Over the past 25 years, Western coalitions have been sucked into several wars in the Arab world, including in Iraq and Libya. On each occasion, critics have asked why outside powers should provide security in a region equipped with thousands of its own Western-supplied warplanes and whose commanders are trained at Western military academies such as Sandhurst and Fort Leavenworth. As if to address these concerns, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) recently announced the creation of a joint military command among its six member nations. The command, which will reportedly comprise several hundred thousand soldiers, will be built to respond to regional threats, namely from militant Islamists and perennial rival Iran.
However, the move is considerably less revolutionary than it sounds. For one, Arab military coalitions have played a part in most modern conflicts in the region, including all four Arab-Israeli Wars, the First Gulf War, and the peacetime interludes. In addition, just a few years after the GCC was formed in 1981, the council created the Peninsula Shield, a small deterrent force based in Hafr al-Batin, near Saudi Arabia’s border with Kuwait. But what was impressive on paper was less so in reality. Peninsula Shield was so ineffective in the buildup to the First Gulf War that the commander of the joint Arab forces sent the GCC units back to their national armies, and when it was deployed to Bahrain in 2011—to quell pro-democracy protests—two members, Kuwait and Oman, refused to send troops.
Put simply, every effort at military unity among the Arab states has ended in failure, to a greater or lesser degree. There are plenty of reasons for this. For one, smaller states fear diluting their sovereignty and autonomy in a larger bloc. In the 1960s, they feared being overpowered by Egypt; now, they worry about Saudi Arabia, a wariness that has also played a large role in preventing the formation of a political and financial union in the Gulf. For another, many of the Gulf states find range of GCC attitudes toward Iran makes the EU’s response to Russia look like the model of unity. Finally, two of the region’s most capable and assertive Arab military powers, Egypt and Jordan, remain outside of the GCC—and are likely to stay there, despite periodic Saudi efforts to bring them into the fold.
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