Arab Gulf States in a Changing Region
Wednesday، August 13، 2014
The Arab Gulf region encounters a number of grave strategic challenges, internal and external, that force themselves on the region. Among them the rise of internal tensions, the prolonged instability within the Kingdom of Bahrain, increasing non-traditional threats such as water poverty and border incursions in some areas by terrorist groups and cross-border criminal gangs, besides many crises within neighboring countries, mainly Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the continuing Iranian threat, the spread of the failed state model within the region and the stretch of armed Jehadi groups.
These points were covered during a lecture given by Mr. Mohamed Ezz Al-Arab, the researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) and the Gulf affairs expert at the Regional Center for Strategic Studies, and hosted by Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS) on the 13th of August, 2014. The lecture entitled “Strategic Challenges Facing Arab Gulf States in the Foreseeable Future”.
The importance of this issue stems from the present developments within the Middle East that forced Gulf states to deal with some internal challenges and many external ones. These challenges of different graveness, and while some of them go back to a long time ago, others are relatively recent and are the product of regional changes during the last three years. These changes include multiple “revolutionary” waves, the rise of Islamists then their fall in Egypt and the many crises in the neighboring countries, like Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Mr. Ezz Al-Arab referred to that a number of the GCC countries to a visible change in the generational and demographic structure, with the emergence of youth as a strong group with certain roles and social and economic demands. He added that statistics of the year 2013 reveal that young people between 18 and 34 constitute 68.8% of total population of the GCC. This reveals the necessity to contain the youth demands and to preserve the “Welfare State” within the GCC.
On the other hand, one of the old challenges facing the Arab Gulf countries is the Shiite demands. It is notable that the conditions of the Shiite differ from one Gulf state to the other, as these demands do not constitute a problem in the U.A.E. or Qatar, while they should be given extra attention in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, because some regional countries seek to exploit these demands to further their own regional interests.
The lecturer displayed how the Arab Gulf states dealt with those demands, as some of them were responded to while others were contained in an effort to close a gap through which some neighboring countries may interfere with the GCC internal affairs.
Then Mr. Ezz Al-Arab moved to the phenomenon of rising terrorist threats in the region. He mentioned that some Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, suffered from terrorist attacks. Behind this phenomenon lie several reasons, most importantly the outside factor that turned into a visible source of threats. Those coming back from Syria play a role, in addition to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while some regional parties, particularly Iran and groups affiliated with it, interfere within internal affairs of the Arab Gulf states through providing some terrorist groups with financial and logistic support.
A new package of problems now face the GCC countries with varying degrees, such as climate change, water poverty, epidemics, border incursions and international interferences because of foreign labor. The lecturer stressed the need of the GCC countries for new security approaches to deal with these threats, especially the climate change that caused some harms to the Arab Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. These harms included floods, crumbling of roads, breakdown of sewerage systems and the spread of epidemics.
Also, Mr. Ezz Al-Arab referred to what he called the rise of “poverty belts” in the marginal areas. Slums and random areas are not limited any more to the Arab countries suffering hard economic times, now they are emerging in some Arab countries with moderate and high income. A number of Gulf towns and capitals witnessed the spread of random areas and slums, such as Riyadh and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
The Syrian Fireball:
As for the challenges related to the outside environment, the lecturer explained that a number of challenges encountering the Arab Gulf states stem from the neighboring countries, basically Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Mr. Ezz Al-Arab referred to the cracking of the central government in Yemen and its inability to control parts of its territory in the face of Houthis, Al-Qaeda and Ansar Al-Sharia group. This led to border incursions in some Arab Gulf states, and forces Saudi Arabia to take new firmer measures to control its vast border areas. Moreover, the GCC security threatened by increased activities of weapons smuggling and drugs trade and infiltrations from citizens of neighboring countries.
The Gulf Jehadists:
As for Syria, the GCC countries are also threatened by the repercussions of the Syrian civil war. Fighters coming back from Syria are potential source of instability, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, as seen before with those coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The extension of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as “Da’ish”, in Iraq indicates the spread of cross-border terrorist groups near the GCC countries. Conflicts within Iraq and Syria augment the spread of armed groups, with potential negative effects on neighboring countries. It is notable that Kuwait appeared in the map published by the ISIS for its alleged state, beside Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is not away from Da’ish’s threats because of the geographical closeness between them, and the Saudi official classification of Da’ish, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen and Hizbullah in the kingdom as terrorist groups.
The Iranian Influence:
Tehran still plays with the sectarian card to foment conflicts within some Arab countries, this might leave harmful consequences on the Gulf region in future. With the decline of the Iranian influence in the Mashreq while war in Syria is getting more intense, Iran is resorting more and more to this card. In addition, through the possible nuclear agreement with the West, Iran seeks to prove that it is a credited regional power. Naturally, this threatens Arab and Gulf countries, especially if the agreement is accompanied by a deal with the U.S. to rearrange the Middle East.
The American Transformation:
One of the basic transformations seen following the Arab “revolutions” is the change of the U.S.-Gulf relations, most notably the U.S. position towards the Bahraini crisis that threatened the stability of Bahrain. This situation stirred inevitable questions about the true American role that attempts to contain Iran and reach a deal with it, while the U.S. is getting ready to gradually withdraw from the region, whereas some other international factors are getting ready to replace it.
At the end of the lecture, the audience posed questions about priorities of threats and challenges facing the region, and expected scenarios in the Gulf.
** This Article is translated and edited from Arabic to English by: Marwa Sabri.
Keywords: GCCmiddle eastYemenAQAP