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 themselves embroiled in disputes over regional policy. In recent years, for example, Qatar’s ideological and material support for the Muslim Brotherhood has provoked furious responses from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And the 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.


Despite this dysfunction, the Gulf states have shown a newfound willingness to use force against other Arab states. In 2011, Qatar and the UAE joined in NATO’s bombing of Libya. This summer, UAE pilots returned to Libya on their own, bombing Islamist positions in Tripoli over U.S. objections. And in September, the United States announced that several Gulf states would be joining its campaign in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

But this new assertiveness shouldn’t be overstated. In Libya in 2011 and in Syria today, Arab nations have conducted a small fraction of air strikes and taken on relatively low-risk missions. Their participation is symbolic, not substantive. UAE forces, perhaps the boldest of all Arab troops in this regard, had been conducting impressive close-air support for coalition forces in Afghanistan. But UAE strikes in Libya, shorn of Western intelligence and other support, seem to have been unsuccessful, underscoring the limits of independent Arab capabilities. In other words, the GCC would struggle to mount complex, sustained, or demanding missions, such as those that would require destroying large enemy air-defense networks. Iran, whose Islamic Revolution catalyzed the formation of the GCC, would represent a far more serious adversary than Libya or Syria, and even Saudi Arabia and the UAE would depend on extensive U.S. support in any confrontation. 

Still, acknowledging these limits, there may be room for smaller missions. In Yemen, for instance, Houthi rebels–seen by many in the Gulf as Iranian proxies—have taken over much of the capital. Saudi Arabia has previously intervened in northern Yemen with little success, but it continues to be alarmed by the situation in Sana’a and could plausibly enlist Gulf allies for more air strikes in the coming years.


The Gulf’s foreign military patrons—principally France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have reason to welcome the Gulf’s independence, but also to be wary of it. A self-reliant Gulf is appealing to the West only if the region’s aims overlap with Western ones. Here, there is cause for concern. Although Western states have urged compromise, for example, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have adopted uncompromising, aggressive positions toward largely nonviolent Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Although the West is inching toward détente with Iran, the Gulf states want to dampen Iran’s influence.  

In the end, each side is in a bind. The West wants to enlist the Gulf states in the fight against ISIS but to resist Gulf demands to take on Iran and Syria too. The Gulf states rely on the West for security but are desperate to show that they can be independent if they choose. If, against the odds, the GCC can stand up a serious joint command, the West may have to take the Gulf’s demands more seriously. But there are few reasons to think that this attempt at unity will be more successful than those in the past.

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  • SHASHANK JOSHI is Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government, Harvard University.
  • More By Shashank Joshi