Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Riyadh to meet with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers and the GCC secretariat. There, he mentioned how deeply the United States is invested in partnering with Gulf countries to build a brighter future for the region. In pursuit of that future, the United States should assist GCC countries with Gulf security as true partners—not as a policeman in the neighborhood.
The concept of Gulf security is not new. It was always top of mind for those who inhabited its shores. Historians have written of Russian Tsars’ desires to push south to the Gulf. This desire can be seen in the language of the purported will of Peter the Great from 1725. He advised his descendants to “approach as near as possible to Constantinople and India. Whoever governs there will be the true sovereign of the world. Consequently, excite continual wars, not only in Turkey but in Persia… Penetrate as far as the Gulf, advance as far as India.” The Carter Doctrine, outlined in US President Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union Address in January 1980, committed the United States to use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf—the doctrine was a direct response to the Soviet Union’s entry into Afghanistan the year prior.
Generations of US strategic thinkers have spoken of US opposition to threats lodged by any country aiming to control the waters or air space of the Gulf and the adjacent Arabian Sea. Those thinkers focused on what would impede the peaceful relations that the United States and its allies have enjoyed with Gulf countries—countries that have energy resources that make them important for the global economy.
In over forty years, many realities have changed. US imports of Gulf energy supplies declined. By contrast, US exports to the region have expanded many times over. The parties and conditions that would likely pose a threat to US trade and other relationships with the Gulf are now largely located within the region. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was the Iraq-Iran War and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Recently, it has been nonstate terrorist groups and Iran.
In addition, the countries with which the United States has friendly relations don’t depend on the United States to do the job of Gulf security for them. These countries do want Washington to be a reliable partner in support of their individual and collective defense efforts. This is also the goal of the United States. Through diplomacy and through working with the US private sector, Gulf countries’ militaries have been connected to military contacts with US companies and joint exercises conducted by the US Central Command. That fits what the Arab countries in the region need, and it fits what the US political system can accept.
This takes me back to the Iranian attacks on tankers and other commercial vessels in the final years of the Iran-Iraq War. I was the US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates at the time. Together with other US envoys to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, I was called back to Washington in early 1987 for consultations at the US State Department.
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The Kuwaiti government had formally requested that the United States put its flags on Kuwaiti oil tankers in order to gain the protection of US naval warships. The Kuwaitis promised to reimburse the United States handsomely for the flagging operation and to steadfastly maintain it was merely a commercial arrangement. Kuwait wished to shun any overt military alliance with the United States; for example, it did not even welcome US Navy ship visits. Indeed, the United States only had a small contingent of warships in the Gulf at the time, homeported in Manama, Bahrain. The answer from Washington was negative. The Kuwaitis then redirected their request to the Soviet Union.
When the group of US envoys and I gathered in the State Department, it was clear that the White House and top US politicians were still disinclined to make a major commitment to protect neutral-flag shipping in the Gulf, despite the unanimity among those of us coming from our posts in the region—we were in favor of some kind of positive response. After a half day of talks, we were told that then US President Ronald Reagan did not want to allow an opportunity for the Soviet Union to bring its military force into the Gulf. So, for that reason (however flawed it may be), Operation Earnest Will was born.
The United States committed to sending a military presence sufficient to protect neutral-flag commercial shipping without spending time quibbling over whether the GCC countries were actually neutral in the Iran-Iraq War. When I returned to Abu Dhabi, I received a warm welcome from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was then the president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and soon after from the rulers of the UAE’s other six emirates and from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the minister of defense. At the time, the UAE was a confederation that granted only limited federal powers and separated military commands across Dubai and several other northern emirates. Even without actual authority outside Abu Dhabi, a young rising star in the Abu Dhabi military command, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, along with Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, eventually became key contacts for me as the United States ramped up its military presence in the Gulf.
When I had arrived at my post in September 1986, the United States was limited to a mere four visits per year by its Navy warships and had very limited military relationships with the UAE emirates. By the time I left in October 1989, the United States had a large number of Navy ship visits, refueling and even making critical ship repairs at the large (and, at the time, new) port of Jebel Ali, as well as at established ports from Abu Dhabi to the city of Fujairah. The United States was also on its way to becoming a major supplier of military aircraft to the UAE. The rulers of the seven emirates were seeking joint military exercises as well as ship visits. Moreover, the leaders of these individual emirates had responded to the crisis of the tanker wars and various other demands by strengthening federal powers.
Because the United States responded to the GCC countries during their time of need (the so-called Tanker War), a strategic partnership formed—one that became the foundation for cooperation to reverse the Iraqi military occupation of Kuwait in 1990. The success of Operation Desert Storm gave the United States political credibility to bring GCC countries and other Arab countries to the Madrid Conference, a peace conference geared toward reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, at the end of 1991. Those talks between Israel and the United States built upon peace between Egypt and Israel negotiated with the help of the United States at Camp David in September 1978 and the peace treaty between those two former military adversaries in March 1979. Camp David, the Madrid Conference, and Israel’s growing relationships with countries ranging from the UAE in the east and Morocco in the west laid the foundation for normalization. In a shrewd move, the Trump administration labeled this growing interaction as the “Abraham Accords.” The Biden administration has continued to play a role as a convenor and mediator.
As the Biden administration continues to play this role, it and Congress will find that the Arab countries of the GCC want to do their part when it comes to Gulf security. They are not expecting the United States to be the policeman of their neighborhood. Along with other key Arab and global leaders, they will welcome the United States as a partner in facing shared strategic interests.
Defense coalitions have historically been tricky, requiring skill and mid-course corrections. As the United States continues to work with the Gulf on security, expect blips, such as the report of a UAE withdrawal from the Combined Maritime Forces, a US-led maritime coalition. But if the United States shows that it is ready to work together with Gulf countries, Washington can get this partnership back on course. Read more about improving Gulf security frameworks in our latest report here.
David Mack is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, and a former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
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