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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

This chapter argues that for a number of reasons the Gulf area is and will continue to be a zone of political and military instability with high risks of inadvertent escalation. The main contributing factors are the institutional weaknesses of most of the region’s states, interconnections between various regional conflicts, the presence of multiple autonomous non-state actors, the relative wealth of the region, turning it into a generous buyer of modern arms, and domestic instability and modernisation challenges in many Gulf countries. Traditional security arrangements requiring a regional hegemonic power or an external security provider are unlikely to work efficiently in the Gulf. There is no benign legitimate regional hegemon and the traditional external security provider (the United States) is limiting its engagement in the region. A collective security model, despite looking attractive and desirable, turns out to be unattainable under the current political circumstances. There is no common vision of the Gulf area’s future and there is no consensus on basic values and principles that constitute a foundation for such a system.

The chapter concludes that today it would make sense to start with relatively modest incremental confidence-building measures, particularly between Iran and the major Arab Gulf states, including communication lines between the military, information exchange including advance warnings of naval activities, and Track-2 dialogues on military doctrines and procurement policies. Gradual steps that are more ambitious could complement these modest measures. It is possible to envisage some form of arms control in the Gulf, setting local demilitarised zones, prohibiting states from the destabilising activity of accumulating conventional weapons including sophisticated missile systems and so on. At some point, even plans to turn the region into a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone could be revisited, even if it would take much effort to put these plans into practice.

The Gulf security agenda will be incomplete if it does not embrace non-traditional threats: international terrorism, illegal drug and arms trafficking, organised crime and illegal immigration. Each of these areas should have its own international regime with established procedures and participants.

Executive summary

This chapter argues that for a number of reasons the Gulf area is and will continue to be a zone of political and military instability with high risks of inadvertent escalation. The main contributing factors are the institutional weaknesses of most of the region’s states, interconnections between various regional conflicts, the presence of multiple autonomous non-state actors, the relative wealth of the region, turning it into a generous buyer of modern arms, and domestic instability and modernisation challenges in many Gulf countries. Traditional security arrangements requiring a regional hegemonic power or an external security provider are unlikely to work efficiently in the Gulf. There is no benign legitimate regional hegemon and the traditional external security provider (the United States) is limiting its engagement in the region. A collective security model, despite looking attractive and desirable, turns out to be unattainable under the current political circumstances. There is no common vision of the Gulf area’s future and there is no consensus on basic values and principles that constitute a foundation for such a system.

The chapter concludes that today it would make sense to start with relatively modest incremental confidence-building measures, particularly between Iran and the major Arab Gulf states, including communication lines between the military, information exchange including advance warnings of naval activities, and Track-2 dialogues on military doctrines and procurement policies. Gradual steps that are more ambitious could complement these modest measures. It is possible to envisage some form of arms control in the Gulf, setting local demilitarised zones, prohibiting states from the destabilising activity of accumulating conventional weapons including sophisticated missile systems and so on. At some point, even plans to turn the region into a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone could be revisited, even if it would take much effort to put these plans into practice.

The Gulf security agenda will be incomplete if it does not embrace non-traditional threats: international terrorism, illegal drug and arms trafficking, organised crime and illegal immigration. Each of these areas should have its own international regime with established procedures and participants.

Introduction

One of the most disturbing trends in international politics today is the continual instability in the Persian Gulf area, a region which remains a critically important hub of the global economy, finance and transport. Foreign military involvement in the civil war in Yemen, which has already resulted in a humanitarian disaster in the country, the political pressure on Qatar from a number of neighbouring Arab states and the never-ending tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia are just the most graphic illustrations of this dangerous situation [1]. In addition, many Gulf countries are becoming increasingly vulnerable to domestic social and political unrest due to increasing volatility in the global oil market and to in-house reform efforts with so far unclear results.

The GCC is in a state of paralysis and its future remains unclear with many implications of the Qatari crisis still present [2]. The Arab League is weak, deeply divided along many lines and indecisive. The United Nations Security Council, including its permanent members, shows little appetite for any meaningful action and is taking the deplorable position of an idle bystander. When and where external actors are involved in Gulf security matters, these actors turn out to be part of the problem rather than of the solution. Moreover, it seems that external actors tend to accept the regional security problems as a ‘new normal’—something not necessarily desirable but generally affordable and therefore acceptable. However, the idea of a ‘new normal’ applied to the Gulf area looks dubious and irresponsible, to say the least.

The challenges of growing instability

It is true that the Persian Gulf region is not the only volatile and highly unpredictable region in the world. Crises might break out elsewhere—in the Sahel, in Latin America, in northeast Asia or in the post-soviet space. However, there are a number of specific reasons for security uncertainties and the subsequent risks being particularly high in the Gulf.

First, most of the political regimes in the Gulf area, and in the MENA region at large, combine weak institutions with highly centralised personal power, which makes the decision-making process quite dependent on personal perceptions and misperceptions, and also on emotions and improvisations. With a clear deficit of appropriate checks and balances, without political oppositions and an independent media playing a mitigation role in foreign policymaking, the risk of an inadvertent escalation due to miscalculations and human errors appears particularly dangerous [3]. Although in the 1990s and 2000s in a number of the region’s states a growing role of institutions could be observed, particularly in the security domain, this growth was not accompanied by more transparency or decision-making clarity. For instance, multiple security-related agencies in today’s Syria engaged in institutional rivalry with each other, contributing to unpredictability and a potential instability of the Syrian regime.

Second, many conflicts and tensions in the region are interconnected and are often mutually reinforcing. This means that any escalation there may not be only vertical but also horizontal, involving many hotspots at the same time or leading to a chain reaction of multiple conflicts. For instance, escalation might take place simultaneously in Yemen, the Strait of Hormuz, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, etc. The negative cumulative impact of multiple escalations on regional stability at large might significantly exceed even the worst-case repercussions of isolated local crises.

Third, escalation can result from unauthorised actions by proxies and other ‘loose cannons,’ which exist in abundance in the region. Regional state actors can use non-state institutions as their foreign policy tools. At the same time, the latter can act on their own or they can cross red lines assigned to them by their patrons and funders. Among other things, the activities of non-state actors often seriously complicate the problem of attribution—we have already observed many such complications in the recent past. One of the most recent examples is Iran’s Shiite proxies making unauthorised provocations against the US in late December and early January before Trump left office, which resulted in fears of a US response. Such ‘loose cannons’ often have institutional interests in keeping regional tensions high and in sabotaging efforts at de-escalation and political reconciliation.

Fourth, many of the Gulf countries are relatively rich. The oil- and gas-generated wealth allows them to obtain some of the most sophisticated modern weapons, which they often fail to properly keep under control. Among other military means, they possess substantial means of cyber warfare that are capable of inflicting critical damage on the command, control, communication and intelligence capabilities of their adversaries. For a number of reasons, the critical defence and economic infrastructure in the Persian Gulf region looks especially vulnerable to futuristic cyber wars.

Fifth, international escalation might emerge as a side effect of unforeseen disruptive domestic developments in one of the Gulf countries. Many bad things can happen in the Gulf area—ranging from attempts at violent regime change to complete state implosions. Political leaders might look for more regional escalation as a way to distract popular attention in their countries from mounting domestic challenges. In the West, there is often reference to the potentially detrimental regional security implications of the mounting economic and social problems in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including a more assertive Iranian brinkmanship policy. However, leaders of other regional players—including Israel and Saudi Arabia—are also facing significant domestic problems and might also yield to the temptation to provoke a regional escalation to consolidate their domestic power bases [4].

Under these challenging circumstances, the prospects for creating a new and stable security system in the Persian Gulf look vague and unrealistic. If the current trends prevail, the region will inevitably continue to be nothing but a battleground for ‘regional superpowers’ (Saudi Arabia, Iran and to some extent Turkey and Israel), which will compete with each other for the right to create spheres of influence, using the support of their smaller and weaker clients to the detriment of regional stability.

It is easy to predict that in this scenario external (non-regional) actors will be concerned not so much about how to prevent instability in the Gulf as about how to limit the inevitable damage and to stop the negative consequences of Middle East instability from spilling over into the rest of the world. In fact, much of what happens in the MENA region today reflects exactly this approach. For instance, the main justification for external involvement in Syria has been the stated intention to defeat terrorism overseas to prevent it from reaching home. The commitment of the great powers to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (efforts at eliminating chemical weapons in Syria, finding a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue) reflects the same logic. The presence of weapons of mass destruction in an unstable region creates potential threats not only for the region itself but also for the entire world.

However, will the containment approach work? To what extent is it possible to minimise the negative consequences that instability in the Gulf or in the MENA region generates for adjacent parts of the world? Can bombing Syria and Iraq really prevent new terrorist attacks in Europe? Can the migrant flow from the Middle East be stopped without restoring stability to the region? How can a cordon sanitaire work in a modern global and interdependent world?

If containment is not a realistic option, it seems that there is no real alternative to ‘fixing’ the Gulf region. If the region is not ‘fixed,’ we expect to observe an even deeper disintegration of the region, more military hostilities, an emergence of ‘failed states’ on the Gulf map, dangers of violent social and political transformations, regime changes and spill-overs of political extremism and international terrorism to other parts of the world.

What should the past crises in this area teach us? The most evident observation is that the unravelling instability and the rise of insecurity in the Persian Gulf demonstrate multiple deficiencies of traditional models of providing regional security. These models simply do not work in the twenty- first century. Let us outline some of them.

Seeking hegemony versus a quest for a security guarantor

The most natural and historically the most common regional security model since the time of the Roman Empire is one that relies on a regional hegemonic power that can take responsibility for stability in its ‘natural’ sphere of influence. After the demise of the caliphate in the eighteenth century, the Arab world became a playground for competing Persian and Turkish imperial ambitions which are still present in the region today. The weakening of traditional hegemonic powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries opened the door for the hegemonic aspirations of European powers and after WW2 for the regional outreach of the United States and the Soviet Union.

However, there have been no shortage of attempts by major local Arab players to position themselves as regional hegemonic powers. Historically, Egypt claimed this role after the Suez crisis of 1956 and later on Iraq under Saddam Hussein tried hard to position himself as the regional leader and rule-setter. From the 1970s, Saudi Arabia and the UAE became more active on the regional MENA scene, particularly in the Gulf area itself. A regional hegemon helps to keep the balance of power between smaller neighbouring players, prevents them from building anti-hegemonic coalitions and mobilises regional clients and allies to confront common adversaries. In the Gulf case, the role of the regional hegemon can be claimed jointly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with the Saudis providing most of the ‘hard’ power while the Emirates contribute their political ideology and strategic vision. Lately, with various rifts between the two counties emerging, the UAE could be observed upgrading their own ‘hard’ power capabilities and demonstrating foreign policy ambitions not necessarily closely coordinated with Riyadh [5].

However, if we look at current developments in the Gulf area, we have to question the applicability of this model to this particular situation. Even putting aside the moral and legal deficiencies of the model, both the Yemen and Qatar cases question the feasibility of a ‘regional uni-polarity.’ Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE seem to be capable of successfully ‘managing’ arguably much less powerful regional players. On the contrary, political divisions in the region are becoming deeper and the prospects of a regional reconciliation are becoming more and more remote.

The region is too diverse and the power of the potential hegemon(s) is too limited to provide a stable security system. It also seems that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be getting weaker not stronger in the near future and its capacity to play the role of a regional hegemonic power even together with the UAE—will not increase but is more likely to decrease. On a more general note, one can justifiably question the applicability of old hierarchical models to regional settings in the twenty-first century [6].

Another traditional regional security model entails the leading role being played by an out-of-area hegemon, which acts as an external security provider and an honest broker in regional disputes. For a long time, the Gulf area states (except for Iran) and most of the MENA region states at large were not security providers—they were not completely self-sufficient in terms of guaranteeing their own security. The Gulf States were instead security consumers: security guarantees tended to be a kind of regional import provided by external powers.

Historically, between the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the ‘Desert Storm’ operation to liberate Kuwait in 1991, the MENA region was a focal point of the Soviet-American confrontation, one of the major components of the Cold War bipolar world, a playground for competition and limited cooperation between the two superpowers. After the Soviet disintegration and Russia’s subsequent withdrawal from the MENA region and up to the beginning of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2010– 2011, the region experienced almost two decades of US unilateral hegemony with consistent US attempts to play the role of the indispensable external security provider.

Despite significant differences between the bipolar and the unipolar arrangements, the two sequential regional security frameworksthat lasted altogether for about half a century had a number of important common features. First, the nation- states in the region remained the main elements in the system, and the most significant threats to security resulted from tensions and conflicts between these nation-states. Accordingly, the system involved primarily maintaining delicate state-to-state regional balances—between the Arab countries and Israel, between Iran and Iraq, etc. When significant imbalances emerged (or when specific regional actors concluded that such a change of balance had indeed taken place), they led to growing risks of armed conflicts. Regional wars were tolerated by the external hegemonic powers, but these wars were constrained to avoid excessive disruptions of the regional system.

Second, authoritarian regimes in most of the countries in the region turned out to be surprisingly stable and resilient: the very same leaders (or narrow family or clan groups) stayed in power for decades. They successfully prevented or suppressed violent social protests and political dissent, and overt threats to the statehood of these countries only arose in exceptional cases. Overall, the foreign policy direction of the countries in the region also remained more or less stable. When they changed (Egypt’s sudden turn from the USSR to the United States in the mid- 1970s and Iran’s move away from US influence after the fall of the Shah’s regime in 1979), the external guarantors managed to maintain the overall regional stability by adjusting bilateral and multilateral balances within the system.

At the beginning of the 2010s, the once immutable foundations of regional security provided by an external hegemon became fragile and unstable. The ‘perfect storm’ arrived in the countries and practically all the features of the regional system mentioned above stopped properly functioning. The seemingly unbreakable stability of a whole range of authoritarian regimes collapsed under the pressure of the Arab Spring. It should be noted that as a rule the authoritarian regimes in the region were not promptly succeeded by any stable democratic political systems. Instead, many countries in the region entered a protracted period of state institutional crisis.

The main threats to security in the region are now more likely to come from within individual states rather than as a result of hostile relations between states. Radical social and political movements and groupings have become the main destabilising factor, even though they rely on support from individual countries in the region and external forces. The old security system was not prepared for this fundamentally new challenge.

Until the end of the twentieth century, external security providers—originally the Soviet Union and the United States and later the United States alone—attached great importance to the region. In many ways, the MENA region was a top geopolitical priority for overseas hegemonic powers, which justified them having a strong economic, political and military presence. Since the MENA remained a priority, these external guarantors were prepared to invest significant material and political resources in the region. For the United States in particular, after the oil embargo of 1973 the region also emerged as an indispensable source of hydrocarbons for the global economy and a guarantor of global energy stability.

Over time, however, the interest of the last external hegemon in maintaining its large-scale security commitment to the region, which many local elites had for a long time taken for granted, has become questionable. The US political and intellectual elite have clearly developed ‘Middle East fatigue’ and doubts have arisen about the ability of the United States to change the overall negative trajectory of the region’s development. Against the background of the ‘shale revolution’ and the fact that the United States has achieved energy self-sustainability, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify the Middle East being a priority in Washington’s foreign policy. And because an alternative external hegemon is unlikely to appear any time soon, the United States leaving the region, even if only partially, would mean the inevitable end of a regional security framework that has been in place since the early 1990s [7]. The decline in oil prices has come at a time when the region’s role in global energy pricing has become less significant, with producers from other regions aggressively fighting for their shares of the global market. The golden days of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Gulf states manipulating oil prices are now long gone.

The United States appears to have no coherent MENA strategy these days. The concept of a ‘greater Middle East’ popular with the G.W. Bush Administration at the beginning of the century envisaged building various military and political alliances in the Middle East and North Africa under the US security umbrella. This concept, however, turned out to be stillborn — not only because it was conceived by DC-based analysts and bureaucrats with questionable knowledge of the region but also because it implied the idea of division. The intention was to mobilise the Arab world for a joint struggle against US opponents and foes in the region.

It is too early to make any judgements about the Biden Administration strategy in the Gulf region but there are grounds to suspect that the United States might repeat its past mistakes. The concept of an ‘Arab NATO’ backed by the US and targeted against Iran might remain popular in Washington despite Donald Trump having left the White House. However, the odds are that this concept will be no more successful than that of a ‘greater Middle East.’ The Arab world, including the Gulf region, is very complex and highly diverse. The interests and priorities of the various Arab states are in no way identical. An attempt to create a defence alliance similar to NATO in the Persian Gulf does not seem realistic or even desirable [8].

Nevertheless, let us imagine that such a military bloc could indeed emerge in the region. What security problems would it be in a position to resolve? In the best-case scenario, this arrangement would freeze the current conflicts in the Gulf in the form of a regional cold war with most of the Gulf Arab States being much less stable and committed to democracy than the US and European allies in NATO [9].

As we know from the European history of the second half of the twentieth century, this form has many negative strings attached, including mutual mistrust and suspicions, a continual arms race and political tensions and, most importantly, an inherent risk of the cold war turning into a real ‘hot’ war. It should not be forgotten that that if the Gulf area follows the European experience, it will replicate not the ‘mature’ Cold War period with arms control and confidence-building mechanisms but instead the ‘early’ Cold War era when there were no agreed upon rules of conduct and the risk of an inadvertent escalation was particularly high.

A collective security dream

Where should we look for alternatives to these antiquated and deficient models? It seems that the only plausible alternative to a hegemon- led regional order is a collective security model applied to the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East at large. Nobody would argue against such a system in principle and many roadmaps leading to various forms of collective security have already been put forward [10]. Unfortunately, none of these roadmaps has so far had any practical impact on the situation in the area. The dream of a collective security system in the Gulf often seems a pipedream completely detached from reality. Let us consider the most apparent obstacles on the way to collective security in the Persian Gulf.

Above all, an effective collective security system should be comprehensive. That is, regional military and political problems should not be separated from social, economic, energy, religious and humanitarian issues [11]. The ‘three baskets’ (security, economics and humanitarian cooperation) that were the basis for the Helsinki Process in Europe 40 years ago should be the foundation for a new collective security system in the Gulf region. The basic principles of the Helsinki Process included refraining from threatening or using force to resolve contentious issues, respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states in the region, peaceful settlement of territorial and border disputes and fulfilment of obligations in good faith under international law. They are no less relevant for the Middle East today than they were for Europe in 1975.

However, the military situation in the Middle East is decidedly more complicated than that of 1970s Europe. The region does not have two opposing military and political blocs, or even a comprehensive system of nation-states. Under the current challenging circumstances, it would be extremely difficult to take a comprehensive approach to security—for example, intra-regional trade in the Gulf area is much more limited than it was in Europe in the 1970s and Gulf economies do not complement each other but instead compete with each other for clients and partners overseas.

Furthermore, moving toward a collective security system in the Gulf would be an extremely long, precarious and bumpy road with very unclear prospects of getting to the final destination anytime soon. Even in Europe, it took fifteen years to move from the Helsinki Act of 1975 to the Paris Charter of 1990. The Charter was only signed when it became clear that one of the blocs opposing each other was already in the process of disintegration. Although the text of the Charter did not refer to ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the Cold War, it was apparent that the new European security system did not imply a convergence between the two blocs but instead stipulated the terms for an inevitable absorption of one block by the other.

Moreover, as it turned out later, the participating states have never succeeded in implementing the Paris Charter in full. The OSCE has never become the cornerstone of European security. In fact, the opposite is true—over the last thirty years Europe has been moving away from a collective security system, not towards one. Today the continent is arguably much more divided than it was back in 1990. There are absolutely no reasons to believe that one can successfully implement in the Gulf region, not to mention the MENA region at large, a model that has failed in a most spectacular way in Europe.

One of the fundamental principles of any international collective security system is inclusiveness. It is clear that the leading Arab nations - Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and others - have to play a decisive role in building such a system. However, as the recent Qatari crisis has demonstrated, it is not always easy to reach consensus even among generally like-minded Gulf monarchies. Despite a recent rapprochement between Qatar and the KSA/UAE coalition, it would be premature to argue that the integrity of the GCC has been successfully restored [12]. It is still more difficult to agree on a ‘legitimate’ role for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although some scholars entertain the idea of a GCC+2 (adding Iran and Iraq to the existing GCC group [13]), it is clear that such a geographical enlargement of the GCC, even if doable, is not likely to make the Council more efficient.

If we take a broader geographical perspective, we cannot exclude from the list of potential participants Turkey and Israel. These nations are no less interested in a stable, predictable, prosperous and vibrant Middle East than their Arab neighbours are. It would be not only unfair but also highly short-sighted to exclude either of these states from the regional arrangement. To exclude just a single major player would make the whole system extremely fragile and unreliable. Paradoxically, including everybody would mean paralysing the system by making it fully dependent on the lowest common denominator.

A regional collective security system should incorporate universal international law principles, including respect for national sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the member states, and protection of basic human and minority rights, etc. It is not clear who would enforce these principles and make sure that no double standards are applied. The existing experience (Syria, Libya, Yemen) demonstrates how difficult it is to reach an agreement on some of these very sensitive and highly controversial matters. Can the United Nations Security Council in its current shape provide any credible guarantees of enforcement of the new arrangements? Is it ready to launch an efficient international monitoring mechanism for the Gulf area? Unfortunately, the chances of success remain low—at least for as long as the global powers remain divided on fundamental problems of contemporary international relations.

All these questions, regardless of how disputed and controversial they might seem, can be successfully dealt with if one indispensable precondition is met. This precondition is that major regional and non-regional actors should fully understand the real scale of the challenge they have to confront and act accordingly. A collective security system could come as a spin-off of a long-term regional modernisation project. Such a project, which is clearly lacking now, should imply an agreed strategic vision of the desirable future, a number of detailed roadmaps in various areas and, above all, a common understanding of the fundamental values and principles guiding the regional integration. It would require intellectual and political leaders with the ambitions of Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer. Finally, it would require a consorted position of external players willing to provide political and economic support for the regional project.

To rise to the challenge, national elites in the Gulf area and their foreign partners should muster a sense of historic responsibility, not only in restoring regional stability but also in securing sustainable regional development. Unfortunately, such a sense is clearly absent today—these elites seem to be guided primarily by their situational interests and tactical opportunities/challenges. A regional identity has not yet emerged in the Gulf area.

Quick fixes instead of long-term solutions [14]

If the great collective security dream remains a pipedream for the time being, the focus should be on something modest, less comprehensive and more practical. There is more than ever a need for some crisis-management mechanism able to mitigate the potential consequences of new incidents, miscalculations, risks of escalation and so on. The absence of such a mechanism is already a significant instability factor since it constantly generates mistrust and raises suspicions about the intentions of adversaries. The immediate goal is not to resolve all the existing security problems in the region but to provide more predictability and mutual confidence in dealing with unavoidable micro-, mini- and mega-crises which are already looming on the horizon. In that spirit, I offer the following suggestions.

Iran and the Gulf Arab states have an immediate interest in taking care of their security interests by themselves, at least in terms of crisis prevention and crisis management. Let us elaborate a little on this point. If ‘deterrence’ has been partially ‘re-established’ for American interests in the region (regarding a challenge posed by Iran and its allies), nothing has been done to enhance the security of the Gulf countries in the same way. They remain vulnerable and the reaction of the US to an attack on their interests remains unpredictable. At the same time, Iran is engaged in a direct confrontation with the US, which has the strongest military force by far in the region, and it is definitely not in the interests of Iran to antagonise its immediate neighbours.

The first important starting point in that direction should be to establish lines of communication, crisis calls able to exchange early warning and information, if possible based on reliable technical monitoring instruments. Mil-to-mil contacts are particularly important now, when the political role of the military appears to be growing in most of the Arab Gulf countries [15].

Even such a limited aim will need courageous decisions. Maritime security in the Gulf could provide a potentially fruitful ground for exploring the idea of such confidence-building measures. All the regional players have an obvious interest in the freedom of the sea being preserved. It also noticeable that the Iranian ‘HOPE’ project has not been totally rejected by the Gulf countries [16].

However, the main risk for the Arab states in the Gulf is that the Iranian proposal leaves no room for any external military presence in the area and most importantly calls for a US withdrawal from the region. Without the United States, Iran would become the de facto regional hegemonic power with no credible balance in place [17]. A coordinated approach by the GCC making a counter-offer on the basis of a limited crisis management mechanism specifically focused on maritime security in the Gulf would probably be a more appropriate basis for a fruitful discussion.

The proposed mechanism would be somewhat similar to the pattern of interaction between NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation back in the 1970s and 1980s (i.e. during the ‘mature’ Cold War period). There are clear limitations to what this mechanism can do. For instance, it cannot become a viable alternative to legally binding arms control agreements. It cannot address such fundamental problems as the geography of deployments, defence-offence balances, the evolution of military doctrines and so on. Moreover, the crisis management mechanism can only deter an unintended (inadvertent) escalation; it cannot help in the case of an intended (advertent) escalation. If one side in the conflict considers ‘strategic ambiguity’ to give it a comparative advantage or pursues the strategy of ‘escalating in order to de-escalate,’ no crisis management mechanism is likely to work.

In sum, no crisis management mechanism is a panacea for the security challenges in the region. Nevertheless, this mechanism should not be underestimated if the only alternative in the near future is a complete vacuum of de-escalation instruments that regional players could rely on in times of crisis. Once this mechanism matures and the trust among key actors gradually grows, there could be a return to proposals that are more ambitious, gradually moving the area closer to an enhanced security system.

At a later point, arms control discussions could start in the Gulf, which is becoming one of the most militarised regions in the world. The first steps in this direction could be establishing demilitarised zones in the Gulf, prohibiting states from the destabilising activity of accumulating conventional weapons, including anti-missile systems, and a balanced reduction of the armed forces of the major military powers in the region and the surrounding area. Perhaps, the time will come to revisit plans to turn the region into a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone, even if it will take much effort to put such a plan into practice.

The regional security agenda will be incomplete if we do not include non-traditional threats — international terrorism, illegal drug and arms trafficking, organised crime and illegal immigration. Each of these areas should have its own international regime with established procedures and participants.

Obviously, the first step to create a new security system in the region should be to consolidate all the powers that are interested in eliminating the real danger presented by the hotbed of international extremism and terrorism that the MENA region is. The war against international terrorism is the very foundation on which other more systemic and complex structures of regional security can be built. This would at the same time serve as a mechanism for restoring trust among the states in the region, for without trust there is no hope of building a security system in the first place. We need to shift the war against international terrorism from its current form of isolated operations to one that has a unified strategy and is spearheaded by the UN Security Council. It is extremely important to build a solid international legal framework for the fight against terrorism, one that is free from double standards.

Although regional players should be in the lead and probably only regional players can be in the lead for such a project—there is room for some external players interested in security in the Persian Gulf to make contributions. Previous experiences in adjacent areas might offer models for a positive involvement of out-of-area actors [18]. A ‘coalition of the willing’ ready to come up with a consolidated position and to encourage local partners to take the first steps toward a crisis management mechanism is needed. Maybe, such a coalition can be based on the JCPOA ‘P5+2,’ or ‘EU3 +4,’ adding India with the European Union taking the lead [19]. China as a major importer of Gulf oil should also be more active than it has been in the past [20].

The most challenging task would be to reconcile the approaches of the Euro-Atlantic members of the group (in particular, the US, France, the UK and Germany) with those of the Eurasian members (Russia, China and India). Another complication is that neither the Euro-Atlantic nor the Eurasian powers are united either in their overall assessments of the security challenges in the region or in their perceptions of de- escalation priorities. It is also important to link any ‘P5+2’ proposals to the Iranian Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE) in order to incentivise Tehran to take a positive view of these proposals.

Conclusion

There seems to be no ideal Gulf security model for the time being. Divisions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Arab neighbours are too deep and their views on the future of the region are hardly reconciliable. The Arab Gulf states, in their turn, often fail to reach consensus even on very basic security questions. External players present in the Gulf area often pursue their own geopolitical interests and do not come with a consorted position on security matters.

This challenging environment calls for modest incremental steps targeted not at ‘solving’ the security problems of the Gulf but instead at managing these problems in such a way that would reduce the risks and cut the costs of the ongoing confrontation. If these steps turn out to be successful, they might ultimately lead to more ambitious and far-reaching undertakings with the ultimate long-term goal of erecting a robust collective security system in the Gulf area.

First published in “STEPPING AWAY FROM THE ABYSS: A Gradual Approach Towards a New Security System in the Persian Gulf”, Edited by Luigi Narbone, Abdolrasool Divsallar, European University Institute, 2021.

1. Malley, Robert. “Gulf Tensions Could Trigger a Conflict Nobody Wants.” International Crisis Group, 2020. https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-northafrica/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/gulf-tensionscould-trigger-conflict-nobody-wants.

2. Vakil, Sanam. “Qatar Crisis: A Beginning to the End?” Chatham House, 2021. https://tinyurl.com/yny38xmb

3. Dorsey James. “Transition in the Middle East: Transition to What?” National Security, 2018: 84-108: https://www.vifindia.org/sites/default/files/aug-2018-national-security-vol-1-issue-1-JDorsey.pdf

4. On the mounting economic problems in Saudi Arabia, see Young, Karen. “Saudi Arabia Braces for Economic Impact.” Al Monitor, 2021. https://www.al-monitor. com/pulse/originals/2020/05/saudi-arabiaeconomy-oil-coronavirus-covid19-kuwait-jadaan. html#ixzz6LhSVx6r9

5. Steinberg, Guido. “Regional Power United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi Is No Longer Saudi Arabia’s Junior Partner.” SWP Research Paper, 2020. https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/research_papers/2020RP10_UAE_ RegionalPower.pdf

6. Kortunov, Andrey. “What Should the Gulf Crises Teach Us?” Russian International Affairs Council, 2017. https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/what-should-the-gulf-crises-teach-us/

7. Dorsey, James. “US Military Drawdown in Saudi Arabia Threatens to Fuel Arms Race.” Inside Arabia, 2020. https://insidearabia.com/us-military-drawdown-insaudi-arabia-threatens-to-fuel-arms-race/

8. Dolgov, Boris. “Gulf Cooperation Council Summit: Why ‘Arab NATO’ Is Still a Project.” Valdai Discussion Club, 2018. https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/gulfcooperation-council-summit-why-arab-nato/

9. Lear, Kerry. “Is Trump’s “Arab NATO” What’s Needed to Get Iran in Line?” The Puncing Bag Post, 2018. https://punchingbagpost.com/is-trump-arab-nato-whatneeded-to-get-iran-in-line/?pb_list=pb_list.

10. For the official Russian position on the collective security system in the Gulf, see Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. “Russia’s security concept for the Gulf area.” 2019. https://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/international_safety/conflicts/-/asset_publisher/xIEMTQ3OvzcA/content/id/3733575?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_ xIEMTQ3OvzcA&_101_INSTANCE_ xIEMTQ3OvzcA_languageId=en_GB

11. Ivanov, Igor. “Is a Collective Security System Possible in the Middle East?” Russian International Affairs Council, 2016. https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/tri-korziny-dlya-blizhnego-vostoka/

12. Fakhro, Elham. “Resolving the Gulf Crisis outside the Gulf.” International Crisis Group, 2021. https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-andarabian- peninsula/resolving-gulf-crisis-outside-gulf

13. Makhmutov, Timur, and Ruslan Mamedov. “Proposals on Building a Regional Security System in West Asia and North Africa.” Russian International Affairs Council Working Paper 38, 2017. https://russiancouncil.ru/en/activity/workingpapers/Proposals-on-Building-a- Regional-Security-System/

14. This section is based on an earlier co-authored piece: Duclos, Michel, and Andrey Kortunov. “A Crisis Management Mechanism in the Middle East Is Needed More Than Ever.” Institut Montaigne, 2020. https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/crisismanagement-mechanism-middle-east-neededmore-ever

15. Roberts, David. “The Gulf Monarchies’ Armed Forces at the Crossroads.” French Institute of International Relations, no. 80. 2018. https://www.ifri.org/en/publications/etudes-de-lifri/focus-strategique/gulfmonarchies-armed-forces-crossroads

16. Zweiri, Mahjoob, and Suleiman Muyassar. “Iran Hormuz Peace Initiative and the Neighboring Countries: The Helsinki Model.” Gulf Insights, no. 11. 2019. https://www.qu.edu.qa/static_file/qu/research/Gulf%20 Studies/documents/Hormuz%20Initiative%20-%20 No11%20gulf%20insight%20english%20version.pdf

17. Manqarah, Abdulmajeed Saud. “Competing Models in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Iran.” King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, 2019. http://kfcris.com/pdf/0b493090ebda6e2b130a4ae5970a4 af15d394fa11e308.pdf

18. Kortunov, Andrey. “The Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden.” Russian International Affairs Council, 2019. https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/the-strait-of-hormuz-and-the-gulf-of-aden/

19. An interesting outline of the EU role in promoting confidence-building measures in the Gulf can be found in Colombo, Silvia and Dessì, Andrea. “Collective Security and Multilateral Engagement in the Middle East: Pathways for EU Policy.” Istituto Affari Internazionali Papers, 2020. https://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/iaip2037.pdf

20. Graham, Euan. “Should China help secure the Strait of Hormuz? The Strategist.” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2019. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/should-china-help-secure-the-strait-of-hormuz/


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