlaq Bin Salem Al-Azima stated in an interview with local Gulf media, “There is great coordination between the Gulf States; and we have military forces that no state or institute in the world can compete with, with the exception of NATO”.

While the GCC clearly is not as powerful – nor as coordinated – as Al-Azima imagines it to be, his statement reflects the GCC’s inflated ambitions to become a great power and a regional hegemon.

Furthermore, one of the key recommendations of the 16th Annual Conference of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), which was held just over a week after the Bahraini invasion, was to transform the GCC into a loose confederation similar to that of the EU. Speaking at the ECSSR Conference, Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal also argued that the GCC should be able to compete with neighbouring aspiring and established nuclear powers in the Middle East, citing both Iran and Israel.

The GCC, it seems, is slowly pushing for increased independence from its Western allies while seeking new, potentially nuclear, military capabilities. If the rising confidence and ambitions of the GCC are put into practice, a regional arms race involving both Iran and Israel would surely become unavoidable.

However, while there is a clear change in the relationship between the GCC and the Americans, this change is not a break but rather a realignment of the relationship. The Americans no longer want to be seen as the hand that puts the Arab people down; it has allowed the GCC to take on this role. The Americans will continue to support their Gulf allies, a position made clear with the biggest ever weapons deal on the table.

The Saudis are attempting to acquire nearly US$60 billion of American weaponry, including over 85 new F-15 war jets, upgrades on over 70 F-15s already in service, as well as new helicopters, missiles and tanks. It would take the US nearly 15 to 20 years to produce the weapons, locking the Saudis and the Americans into a close strategic relationship for at least as long. It seems now that Prince Turki’s dream of acquiring nuclear weapons for Saudi Arabia, and in turn the GCC, is the last step to achieving regional hegemony for the Gulf rulers. Clearly, between the wealthy six member states of the GCC, there should be no problems bankrolling an accelerated nuclear programme.

It is unlikely that Iran, which has been locked in a war of words with the Saudis, will sit idle while the Saudis nearly double the size of their air force. This proposed arms deal also makes it highly unlikely that the Iranians, incapable for the moment of balancing Saudi Arabia with conventional weapons, will give up their nuclear programme. While Israel has little reason to fear the GCC, it has many reasons for its fear of a nuclear Iran. Israel will be forced to upgrade its air defence and weapons delivery systems. It is not unreasonable to assume that other Middle Eastern states, especially a reenergised Egypt, would opt to stay out of the race.

The ongoing Arab protest movement will have many unforeseen consequences. The events of the Arab Spring began only three months ago, and in this short time, two governments have fallen, two countries have been invaded, Yemen is on the brink of civil war, and it is still unclear what is going to happen in Syria and Jordan. What has become clear, however, is that the Americans will no longer be the muscle that keeps Gulf monarchs in power. This role has been passed on to the GCC and its Peninsula Shield forces. In their new roles, the ambitious rulers behind the GCC may very well take pre-emptive and aggressive actions, which will trigger an uncontrollable arms race. This may, in turn, give birth to several new and unstable nuclear powers in the region.


26 April 2011


Related Articles:

Ramee Mossa, Hijacked by Elites: Bahrain's Protests

Tallha Abdulrazaq, Bahrain: A New Front in the Battle between Sunni and Shia Muslims

Arthur Hayes, Ahmadinejad's Power Grows as New Cold War Chills the Persian Gulf