Over the past two years, it has become apparent that the security of the Gulf region and the Arabian Sea overlaps with the security of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This is a typical case that reflects the new strategic environment regionally and internationally. A closer look at the political meetings, military drills and exercises that have taken place, at least in the past few months, among Gulf states, the United States and some European countries, in addition to Israel and India, or even among Iran and its partners, may reveal the overlap we have described, in a way that reflects geopolitical shifts taking place in the region.
In fact, we are witnessing a reassessment of sources of threat by regional and international players, thus a redefinition of the network of alliances in the light of shifts in the strategic environment.
This paper attempts to answer a basic question related to the new prospects and features of Gulf security in light of the new strategic environment, which links Gulf security to something broader.
Manifestations of interconnected security
On November 11, the first joint naval security exercises between the United States, the UAE, Bahrain and Israel began in the Red Sea. Commenting on the exercises, the commander of the US Air Force in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot, hinted at the possibility of conducting joint drills with Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE. “American airmen would continue to be stationed in the region even as military planners consider competition with China and Russia as Washington’s next major challenge,” Guillot said. “But I don’t see any scenario where the United States does not have an important role,” He added, pointing out that “cooperation between Washington and its partners in the Middle East will enable us to face threats.”
On October 18, 2021, a new "Quad" emerged in the Middle East, following consultations between the foreign ministers of the United States, India, Israel and the UAE to cooperate on several issues, including energy and maritime security; last month, the chief of the UAE Air Force attended an Israeli air force drills; in September 2021, the Royal Saudi Land Forces participate in a special operations exercise with Greek Special Forces; and in August 2021, Saudi Arabia and India held a first of its kind naval exercise off the eastern coast of the Kingdom, following an Indian exercise with the UAE off Abu Dhabi's coast, after which the largest missile destroyer in the Indian fleet, INS Kochi, which participated in these exercises, moved to the coast of Manama in Bahrain.
According to analysts, these exercises are related to the competition between China and India, as well as to the formation of an axis that includes India, the Gulf states, and Israel to confront common threats.
“Rather than cede influence across the region to China, India is undertaking a diplomatic engagement campaign with regional countries of disparate backgrounds and interests, be they Israel, Iran, or the Gulf nations,” Daniel Darling, a Senior Military Markets Analyst, told the Indian newspaper, Financial Express. “It is important to note that the shipping lane stretching from the Persian Gulf into the Arabian Sea and across the Indian Ocean represents the crucial transport lifeline for about 60 percent of Chinese oil and over 70 percent of India’s,” Mr. Darling added.
The significance of the Arabian Sea to both the Gulf and India is not limited to security dimensions, but also extends to the geopolitical space and vital strategic interests. This highlights the importance of regional and international consensus.
For example, Oman's efforts to develop the port of Duqm and expand its industrial zone, are an important step for emerging markets interested in stability and peace in the Arabian Sea region, as a necessary element for the development of trade and markets. The same applies to efforts to connect India (through the port of Mumbai on the Arabian Sea) with Western Europe through many sea and land routes. All of this reflects part of the regional and international competition for that strategic region. Ideally, regional and international actors should understand the importance of avoiding zero-sum games, which is still a challenge in the absence of a collective security structure that regulates relations and disputes. Therefore, a constructive response to this challenge should be developed in light of the region's importance to the flow of shipping, trade, transport and global maritime trade.
In an analysis published by the Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Qabas, the economic researcher Sultan Musaed al-Jazzaf takes us back to the year 2013, when a new type of conflict began to surface between the countries bordering the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, a conflict for hegemony over commercial maritime navigation, especially with the emergence of new competitors in the region. That war, adds al-Jazzaf, which took place through what is called “Ports War”, prompted all countries to equip themselves and mobilize their capabilities to face this new challenge, especially after China announced its strategic “Belt and Road” initiative, and its alliance with Pakistan by investing in the Gwadar Port overlooking the Arabian Sea.
In addition, there are some who argue that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan may present an opportunity for China, which has established positive relations and interests with the Taliban. It appears that the "Belt and Road" project has, for a while, been freed from the complexity of the US presence in Afghanistan, so that it can now be extended to Afghanistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Similarly, the Iranian front was also active. For example, a naval drill, involving Iran, China and Russia, took place north of the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman in December 2019, for the first time since the “Iranian Revolution”, according to commander of operations for the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani. The Indian Ocean and Sea of Oman are among the most vital and important commercial zones in the world, as they include the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the golbal oil exports is shipped from the Gulf.
On the other hand, the UAE's participation in the meeting of Paphos on April 16, 2021, which included Greece, Cyprus, Israel, as well as the UAE, was surely related to the Mediterranean's security. Israeli relations with Balkan countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, may not be far from this point. These signals, raised by this meeting, may also reflect our discussions about the new strategic environment, including its regional and international interconnections. Perhaps this is what led the participants in Paphos to consider that their talks "reflect the changing face of the Middle East", and that the fields of cooperation between them are multifaceted and covers defense, energy, tourism, and other fields. “This new strategic membership stretches from the shores of the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean and Europe,” former Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi commented on the meetings. He also called for a “strategic partnership in energy between the Eastern Med and the Gulf.” On his part, Cypriot Foreign Minister and host Nikos Christodoulides, said that “The evolving web of regional cooperation is creating a new narrative.”
Israel and Iran
It has become known that the transformations that Iraq, Syria and Yemen have experienced in the past have given Iran more influence. This prompts Israel to build strategies aimed at preventing Tehran from positioning itself close to its, and this is the purpose of repeated air strikes by Israel in Syria and along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Israel says that it does not accept Iran or its proxies to be near its borders, and sees this as an existential threat. It is therefore preparing for a possible conflict with Iran by all means, especially since increasing speculation suggests that Iran is on the verge of reaching the “nuclear threshold” or that it already has. It is possible that Iran will be able to make a nuclear weapon, despite its denial that it wants to possess it and Iranian officials' insistence that the nuclear program is for civilian purposes. Israel is suspected of being behind a series of attacks targeting Iran's nuclear program.
The Iranian nuclear program is not the only issue here. In fact, Iran, according to The Economist, has become “the most assiduous provider of drone and other military technology to its proxies and friends, not only in Iraq but also in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip”. Drones are Iran’s “favoured weapon,” says The Economist, “unnerving its enemies and threatening to change the balance of power in the region,” despite the fact that Iran does not use sophisticated machines operated by America, nor are they akin to the Israeli and Turkish combat drones (Iran's drones are controlled by radio instead of satellites).
The target area of Iranian drones, which are supplied to Tehran's allies, is the Mediterranean, the Gulf region, and the Red Sea. In light of the changes in the strategic environment in the region, this confirms the increased interdependence between the security of the Mediterranean, the Gulf, and the Red Sea, and raises the concern that widespread use of 5G networks will allow attackers to gain greater control over these drone systems.
In addition, there is what is called "the shadow war", or the secret and intelligence war, between Iran and Israel, which sometimes spills over internationally. For example, the Daily Express reported in August 2021 that units of the British special forces were sent to Yemen to hunt down terrorists believed responsible for the July 30, 2021 drone attack on the tanker “MV Mercer Street” in the Arabian Sea that killed a British security guard and a Romanian citizen. The tanker is operated by London-based Israeli company Zodiac Maritime.
On the other hand, Israel provided qualitative military support to Baku during the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh a year earlier, as reported in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in October 2021. In return, Israel (might) want to be repaid by increasing its presence in Azerbaijan, which means it will be at Iran's borders for the first time.
In sum, all of the indicators, data, and dynamics discussed herein may confirm that regional and international actors are accumulating cards to play new power games in the Middle East, which is certainly related to a decline in the intensity of the American presence in the region, as Michael Young says in an analysis published by the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Calls for setting up a collective security system for the entire Gulf
There have been repeated calls throughout the years for establishing a regional collective security system in the region extending over the Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Straits of Hormuz, and the Bab-el-Mandeb, which includes, in addition to the GCC states, Iran and Iraq, as well as Yemen. These calls are still being made, and there are many regional and international initiatives in this regard. Therefore, it is evident that the need for de-escalation, dialogue and cooperation has never been more pressing, as military solutions in the region have failed to produce satisfactory results, and open conflicts have worsened the economic situation, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the experiences of the past years, and even decades, when it comes to calls for a collective security structure on both sides of the Gulf , have shown that there are a number of obstacles preventing it from arising, most notably:
1. Weak political will among regional players to create broad, comprehensive, and sustainable trust, which can serve as the building block for gaining consensus on broad lines on files, and points of disagreement between the countries of the region, particularly Iran and the GCC states.
2. The lack of a sustainable strategic deterrence system, which if available, would create a relative balance of power, inspire discipline and reduce the factors that lead to wars and crises. Major international actors are responsible for the absence of such a system, as their interests, priorities, approaches, and strategies remain at odds in the Gulf region and throughout the entire Middle East.
3. There is a lack, or absence, of an integrated Middle East development model that is generally accepted, can be generalized, provides lessons, and offers incentives through prosperity, stability, and participation, rather than wars, conflicts, draining resources, and the continuing marginalization of people.
Managing risks, rather than eliminating them
For more than half a century, the United States has been considered the main and most influential player in the Gulf region. During the presidency of Barack Obama, the American strategic position on the Middle East has changed, and its importance in the American national security strategy has diminished. Consequently, Washington's perspective about the elements of threat and American priorities has changed, which is now focused on the rising China challenge, and on Russia, as well as ensuring global American supremacy, especially in the economic, high-tech, civil and military sectors. Certainly, this required redirecting American resources, assets, and priorities towards reducing the American military footprint in the broader Middle East. Hence, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and plans to withdraw combat forces from Iraq were part of a changing international environment, governed by new rules among international actors, in which Washington no longer wants to be “the world's policeman”.
The United States' oil self-sufficiency under Obama was one of the most significant game changers for America in the Middle East. Over the past decade we started hearing from American administrations that America's allies in Europe and the Middle East should share the burden, and that they should not be "free riders", as Obama described them in his famous interview with the Atlantic in April 2016.
The normalization agreements between Gulf states and Israel last year were a way of creating a counterweight to Iran after the United States under Donald Trump did nothing to respond to Iranian attacks in which fingers point at Iran, Such as the attacks against Saudi or Emirati ships in May 2019, and after Trump was visibly reluctant to intervene on behalf of his Saudi allies following Iranian drone attacks against Aramco plants in Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019.
As for the argument over the issue of the American commitment to Gulf security, a senior American defense official was quoted by the Wall Street Journal in June 2021, commented on Washington's withdrawal of military equipment and systems from the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, saying: “We still have our bases in the countries of our Gulf partners, they aren’t shutting down, there is still substantial [American] presence, substantial posture in the region.” The Journal added that “a White House official said that some personnel and equipment from Afghanistan are being relocated to the Middle East to respond to some of the threats in the region.”
“To the extent that Saudi Arabia has improved its own defensive capabilities, and the United States seeks to resolve tensions with Iran using diplomatic tools, this decision makes sense,” said Kathryn Wheelbarger, former acting assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, according to WSJ. She added: “Is there some increased risk? Yes. But it’s about managing the risk, not eliminating the risk.”
There are still those who assert that despite the damage to the reputation of the United States due to the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, and its implications for the credibility of America's commitments to the security of its allies, expectations of America are still high from all of its allies, partners, and others. With every event, every upheaval, the question that people ask themselves is never “What will China do?” It is still always “What will the United States do?” This will continue even after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will, of course, affect the Arab Gulf states.
1. Even with the Chinese challenge now at the top of Washington's priorities, the broader Middle East will remain a strategic area of influence for the United States. The Belt and Road initiative may provide Beijing with a significant strategic opportunity to expand its influence beyond the realm of trade into the realm of geopolitics in the Middle East. This confirms that for Washington, facing the Chinese challenge is not limited to Asia. In light of this, the United States has requested from its allies in the Middle East, and in Europe as well, to reduce integration in Chinese technology projects and Chinese artificial intelligence and 5G technologies, especially in sensitive infrastructure.
2. So far, it is unclear how much China (or Russia) is willing, or able, to compete with the United States over security and military roles in the Middle East. What is certain in the foreseeable future, however, is that this desire or ability is negligible.
3. The of the Gulf region’s security interconnection with the Mediterranean and the Red Sea is within a new strategic environment being created with American participation, despite the complexities of reducing the American military footprint in the region. A central theme in this environment is the growing roles of regional players. It seems that the Abraham Accords have opened a wide door for alliances and common frameworks that include a broad range of players who now want to take the initiative to shape new geopolitical realities in defense, energy and security, and in response to threats from Iran and Turkey. However, it is certain that these two are not standing idly. All of this has an impact on the new security environment in the Gulf, whose final features have not yet settled, nor the players therein have reached an agreement to establish a collective security structure that addresses their concerns, expands their common interests, and limits their disputes and disagreements.
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