Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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GCC Nations: Protections and Risks

by Elliott Abrams
April 15, 2014


With the exception of Yemen, the member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council range from prosperous to extremely rich—but they are also vulnerable to security threats from terrorists and from Iran. The gathering in Syria of perhaps 25,000 jihadis, the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and Iranian subversion are the major perils they face, but the risks associated with such challenges are magnified when their major outside ally, the United States, appears determined to reduce its role in the region.

The GCC states have reacted to these risks by increasing their military budgets, and this week’s news includes this story from the newspaper The National in the UAE: “Saudi Arabia becomes world’s fourth biggest military spender” after the United States, China, and Russia in 2013. Saudi expenditures now reach $67 billion, the story says. The UAE is now 15th in global expenditures on defense, at an estimated $19 billion, according to the source of all these numbers, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But this week the GCC states took another step: they appear to have invited Jordan and Morocco to send troops to help defend them. According to a Moroccan newspaper report carried in Defense News, the GCC envisions up to 300,000 troops, in exchange for which their governments will be given additional foreign aid. This is not at all unprecedented, and there are two explanations for it: the perceived quality of their troops, especially those of Jordan, and their own population levels. After all, Qatar has only about 225,000 citizens; the rest of its 2 million inhabitants are foreign workers. The UAE has perhaps 900,000 citizens among its 6 million inhabitants. These are small bases upon which to build capable militaries.

Moreover, the practice of importing foreign workers to do jobs the local citizens cannot or will not do is well established. It works in commerce, so why not military affairs? And given that any Jordanian or Moroccan soldiers will speak Arabic and be Muslims, their presence may not present difficult cultural clashes. Because they will not be from any one of the GCC nations, they may help form a unified defense force that can serve the GCC governments without arousing the tensions among them that could result from having a neighbor’s soldiers on your territory.

Yet there are risks that the GCC governments would do well to consider. In Bahrain, the use of foreign personnel to repress domestic political protests has aroused great resentment. In part, this was because the protesters are Shia and the imported policemen are Sunni, as are the government and royal family of Bahrain. Here is a VOA story from 2011:

According to analysts and Bahraini human rights activists, Bahrain’s government has been recruiting former soldiers and policemen from Pakistan at a steady rate to bolster the security forces.

Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who has extensive experience in South Asia, says Bahrain has been recruiting Pakistani veterans for decades.  But he says the eruption of the pro-democracy demonstrations in the Gulf state in March has sparked a sharp increase in the recruiting.

“This winter, when the very serious demonstrations began and it looked like the regime might even be toppled at a certain point, their hiring of mercenaries went up substantially,” said Riedel. “And they began sending out basically want ads in major Pakistani newspapers advertising well-paying jobs in the Bahraini police and the Bahraini National Guard for any experienced soldier or policeman in Pakistan.”

Using foreign troops and policemen to control citizens who are protesting human rights violations and political repression is a formula for trouble. In any country this will stoke nationalism and resentment. Riedel’s term “mercenaries” is tough, but warranted. The GCC leaders would be smarter to use any foreign troops exclusively as soldiers present to help defend member states against foreign aggression or subversion. This could include defending borders and critical infrastructure targets, for example, but should not include police functions resulting from tensions between citizens and their governments. Using these foreign security officers as police would be a dangerous move, to be avoided at all costs.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Beatrix139

    So many people naively write in saying that that Gulf States will turn to Israel for defense. They have no idea how religious Muslims hate dhimmi Jews and Christians. At least the Christians tacitly accept their dhimmitude, but the uppity Jews have establish a state and now want Muslims to accept that state as Jewish. Jews are ok in their place, but Muslims certainly don’t want to see their sister marry one.

  • Posted by ah

    For the record, Yemen is not part of the GCC.

  • Posted by ah

    Beatrix – no one with a brain believes the the Gulf States will turn to Israel for defense. And that has nothing to do with your antiquated and absurd misunderstandings of Middle Eastern history and Islamic theology.

  • Posted by Lily

    Beatrix, you are right about the sentiments towards Jews and Christians on the arab street — a sentiment assiduously cultivated for decades by their rulers. But the rulers themselves are rather more pragmatic, and look to wherever their interests lie at any one time.
    Members of the Gulf ruling families regularly go to Israel for medical treatment, via Jordan. Further, the boycott notwithstanding, Israeli exports to Arab countries amounted to $6b in 2011, and the level is rising. Israeli security-related technology and medicinal drugs are much sought after. Arab governments want the best, and they don’t care where it is made.
    As far as their defense is concerned, what matters is how threatened the rulers are, or perhaps feel. If the saudi king is confronted with a choice between his family’s downfall, and potential help from a foreign state (even if that state is Israel), which do you suppose he would choose?

  • Posted by Lily

    Mr Abrams, I must say that ah is proving to be rather tiresome with puerile suppositions etc. The other day, it decided all by itself, for itself, that I live in an “illegal Israel Jewish settlement”, and now we have another rant or two. It would be a pity to lower the tone of this blog because ah does not have two thoughts to string together.

  • Posted by Lily

    Beatrix, you may enjoy this clip of a Salafi Kuwaiti MP rationalising business ties with Israel. I certainly did.

    When it is in their interest to do so, they’ll go through hoops to rationalise and justify.

  • Posted by ah

    I must say Mr. Abrams, I’m rather disappointed that you are now turning to censorship to ensure the homogeneous pro-Israel opinions of you and your commentators.

  • Posted by ah

    You have also yet to address your mistake of calling Yemen a member of the GCC.

  • Posted by ah2

    Wow, I can’t say it is surprising. Abrams, based on Lily’s support for censorship of any opinion different than hers, is now “moderating” (read “censoring”) my comments.

    Shameful Mr. Abrams, shameful.

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