Security in the Persian Gulf: The Rise of Asian Powers

A seminar on Gulf Security involving political figures and academics from GCC member states was held recently in Bahrain. Bahraini academic Muhammad Jaber al-Ansari presented a paper on the impact of emerging Asian powers for Gulf Security, reprinted here with an introduction by the author.

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Jan 31, 2012

A seminar entitled “The National and Regional Security of GCC States: An Inside Look" was recently held in Bahrain, gathering intellectuals and researchers from the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] states.

The seminar was sponsored by [Bahraini] Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Mubarak Al Khalifa. It was attended by [Saudi] Prince Turki al-Faisal Bin Abdulaziz, GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif al-Zayani, [Chief of the Dubai Police Force] Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, and the writer of this report [Muhammad Jaber al-Ansari]. [The seminar] was organized by Dr. Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar, chairman of the board of trustees of the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies. The following is [a transcript of] this author’s contribution [to the conference]:

We live in a time of [continuous] change and development. If we look at the issue of national and regional security of the GCC states in the Persian Gulf, [it is apparent that] the traditional approaches to regional security need to be reviewed. The only constant is the [inextricable] link between national and regional security - these two are interdependent. Europe and Malaysia have already reached that conclusion, and it is necessary that the Arab Gulf states follow suit. Traditional approaches to [national and regional security in the Middle East] are based on protection offered by the United States and Western European powers. But [this reality] may change in the near future, for [the following] three reasons:

The first reason is the documented decline of [Western] power. This issue is related to the phenomenon of the major powers’ decline in the international arena. The power of the West is receding due to the logic of history. But [the West’s] economic interests are still [present], and it will continue to defend these interests. The US’ willingness to sell advanced aircraft to Saudi Arabia and provide defense facilities to the United Arab Emirates, as well as Britain’s swift response to Riyadh on this issue, is reflective of [the policies of these countries]. [However, these developments] must first and foremost be seen as an expression of economic interests.

Second, due to their awareness of their declining power, these Western countries are considering a change in their policies and commitments to international security, including the security of the Gulf [region]. [Their] obligations [to the Gulf] are expensive, and they can no longer afford to maintain these policies. Washington’s military plans include withdrawing thousands of troops from Europe.

Third, because of the emergence of a new set competitive powers - and consequently a growing set of competitive interests - the old powers are asking themselves [the following question]: Why defend the interests of others? Or why not leave countries in the region to manage their own security in a time of change where the countries in the region no longer accept to totally submit to the will of their protectors? This [change] has not yet [completely] taken place, but is likely to happen soon. It would be wise to anticipate this plausible development.

A second feature of this “changing picture” has been the emergence of domestic threats which threaten national and regional security. Internal threats have already compromised national security in a number of GCC countries. This threat led the GCC countries to act collectively and form the "Peninsula Shield [Force]" - a military contingent that can perform specific tasks depending on the situation.

On the other side of the [Persian] Gulf, Iran is seeking to support these adverse moves through the media or other [channels].

Iran is a Muslim neighbor [to the GCC], and has always remained a [significant] power, although there are changes underway to the nature of its government system.

If Iran’s [upcoming] leadership decides that it is willing to participate in the ongoing development and economic prosperity sought by the peoples of the region, it must encourage peaceful coexistence between states. Moreover, Iran is a rich country that is [financially] able to contribute to peaceful development.

If the [new Iranian] regime turns out to be ideologically motivated and seeks to control [the region] by provoking [sectarian tensions] on the other side [of the Persian Gulf], everyone [will be drawn into the confrontation], and no one will emerge a winner.

By virtue of its national and religious composition, Iran will always differ from the Arab [states] in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf, even if its rulers lean toward peace - something that would require extensive study.

Another new player in the Middle East and Gulf security arena is Turkey. It is still too early to have a clear picture of its [regional] role, but some see it as a counterweight to Iran’s influence. Turkey initially appeared to be close to Iran. But there soon emerged indicators of divergence between the two powers - factors that [Turkey and Iran] were keen not to expose publicly. Turkey offers a [political] model of reconciliation  between Islam and secularism as a way to preserve the existing civil state. This is an important issue in the Arab world at the moment, and should be supported by the Arab and Islamic [states]. However, Turkey remains embroiled in ethnic conflict with the Kurds and Armenians - a situation that tarnishes its democratic and humanitarian image. Turkey is expected to stand with the GCC states due to its economic interests. [In general], Turkish economic growth is one of the main determinants of its [foreign] policy.

Moreover, security in the Gulf [region] and the Arabian Peninsula [is closely linked to] India and Pakistan.

A conflict has existed between India and Pakistan since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, and the two [countries] have engaged in several wars. The most recent [war] concluded with the division of Pakistan and the establishment of the state of Bangladesh in the East [in 1971], thanks to Indian and Soviet support.

It is in the interest of the Arab Gulf States for peace to prevail between Pakistan and India, and this is what we should strive to ensure. A large number of expatriate workers from both countries live in our region. The continued conflict between [India and Pakistan] may spread to [the communities living within] our countries, and other powers may take advantage of this conflict to [interfere in our affairs].

Given the proximity of both India and Pakistan to the Persian Gulf, they are both in a good geographical position to confront any power that threatens Gulf security. The Indian and Pakistani navies are capable of deterring any power that would seek to harm the Persian Gulf states. This is a fact worthy of our attention.

It is also in the interest of the Gulf states to promote pluralism in India and not to view it as hostile to Islam for the sole reason that it is Hindu state. There are millions of Muslims in India - outnumbering the inhabitants of the Persian Gulf. [These Muslims] are predominantly moderate and the majority have no affiliations with terrorism. It could be useful to establish good relations with them - it could help to advance “modern Islam" in an era where the Arab Islamists are assuming power in several of the region’s governments. The Arab Gulf states should also maintain balanced relations with Muslim Pakistan, which has always been supportive of Arab rights. India and Pakistan must also come to terms with the fact that a protracted conflict between the two parties does not benefit either side.

China is also an [important] emerging force in the East. It is likely that it is only second to the United States when it comes to international influence. [Its rise to power] explains why the United States has it surrounded with a strategic military belt: In the West, India, a rising power, is competing with China; in the East, there is Japan - a force to be reckoned with - which extended [its reach] militarily in the Far East and China during the 20th century.

Although [the relationship] between Japan and China is civil, [relations] between the neighbors are not warm. Besides, to the south of China is Australia - a Western power that is today expanding in Asia at a pace in keeping with the times. It upholds Western perspectives and viewpoints.

The three Asian powers of India, Japan and Australia have aligned themselves with the United States against China. A dispute is pending over islands in the South China Sea. All neighboring countries small and large claim ownership of these islands. [This kind of scenario] forces one to speculate: Will China's massive economic investments in Africa and the Gulf eventually require military backing?

Russia has recently joined forces with China in challenging US policy throughout the globe. In analyzing China's stance toward the United States, we must take into account two considerations: The first is economic. China, the second largest economy in the world after the US, today still cooperates with the United States to some extent. Secondly, however, the two countries diverge completely on the political and military levels.

Certain strategic experts speak of a “secret” or “hidden” Russian-Chinese-Iranian alliance at the international arena.

These [speculations of a supposed secret alliance] result from Russian and Chinese support for the Syrian regime - a strategic issue of great importance to Iran.

However, the Russian and Chinese relations to the Arab Gulf states can be scrutinized from the angle of oil, economic and commercial [interests]. Russian and Chinese interests in the Gulf require them to support these regimes politically. And that is what [the Gulf states] are counting on.

Information has also emerged that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the largest GCC state, has played the Chinese card to Washington before it sent the Peninsula Shield Force to the Kingdom of Bahrain. [Sources say that] Beijing warmly welcomed a high-level Saudi delegation that visited it to discuss this particular issue.

The United States on the other hand was indecisive in its assessment and vision, and on the extent it would support both parties to the conflict. Besides, there are several indicators that illustrate the Russian stance on the events in Bahrain as closer to the Gulf’s official position.

In conclusion, the Gulf states’ adoption of a self-defense [mechanism] is much-needed. The GCC has proven its ability to defend itself - in collaboration with its friends - in the war to liberate Kuwait [1991 Gulf War]. Later [its abilities] enabled it to overcome the crisis in the Kingdom of Bahrain and protect vital installations [there].

In the recent Gulf summit in Riyadh, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, called for increasing the level of cooperation within the GCC. [His proposal] was supported by all GCC leaders, especially Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

It is a call worthy of all support, and we believe that it enjoys the support of the peoples of the GCC peoples. [The Saudi proposal] must be comprehensively studied. God only helps those who help themselves. Some issues concerning the GCC need to be addressed, and these were highlighted by [Saudi] Prince Turki al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz in the valuable research he contributed to this seminar.

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