Remarks delivered by His Excellency Dr. Abdel Aziz Hamad Aluwaisheg at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations 28th Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference on 23 October 2019, in Washington, D.C. An abbreviated version of this article was published in Arab News on 25 October 2019. The views expressed here do not reflect the official views of the Gulf Cooperation Council or its member states.
Last month, during the general debate of the United Nations General Assembly, world leaders came up with numerous proposals, some new and some refurbished, about Gulf security.
Some ideas were advanced with good intentions as a response to Iran’s drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations on September 14. Some probably had ulterior motives. The Russian concept was based on effectively internationalizing Gulf Security, and does not take into consideration local alliances already in place. Although most proposals were motivated by those attacks, President Rouhani cynically proposed a security system to be led by Iran.
What most proposals had in common was the denial of local agency by the countries most threatened in the Gulf, ignoring their work in recent decades to establish a fairly robust collective security system. The peace and security of UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait (and others) have been repeatedly threatened by Iran, its proxies, and terrorists it has trained, armed, and funded. The GCC was set up in 1981 as a security organization in part as response to Iran’s threats. The GCC is a political and economic body as well but during the past 38 years it has established an elaborate security architecture, which was crowned last November with the appointment of General Eid Al-Shelewi as the General Commander of the GCC Unified Military Command (GUMC). Overseen by the joint chiefs of staff of member states, the GUMC coordinates the work of all military services, including land, naval, air force, and air defences of member states. Despite the recent intra-GCC difficulties, the joint chiefs of staff and other officers from the GCC six member states have been meeting regularly, intensifying their efforts since May, with Iran’s escalation of aggression against international shipping in the Gulf and oil installations on land.
Counter-terrorism is a task handled by several GCC organizations, including the Secretariat in Riyadh and the GCC Police in Abu Dhabi, overseen by the ministers of interior, who have been meeting despite intra-GCC differences. GCC counter-terrorism efforts include addressing terrorism financing and extremism as well as targeting and apprehending suspected terrorists, both foreign and domestic.
The GCC security architecture is based on collective defense. For example, Article II of the Mutual Defense Treaty, concluded in 2000 and ratified by all member states, stipulates that GCC security is indivisible and obliges all member states to act jointly to repel external aggression. The GCC Emergency Summit held in Makkah last May invoked this treaty and joint action has since intensified.
It is clear then that Saudi Arabia and other GCC states already have a collective security system, anchored around GCC agreements and working with allies, partners, and friends, as needed.
One can draw important lessons from the events unfolding in northern Syria this month. When the U.S. decided to withdraw its remaining troops from that region, a security vacuum was created. Turkey launched its long-planned incursion into Syria. The 10-point accord reached between Turkey and Russia on Tuesday dividing security roles among them has clearly sidelined the U.S. and the Syrian Democratic Front. It upended U.S.-SDF previous arrangements and replaced them with a new configuration between Russia and Turkey.
The most important lesson is that foreign partnerships are important but can be volatile and subject to considerations beyond local powers’ control. They are no substitute for regional collective defense arrangements. External partnerships are most useful when they complement a functioning locally-led collective defence.
A case in point is the Security and Defense Conference, which Saudi Arabia convened on Monday with the chiefs of staff from 18 countries – the six Gulf Cooperation Council states, Egypt, Jordan, the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, Pakistan, and New Zealand. General Fayadh Al-Ruwaili, Chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, presided over the gathering.
The meeting aimed at solidifying the Kingdom’s external partnerships and concluded with a joint communique adopting a solid unified position against the September 14 attacks. The military leaders expressed their determination to work together to deter future attacks. They also voiced support for Saudi Arabia, stressing its right, together with its partners, to deter further attacks, and defend its territory, vital infrastructure, and territorial waters.
The communique said that the 18 nations were working jointly to determine best ways to support Saudi Arabia, focusing on the methods and operations necessary for defense and deterrence. They plan to meet again on November 4 to discuss the modalities of that support.
Another example of timely joint work and effective partnership was the visit to Riyadh this week by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who reiterated U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and determination to deter Iran’s aggression. Earlier, the U.S. deployed additional troops to Saudi Arabia, in addition to Patriot missile batteries and dozens of fighter jets.
During his visit to Riyadh, Secretary Esper said that he would soon urge NATO nations to contribute more to Gulf defense, this call being part of the U.S. campaign to get U.S. allies to shoulder more responsibility for Gulf security.
Thus, the Gulf security architecture already exists. The foundation should be based on Saudi Arabia’s own efforts, those of its GCC allies, and the GCC well-established collective security instruments. It also allows for the participation of the GCC’s external partners, as protecting international waterways and the freedom navigation in the Gulf is a joint international responsibility. So far, “strategic partnerships” have been firmly established with a number of countries, notably with the U.S. in 2015, and the U.K. in 2016. The GCC and its member states have also launched “strategic dialogues” with dozens of countries and organizations with the aim of establishing effective, equal, and mutually-beneficial partnerships in all areas, including security, economy, and culture.
In a multipolar world, the GCC intends to diversify its partnerships. The U.S., U.K., and other traditional partners will maintain their privileged positions in that mix. In fact, there has been a proposal on the table for at least four or five years to have a treaty-based GCC-U.S. alliance to distinguish that special 80-year-old relationship.
In terms of trade, the GCC has already diversified its partnerships in a clear pivot to Asia over the past few decades. Now Asia accounts for over 60% of GCC trade.
Consider these figures: In 1992, GCC trade with the EU represented about 24 percent of total GCC external trade. In the same year, trade with the U.S. accounted for 15 percent and with China a mere 2 percent. Forward to 2018: While the volume of trade has multiplied with all three key partners, their shares in total GCC trade have dramatically changed. GCC-China trade has grown five-fold to 11 percent, while trade with the EU has declined by a half, down to 11 percent. GCC-U.S. trade has declined to less than 6 percent, behind India and Japan in terms of their shares in overall GCC external trade.
In recognition of these new realities, the GCC-China FTA negotiations are now very close to completion, while the FTA with the EU has stalled, and with the U.S. has not started.
Despite the declining significance of GCC-U.S. trade, there should no misunderstanding: The GCC-U.S. strategic partnership remains solid and is growing. There are about a dozen working groups focused on defense and counter-terrorism. The figures on trade are important, but they do not reflect the growing trade in services and growing two-way investment. Although there is no GCC-U.S. formal free trade agreement, in 2012 they signed a framework agreement on trade, investment, economic, and technical cooperation, which has led to extensive discussions between the two sides to promote trade and investment and iron out some differences on those issues. Diversification plans in GCC countries have provided great opportunities for American companies to increase their footprint in GCC countries.
In addition to growing economic engagement, U.S. global security interests and GCC regional interests greatly overlap as well as their political and economic priorities. This relationship, which spans many decades, will endure and flourish in the foreseeable future.