The Consolidation of a New Arab Political Order

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Operation Decisive Storm Coalition Forces' spokesman Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri provides a briefing on developments in the campaign.

Operation Decisive Storm Coalition Forces’ spokesman Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri provides a briefing on developments in the campaign. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

While the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm against the Yemeni Houthis and their allies continues and its long-term results are so far unknown, it is not pre-mature to project that a new Arab political order is being consolidated. Its elements include a firm and sustainable commitment to fight extremism and sectarianism, bring order and stability to the heart of the Arab world – namely, Syria and Iraq – and design, chart, and lead an independent course for the protection of pan-Arab national interests.

Such an order has a leader in the collective energies and capabilities of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with Saudi Arabia as a first among equals, and essential assistance from such countries as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. Indeed, to assure its collective interests, arrive at a hoped-for peaceful stability, and sustain much needed political, economic, and social development, the Arab world must coalesce around a strong political order that can utilize its capacities and permissible international conditions to achieve what it needs and deserves. Importantly, the consolidated new Arab political order appears to emphasize essential principles that require astute judgment, committed resources, and continuous vigilance.

Fighting Extremism and Sectarianism

The status quo states of the new Arab order are cognizant of the threats represented by the plethora of extremist groups operating at the heart of the Arab world. In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has staked a claim in Hadramawt Province abutting the Saudi Arabian border after it lost its bases in Shabwa and Abyan to the west. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State group has erased the borders between the two countries in a mission to re-establish an imagined and borderless Islamic Caliphate while al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front controls strategic areas of Syria. Both organizations are serious threats to Lebanon and its pluralist political society.

In Libya, the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar ash-Shari’a, and a sundry of militias have settled, and promise to both keep the country unstable and use it as a base to spread chaos and mayhem elsewhere. In Tunisia and Egypt, jihadist extremists are waging a war of attrition against state security institutions. The actors of the consolidating Arab political order must know full well that they alone can address this threat in a fashion that combines a sense of shared responsibility for common interests and an attempt at forging an independent course that serves such interests.

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ISIS, the United States, and the GCC

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It was no ordinary event when 26 countries’ representatives met on February 6 in Munich to discuss how best to confront the challenge of ISIS. What the so-called “Islamic State,” or ISIS, or ISIL represents differs from one person to the next. To people immediately adjacent to lands in Iraq and Syria that ISIS has not yet conquered, the militant movement is a mortal threat. Whether Shia, Sunni, Christian, Arab, Kurdish, or other in nature and orientation, polities that neighbor ISIS-controlled areas have seen their national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity threatened.

An F/A-18 Hornet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Gulf on January 1, 2015, conducting air operations in Iraq and Syria.

An F/A-18 Hornet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Gulf on January 1, 2015, conducting air operations in Iraq and Syria. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense.

The attributes of national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity are no ordinary phenomena. Together they have been and remain the most important criteria for admission into and membership in good standing within the United Nations.
Unfortunately, the United States in the course of its invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003 had already smashed to smithereens each of these criteria. Even worse is that the United States simultaneously blasted into nonexistence what exists in the American Constitution – and was previously enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution – namely: provisions for a people’s domestic safety, external defense, enhancement of their material wellbeing, and the effective administration of a civil system of justice.

In so doing, the United States contributed mightily not only to the formation of ISIS but also its focus and priorities. The poignancy of this reality must not be lost. It is but one among other inconvenient truths that plague America’s predicament in seeking to navigate the shoals of the storm its shortsighted actions created.

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Gulf Cooperation Council Establishes Unprecedented Joint Military Command

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Leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE meet for the Gulf Cooperation Council's 35th Ministerial and Heads of State Summit in Doha, Qatar.

Leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE meet for the Gulf Cooperation Council’s 35th Ministerial and Heads of State Summit in Doha, Qatar. Photo: Qatar News Agency.

In a significant development at the 35th Ministerial and Heads of State Summit in Doha, Qatar, all six Gulf Cooperation Council member-states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) agreed to the establishment of a unified armed forces command. This major breakthrough is not to be confused with the quite different Dir Al-Jazeerah (Peninsula Shield). That force, based at Hafr Al-Batin in northern Saudi Arabia and established in 1984 during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, is the one that dispatched several of the member-states’ defense units to Bahrain in 2011.

The new joint military command will, prudently, be based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, beyond being the only GCC country with strategic geographic depth other than Oman, has the largest economy and armed forces as well as a populous citizenry numerically greater than all the citizens of the other five member-states combined. It is also the site of the GCC’s General Secretariat, the largest and oldest of the pan-GCC think tanks dedicated to precisely the kinds of greater cooperation that the member-states seek to achieve, sustain, and protect. 

Dir Al-Jazeerah in Context

Dir Al-Jazeerah presently consists of 4,000 land-based forces. All six countries, including those of Oman and Qatar – which over extended periods earlier had reservations regarding the force’s capabilities, readiness, overall effectiveness, and utility – are represented in the force.

Critics have frequently pointed out that the force lacks credibility. That is, one ought not to expect it to be able to protect against an invading force that is battle-hardened and better equipped, or of any significantly larger size. To view it from that prism, though, is a recipe for misunderstanding. The force’s real position and role can be likened to a neighborhood fire brigade – a metaphor, so to speak, for the kind of assistance it rendered Bahrain. It is also much more than that. Symbolically, strategically, and geopolitically it serves as an important linkage for all six countries not only to one another, but also to their friends, allies, and strategic partners further afield.

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Tenth Manama Dialogue and Regional Challenges

By Dr. John Duke Anthony and Dr. Imad Kamel Harb

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High level delegates from about twenty countries will meet in the Bahraini capital Manama on December 5-7. They will convene to debate regional realities of defense and security. Among the unwelcome developments since last year’s gathering have been Israel’s heightened provocation, oppression, dis-possession, and ongoing denial of the rights of Palestinian Arab Christians and Muslims among its citizens and those under its continuing illegal occupation. The participants are also faced with the further rise and sweep of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); the Houthi advances in Yemen to the capital in Sanaa and beyond to the Red Sea and Hudeidah, the country’s second largest port; and the problematic and yet-again-extended negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

The Islamic State

F-16 Desert Falcons from the UAE Air Force

F-16 Desert Falcons from the UAE Air Force lined up during joint training with the U.S. in 2011. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

Few intelligence analysts and political and security watchers predicted that an extremist Islamist faction in Syria’s civil war would sweep with such force through northern Iraq, threaten Baghdad, and inch its way through the country’s western Anbar Province to within range of Saudi Arabia’s borders. Indeed, the confused and confusing battlefield in Syria has again proven that it can spawn the kinds of circumstances, events, and players that at once threaten to destabilize the Levant and pose what, a year ago, were then unforeseen challenges to the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf regions. Just as dangerous in the rise and advance of ISIS has become the lure, to many recruits to its ranks, of its millennial ideology and its promise to establish an unsullied Islamic Caliphate that would redress Muslim grievances.

One of the most difficult issues confronting the Manama Dialogue participants is how to address the multifaceted causative underpinnings of the threat that ISIS poses to regional stability and peace. Having the necessary military means to protect against real and imagined threats is one thing. Being able to mobilize, deploy, and effectively implement such means is another. Of the two, the latter is vexing as it is pinned to the hope of containing and countering, if not delivering a mighty body blow, to regional radicalism and violent extremism that would discredit and severely weaken the appeal of such phenomena for far into the future. That a small militant faction like ISIS, which was originally armed with only the most rudimentary weapons it had collected on the Syrian battlefield, was able to roll over a well-armed Iraqi army proved two interrelated facts that contained important lessons.

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The Return of Strong GCC-U.S. Strategic Relations

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with GCC and Regional Partners meeting participants in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with GCC and Regional Partners meeting participants in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in September 2014. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

Numerous recent developments point to a positive and fundamental shift in GCC-U.S. relations. From the U.S. heavy re-engagement in Middle Eastern issues, to the success of the fourth ministerial GCC-U.S. Strategic Dialogue Forum in New York last September, to fighting ISIS, to continuing consultations about Syria, Iraq, Iran and others, it appears that the strategic partnership is being re-established on a different basis than before.  This is despite the perpetuation of various disagreements and misunderstandings. Such renewal is bound to have an important impact on the future of bilateral U.S.-GCC relations and many other related issues, especially their joint and respective efforts to effect positive change in the region.

New Dynamics of the GCC-U.S. Relationship

The current state of affairs between the United States and the GCC countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – is a far cry from public comments by Arabian Gulf officials a few months ago. These intimated what some considered irreparable damage to established strategic relations. GCC governments showed grave concern about America’s intention to re-balance to the Asia-Pacific theatre, its attempts to re-habilitate Iran and bring it in from the cold, its abandonment of Iraq to violent extremism and the Islamic Republic, and arguably, its vacillation regarding Syria and its grinding civil war.1 From its part, the United States showed signs of fatigue from its long and costly commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and produced debatable decisions relating to one of the world’s most strategically vital regions.

From whence did these turns in trends and indications emanate? For one, they can be traced to developments since the June collapse of the Iraqi army in its fight against the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which gave a much-needed jolt to what many critics allege was the lethargic American foreign policy in the Levant. For another, they are rooted in the potential and actual massacres of minority civilians in northern Iraq, mass executions of Iraqi soldiers, and credible threats of overpowering Kurdish defenses. Combined, these developments pushed the Obama administration to re-calibrate its response by sending military advisors to Iraq and initiating aerial bombardment of ISIS positions.2

In reality, America’s change of policy was the start of a “re-balancing of the ‘re-balance’” back to the Middle East,  while, fortuitously, the GCC and other countries saw it as the right decision at the right time for the world’s leading superpower.

But, given Washington’s many trepidations about being once again enmeshed in trouble in the Middle East, the American about-face could not be sustained without the effectiveness of willing and capable regional allies. In reality, America’s change of policy was the start of a “re-balancing of the ‘re-balance’” back to the Middle East,3 while, fortuitously, the GCC and other countries saw it as the right decision at the right time for the world’s leading superpower.

The United States has obviously re-engaged in the Middle East for the long-term. Equally clear, the GCC states have committed to a broader and more assertive role in the region. As geo-political and geo-strategic realities and conditions develop over the next weeks and months, it will likely become increasingly evident that a strengthened U.S.-GCC relationship is the only practical and prudent alternative for the United States, the GCC countries, and the world at large to help attain and maintain a semblance of sustained stability in the Middle East. An important and thus far little discussed component among these developments in U.S. as well as GCC policy and behavior is a renewal and reformulation of an alignment with Egypt that was shaken over the last few years. A successful realignment of the ties between Washington and Cairo, coupled with strategic linkages between Egypt and key GCC member-countries, will doubtlessly do much to cement the overall GCC-U.S. relationship.

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  1. See Abdullah Al Shayji, “The GCC-U.S. Relationship: A GCC Perspective,” Middle East Policy Council Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 3 (Fall 2014). []
  2. Chelsea Carter, Mohammed Tawfeeq, and Barbara Starr, “Officials: U.S. airstrikes pound ISIS militants firing at Iraq’s Yazidis,” CNN, August 10, 2014, at http://cnn.it/1AfzFOI []
  3. See Imad Harb, “America’s Full-Fledged Return to the Middle East,” Quest for Middle East Analysis, September 11, 2014, at http://bit.ly/harb-return-middle-east []

Gulf Cooperation Council: Role in Regional Dynamics – 2014 Arab-US Policymakers Conference

The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations23rd Annual Arab U.S.-Policymakers Conference included a session on “The Gulf Cooperation Council: Role in Regional Dynamics” that featured Dr. John Duke Anthony, H.E. Dr. Abdullah I. El-Kuwaiz, Dr. Abdulaziz Sager, Ambassador (Ret.) Stephen A. Seche, Dr. Abdullah AlShayji, and Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.

An audio and video recording of the session as well as a link to the transcript are available below. Videos of the entire 2014 conference are available on YouTube and podcasts of the conference are available through iTunes and FeedBurner.

 

 

Transcript

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Fourth GCC-U.S. Strategic Cooperation Forum Ministerial Meeting

Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the Secretary General of the GCC, and the U.S. Secretary of State met today in New York for the fourth ministerial meeting of the GCC-U.S. Strategic Cooperation Forum (SCF). Since its establishment in March 2012, this Forum has served to enhance strategic cooperation and coordination of policies which advance shared political, military, security and economic objectives in the Gulf region. On the basis of today’s important discussions, the GCC and the United States reached consensus on additional concrete steps to combat Da’ish (ISIL), discussed the region’s central challenges, and considered ideas to bolster regional stability and security while further deepening political, security, economic and cultural cooperation.

 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Gulf Cooperation Council Foreign Ministers in New York City on September 25, 2014. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Gulf Cooperation Council Foreign Ministers in New York City on September 25, 2014. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

Read the complete Joint Communique from the 4th U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum