Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 14, 2014.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 14, 2014. Mandel Ngan/AP

Why the Persian Gulf Isn’t Ready for Joint Security

Stop pretending, U.S. partners in the Persian Gulf don’t trust each other or agree on Iran. By Bilal Y. Saab

Defense cooperation in the Persian Gulf region will remain an illusion without greater trust and closer political relations among the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. It is an argument as old as the GCC itself. But for some reason Washington seems to have forgotten that it will take much more than technology and hardware for its Gulf partners to come together into the effective regional security collective the U.S. prefers.

To be fair, there have been a couple of bright spots. On air defense and maritime security, the Gulf states, in coordination with the U.S., have made important strides. Along with international partners, GCC nations have worked collectively to combat piracy and ensure freedom of commerce. They also continue to develop a shared regional air defense system, one that provides a common, networked, and recognized air picture across most of the region via a dedicated, broadband fiber-optic network developed by the Gulf states.

But if there is one example of failure among the Gulf states, it is ballistic missile defense, or BMD. Make no mistake about it, the science of missile defense is one of the most complex and it will take a while before an integrated system can be deployed in the Gulf to deliver an effective and layered response to Iran’s developing ballistic and cruise missiles. Furthermore, the U.S. is falling short on its pledge to help its Gulf partners’ systems work together and with U.S. forces. The United States has all the data-link systems, but it is keeping most very close to its chest, which creates an “interoperability credibility” problem. The Gulf partners are fed up with Washington’s lectures about the critical importance of interoperability (they really get it), because every time they request U.S. defense items to achieve higher levels of interoperability, U.S. bureaucracy stands in the way -- or worse, Washington delays its response indefinitely.

But let’s not kid ourselves, even if Washington overhauls its export controls regime, adopts a more strategic approach to foreign military sales and provides all the software and hardware that is needed for developing its Gulf partners’ command and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, Gulf politics will continue to obstruct BMD integration. Effective missile defense in the Gulf requires first and foremost a fully integrated intelligence system and a shared early-warning system. But GCC nations do not agree on what such a system should look like and they do not share nearly enough information.

If Saudi Arabia and the UAE strongly believe that Qatar is stabbing them in the back by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, then why would they have any confidence in Doha’s willingness to cooperate on the most sensitive aspects of security, including missile defense? Imagine this hypothetical scenario: Iran fires a missile at Saudi Arabia and the first Gulf country to intercept it is Qatar. Given the level of animosity and the historical tensions between the two, would the Qataris “take the shot” as my colleague Vice Admiral Kevin J. Cosgriff, former commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, asked? It’s not entirely clear.

Ballistic missile defense integration requires serious political commitment on the part of the Gulf states to cooperative exercises, including high-level, tabletop, scenario-dependent gaming exercises involving the senior military leadership of each GCC member, and preferably in partnership with the United States. The Gulf states would also benefit from thinking collectively about concepts of operations, and tactics, techniques and procedures.

But none of that is happening today (neither in Washington nor in the region), and it’s not just because there are organizational and institutional challenges or intellectual and analytical shortcomings among Gulf military leadership and staff. In addition to mistrust, the real issue is that GCC members do not even perceive the Iranian threat in the same way. While none would be happy with a nuclear Iran, only Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain are truly concerned about Iran’s malign influence in the region. Qatar may not be very comfortable with a domineering Iran in the region, but it can live with it and it is much more concerned about threats to its internal stability coming from Saudi Arabia than from Tehran. Kuwait is indifferent about Iranian intentions and capabilities, despite what Kuwaiti leaders say about Tehran. And with regard to Oman, having mediated between Iran and the West for years, it is no secret that Muscat is much closer to Tehran than any of its Arab neighbors.

Nobody expects the Arab states of the Persian Gulf to unite or agree on all issues. The ship of GCC unity has sailed a long time ago. But there is a big difference between disagreement and mistrust, and this is a clear case of the latter. The U.S. can sell weapons to the GCC as a bloc, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Manama, Bahrain, in December 2013, but in reality this changes nothing of the fact that it is the bilateral relationships between the U.S. and individual Gulf partners that matter most. There is very little the U.S. can do to fix the Gulf political dispute. Only the Gulf states can, but there seems to no sense of urgency to do any repairing. 

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow for Middle East Security with the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.