The Arabian Union

The European Union model is an example to many nations across the globe. The South American Mercosur is well underway to become an even more successful game plan for cooperation while in Southeast Asia, ASEAN provides a forum for states that might want to try to compete with their northern neighbors China and Japan. Even in Arabia, some states are conglomerating notes Curzon at ComingAnarchy. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) might well be the more prosperous of EU-imitators.

Established in 1981, the GCC actually did very little until the mid-1990s, “from which time the countries slowly set things in motion to unify many bureaucratic and administrative agencies and procedures” between them. A Patent Office was founded in 1992. In 1999, a Custom’s Union came into being. And this year, the GCC states began issuing universal driver licenses. There was even talk of setting up a single currency, “but that has been delayed due to Oman’s reluctance to join, Qatar’s disagreement with the policy, and the UAE’s frustration that a GCC Central Bank would be in Riyadh, not in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.”

On that note, Curzon notes, “one barrier to further unity is the Saudi-centric nature of the GCC — Saudi Arabia has the largest economy in the region and has great influence over its smaller, poorer neighbors, and the GCC headquarters is already in Riyadh.” As a solution, he offers the European experience: establish your headquarters in a small country (Belgium) lest the larger state or states lord over the others.

“A single currency seems a long way off,” concludes Curzon, “but open borders are probably just around the corner.” The economic benefits could be great indeed however he doesn’t mention any of the military considerations that go into the GCC. Writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Knights observes a changing balance of power in the Gulf region. He identifies three factors that are of influence here: a more effective spending of defense money, specifically on advanced technologies; a more balanced approach to military development that stresses training and maintenance capabilities; and the removal of the Iraqi threat. Well into the 1990s the northern Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, were dreadful of an Iraqi invasion. Their militaries were therefore geared toward land warfare forces. Nowadays, the greater threat is Iran which forces the UAE, Oman and Qatar to anticipate an attack either from sea or from the air.

The Iranian strategy doesn’t appear to have changed much since the 1980s which tells the Gulf States what to expect in the event of Iranian aggression. In 1986 and 1987 Iran “undertook or planned attacks on UAE and Saudi offshore oil and gas facilities, as well as Saudi coast guard facilities,” writes Knights. “In the late 1990s, Iranian gunboats periodically embarked on machine-gun attacks on unmanned gas rigs within Qatar’s offshore exclusive economic zones.”

The UAE are rapidly expanding their navies which will probably make them the greatest of Arab sea powers within the next decade. Six Baynunah class corvettes of French making are to form the backbone of the UAE fleet which will otherwise operate 24 major amphibious assault ships and seventy new transport and attack helicopters. Oman, too, is building a naval force while Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are working internationally to fight piracy in the Red Sea. Eventually, American support will still be necessary to completely repel an Iranian offensive but more and more, the Gulf States are able to provide for their own defense.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were subject to air incursions and missile attacks, respectively, and in 1991 and 2003, the three northern GCC states […] were attacked by Iraqi cruise and ballistic missiles. Since 2003, Tehran has stated that GCC military bases and ports could be subject to attacks in the event of a American-Iranian confrontation.

No wonder that the GCC states are also mounting impressive air defense systems. The UAE have bought so much as eighty F-16s; four C-17s; $3.3 billion worth of Patriot Advanced Capacity (PAC-3) surface-to-air missiles, and potentially the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The Royal Saudi Air Force has 72 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, while Oman has twelve new F-16C/D Block 50/52 aircraft.

On the whole is seems likely that within the next ten years or so, the GCC will have grown into a much greater military power than Iran — or any other Middle Eastern state for that matter. Whether that is enough to deter Iran remains to be seen. Possibly it will only accelerate its nuclear weapons program to bring about a whole different kind of arms race…