Monday, 6 June 2011

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign policy: learning to play hardball

Playing international politics is not child's play. Playing politics brings with it unforeseen risks. Often these risks are unknown until they come to the fore. At other times, these risks are considered manageable or benign until it is too late.
Recent evidence points to the normally soft dollar diplomacy of the Gulf Cooperation Council nations being traded for a combination of military and economic policies. Traditionally, the grouping of six wealthy oil producing nations of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) practiced purely 'petrodollar' diplomacy, i.e. complementing 'mainstream' US / Western foreign policy with judicious use of their wealth.
The causes of proactive GCC policy are manifold. Among them may be a perception of US military weakness stemming from an overextended military battling on too many fronts; a US failure to achieve its long term goals in Iraq or Afghanistan despite almost a decade of warfare; a realization that US foreign policy places little value on 'friendships' following America's quick withdrawal of support to Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak. Most importantly, the weakening of Iraq has allowed historic rival Iran emerge as a regional power.
Whatever the cause, a muscular and confident GCC is revealed in the collective and individual responses to crises in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. 
Omar Mukhtar, Libyan rebel of yesteryear. Are the Benghazi rebels of the 'Omar Mukhtar tradition'?
Qatar, sometimes seen as a maverick within the region, came out very strongly in favour of ant-Gaddafi Libyan rebels. During the initial stages of the Libyan conflict, Western diplomats were grasping at Qatar's stance as evidence of Arab support to overthrow Gaddafi. Qatar was amongst the first nations to recognize the Libyan rebels as the country's provisional government. Additionally, Qatar is helping to market Libyan oil pumped from rebel held areas to provide a crucial supply of cash to anti-Gaddafi forces.
Much was made of news reports that Qatar Air Force planes flew some missions alongside NATO 'partners' in the early stages of NATO's mission. There was also unconfirmed talk of UAE air force jets joining the NATO mission.
While Libya demonstrates an 'idealist' GCC hand, the GCC reaction to unrest in Bahrain is 'realpolitik' personified. As the battle of wills between Bahrain's centuries old Al-Khalifa monarchy and protestors permeated into a stalemate, the conservative Gulf monarchies fretted that Iran may obtain a beachhead were Bahrain to 'fall.'
Saudi Arabia, with prominent support from the UAE, and other GCC partners sent in a security force of Saudi soldiers and UAE policemen. The force operates under GCC's collective security agreements.
The UAE's uncharacteristically high profile participation must be placed in the context of increasing concerns about Iran's regional influence. Iran's ability to 'bully' the UAE and adversely affect the country's ambitious economic development plans worries UAE leaders.
Yemen remains a work in progress. Saudi Arabia's interests in maintaining stability in Yemen are crucial. Yemen's internal disturbances have spilled over into Saudi Arabia in the past. Nevertheless, Yemen is not Bahrain. Yemen is also not part of the GCC. Any Saudi or GCC military intervention in Yemen is fraught with danger. Last month's 'siege' of the UAE Embassy in Sanaa hints at the difficulties any foreign force may face in a nation awash in weapons.
For a Saudi military force to try and pacify Yemen might be as telling as India's 1980s peacekeeping experience in Sri Lanka. Like the Indian action, a Saudi intervention may be an exercise in immediate power projection. However, it is unlikely military intervention will achieve Saudi strategic objectives. Ultimately, any Saudi military intervention may merely result in a revision of counterinsurgency tactical doctrines and a new logic for future Saudi-Yemeni relations. 
The ancient Yemeni city of Aden
GCC dollar diplomacy is well known around the world. However, the flexing of military muscle by the region's countries is a new phenomenon. Many analysts suggest the reinvigorated GCC foreign policy is simply filling a void created by a weakened America. A more sinister reading suggests GCC nations are redrawing battle lines with Iran.

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