Ri Insights

The Regional Umbrella

By Geoffrey Martin

Rai Insights Contributor

Kuwait: Although there has been a lot of talk lately, the truth is NATO and the alliance between the United States and its major allies is not going anywhere. This political and military alliance has become the foundation of the international order. In fact, NATO continues to expand its presence and continues to deepen its ties with the GCC or Kuwait in particular.


As much as there is conjecture over the intentions of Russia and China to subvert this order, the truth is that without the NATO presence most of the world’s international trade routes would be in jeopardy and the ‘failed or fragile state syndrome’ now pervading would be even more comprehensive than it is now.


A clear symbol of the alliances continued relevance and expansion is the development of the new NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) Regional Centre in Kuwait, which was inaugurated January 24. At the opening of the centre, which is dedicated to fostering deeper cooperation between NATO and GCC countries the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the “partnerships we will strengthen through this Centre are vitally important to NATO, because the security of Gulf countries is directly linked to the security of all Allies”.


In Kuwait, the cooperation also deepened with the signing of a NATO-Kuwait Transit Agreement, the first in the region, which allows for the movement of NATO military assets and personnel through Kuwait.


Historically, the Gulf states (especially the small states like Kuwait) have relied on external protectors from outside the region to safeguard against annexation from their larger Saudi, Iranian, and Iraqi neighbours. From 1820 until 1971 British interest in securing the trade route to India helped to solidify the futures of these states through a measure of gunboat diplomacy and stable commerce.  After the U.S. replaced the British as the main external power in the Gulf after President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the Carter Doctrine, the United States has gradually filled the security gap and it replaced the British as the hegemonic power in the Gulf. In January 1980, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the Carter Doctrine, which stated that the United States would use force if necessary to defend its interests in the Gulf.


This was largely due to the profound impact of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Before the fall of the Shah, Iran and Iraq were constrained by the presence of the U.S. military and each other to uphold the status quo.  When the revolution toppled the Iranian regime, U.S. interference and fumbling left the Gulf states in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis their two powerful neighbours, both of which aspired to dominate the region, one with Shia Islam, the other with its Baathist ideology.

The increasingly volatile situation of the Iran-Iraq war began to have the potential to threaten the Gulf region as a whole led the rulers of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to put aside their differences and mutual distrust. Out of the summit came the Gulf Cooperation Council. The founding session promised that the Gulf states would meet regional threats “jointly and independently of foreign interference.”


This alliance has never fully lived up to the initial strategic guidelines for several reasons.


There is a lack of internal consensus within the GCC itself, no different than the lack of consensus in NATO or other regional security organizations like ECOWAS in West Africa. The GCC was established as a security bulwark against revolutionary Iran which may or may not be considered a real military threat depending on the GCC state. Lingering intra-regional disputes and fears of hegemony on the part of the smaller member states have also hampered progress towards security cooperation, although the current intervention in Yemen has seemed to solidify relations at this current time.


Member states continue to act bilaterally, and foreign interference (largely by the U.S.) has continued to reduce the cohesion of the Council. This strategic reality is extremely complex and will likely change in the foreseeable future as long as European and American countries stay the dominant military and economic powers (I am not sure our world would survive a revision of the current order).


The growing significance of the Gulf politically, economically, and militarily as a result of the decline of other powers and the increase in investment in the region has made the area the “centre of gravity in the Middle East”. Growing economic links with China, India, Russia, South Korea, and Japan have also created a even more complex and dense environment that complicates regional security.


Lastly, oil, as always, also remains an important factor, as the production rates and exhaustion of oil will completely redraw the economic order, which will in turn redraw security arrangements. Although this situation is far off, projected as 62.8 years for Qatar, 69.5 years for Saudi Arabia, 91.9 years for the United Arab Emirates and 110 years for Kuwait the long-term transition to a post-oil private sector and non-oil state impacts the way each state envisions itself in the future.


As security arrangements become more dense, as the current pattern illustrates, the region will continue to become more interdependent and complex. This will have two effects: one is creating potentially stable patterns of world trade and security as we saw in Europe post-1945. Or conversely we see the interrelations leading to increased security threats, and depending on the aggression or perceived aggression of parties could lead a minor conflict  to turn into a regional one, as we saw in Europe with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which became the flashpoint of World War One. In my opinion the first effect is likely the most important long term effect. As long as regional and international organizations continue to strive for stability, as opposed to expansion at their enemies expense the status quo will be upheld.

* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.

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