Global and regional crises, empowered Gulf rivals, and the evolving paradigm of regional security

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Emma Soubrier, George Washington University

Arab Gulf monarchs’ foreign and defense policies used to be mainly driven by the utter need to ensure their regime’s and state’s security in a hostile environment with virtually no indigenous capabilities to defend their territorial integrity– a situation which was particularly illustrated during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. They thus adopted neutral strategies on the regional stage, and their military acquisitions mostly constituted a cash flow towards the defense industrial base of Western countries, particularly the US,’ in exchange for protection guarantees.[1] Their strategies had little to do with gaining more power on the international stage, merely relative autonomy if and when they felt they could achieve it without upsetting the overall checks and balances characterizing the traditional paradigm of Gulf security. However, this has been drastically changing in the past decade. Bolstered by shifts at the international and regional levels, Arab Gulf States, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), have moved onto assertive and competing power plays which are in turn deeply reshaping the conduct of international relations within the Gulf region, in the broader MENA region, and beyond.

Acknowledging and analyzing this departure from neutral and cautious strategies onto an increasingly aggressive outreach using both soft power and hard power, observers and scholars have been looking to identify key moments marking plausible turning points in these states’ policies. In this respect, three years stand out as decisive crossroads for the countries of the Peninsula: 1990, 2003 and 2011, with many works underlining the crucial role of the emergence of immediate material or ideational threats in shaping the security strategies of the Gulf monarchies and/or of the US involvement in the Gulf in transforming the regional balance of power. Without undermining the importance of these three moments in recent Gulf history, this research note argues that the 2008 global financial crisis was at least as significant a turning point in Gulf monarchs’ strategies for the additional leverage it offered them in their bilateral and multilateral relationships with outside powers, and hence the additional chance it provided to assert their own interests.

Underlining the importance and impact of this event not only makes the case for revaluating the role of globalization and neoliberalism in the reshaping of international relations at the global and regional level –not least because it affected the capacity and authority of many states [to] provide wellbeing and security for their populations[2]– but it also shows that it is crucial to analyze the strategies of the Gulf monarchies as an active quest for greater influence and power[3] rather than as a mere defensive reaction to global and regional crises which occurred in the past decades. This research note indeed suggests that these crises have not only empowered Arab Gulf leaders but also fueled their rivalries to such a point that it may durably affect the paradigm of regional security and that it calls for a fundamental reassessment of our traditional understandings of (geo)politics at the regional and global levels.

A snapshot of the Gulf security paradigm as once was

The traditional Gulf security paradigm can be said to have long relied on two main and interconnected features: the emergence of a Gulf Regional Security Complex (RSC) in the early 1980s –following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980– characterized by the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 and its continuous relevance as a loose yet somewhat effective collective entity bringing together Gulf monarchs in their common quest for regime security and territorial integrity, and an overall alignment of Arab Gulf States’ interests with those of their Western allies and protectors, not least because their threat perception singled out Iran as the main security challenge to the region. Yet, when the Gulf RSC, defined through “the degree to which certain geographically grouped states spend most of their time and effort worrying about each other and not other states,”[4] was consolidated in 1990, the threat did not come from Tehran but from Baghdad. While the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s troops certainly proved to GCC countries that their main security challenges came from within the Gulf region, it also confronted the smaller states of the Arabian Peninsula with a blunt reality check as they realized their attempted cooperative strategy proved a failure: they could not rely on the Saudi umbrella, let alone on themselves, to ensure their security. As a result of this and amidst the emerging new global order, they thus readjusted their security strategy.

Fostering relative autonomy without upsetting the checks and balances of the region

From 1990 onwards, the smaller Arab Gulf States, most notably the UAE and Qatar, have gradually moved from survival strategies chiefly based on external security guarantors to an exceptional form of relative autonomy. This was rendered possible by a diversification of their alliances and weapons’ providers to be less dependent on one given partner. As I argued elsewhere,[5] they developed a very original strategy, mixing bandwagoning and balancing approaches at the regional and global levels. Being part of the GCC, they bandwagoned with KSA and tacitly relied on the US, by virtue of the security arrangements between KSA and the US, but they also started to ally more directly with the American power, which allowed them to overcome their security dilemma within the Peninsula. In addition to this, a few years later, they signed defense agreements with France and the UK, which helped them reach relative autonomy within the multi-level cooperative strategy they built with the US itself. Although these two smaller Gulf states reorganized their strategies as a consequence of an immediate threat to their territorial integrity, it is worth noting that they did not simply try to insure their survival, but instead chose to take advantage of the new regional and global contexts to assert their nascent autonomy and sovereignty.

What is important to underline is that while this marked the beginning of the Qatari and Emirati empowerment, particularly in terms of getting out of the Saudi shadow, their newfound relative autonomy did not undermine the GCC, nor did it come in the way of Western interests in the Gulf and beyond. If anything, this was actually a blessing for the economies of the US, France and the UK since it translated into an increasing number of lucrative arms deals still very much aimed at securing political support from powerful allies. This remark allows one to highlight two points: first, the Arab Gulf States were still using their huge economic power to ensure their security in a largely indirect manner; second, regional decisionmakers were not trying to use this power to impose any interest diverging from those of their Western partners. This has been changing quite a bit later on.

The global financial crisis as a turning point in the empowerment of Arab Gulf leadersThe evolving global economic context has gradually allowed the UAE, Qatar and KSA to deploy new policies to foster more sovereignty and power, which participates in a shifting of dependency logics between them and their Western allies. Not only has the 2008 financial crisis allowed them to boost their status by rescuing Western struggling economies through their sovereign wealth funds, but the associated austerity in Western security budgets has also raised their profile as a market in the global arms export race, allowing them to become more demanding in terms of capabilities of the weapons they purchase and the offsets they request as part of military contracts. While the UAE, Qatar and KSA were long engaged in a mutually dependent partnership rather than a purely dependent relation with their Western allies, their huge economic power at a time of worldwide predicament has given them a new advantage in the co-dependent relationship. Their leaders thus appear to increasingly use this power as a bargaining chip in exchange for concessions from their Western partners that are coherent with their own interests and perceptions of power dynamics in the region.

It can be argued that the new global economic context represented a turning point for the regional security paradigm for at least three different reasons. First, it marked the beginning of a new era in which Arab Gulf leaders grew increasingly aware of the fact that the –political, military, and economic– sustainability of their states relied on their ability to become less dependent both on external security guarantors and on oil as their main source of wealth. To be sure, it is perhaps not surprising that the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 and the Qatar National Vision 2030 were published around that same period. Second, the growing assertiveness of Arab Gulf leaders in their bilateral and multilateral relations on the international stage meant that the interests they have defended from then on could sometimes compete with or run counter to those of their traditional partners. For instance, the huge efforts put by Mohammed bin Zayed on economic diversification through the development of a local defense industry could eventually lead to a situation where the UAE are autonomous enough in terms of military procurement that they do not need the West anymore. Finally, and perhaps more crucially, the increasing empowerment of both Qatar and the UAE, gradually putting them on the map alongside their bigger Saudi neighbor, also led to sharper competition within the Arabian Peninsula – a trend that was confirmed and strengthened from 2011 on.

The regional turmoil as an enabler for assertive and competing Gulf power plays

The evolving regional context and the Arab uprisings, which created a power vacuum in the whole MENA region, have led the UAE, Qatar and KSA to conduct more assertive policies, using both economic and military muscles to defend themselves against direct threats to their security and stability –as was arguably the case of having GCC neighbors shaken by some unrest– but also to enforce their views as to the direction in which the broader region ought to be heading. This translated into increasing efforts to support the groups or parties which best suited their strategic agenda, with Egypt perhaps being the most telling example of this shift in their regional engagement, not only because of the huge amounts of money the three Arab Gulf States’ riyalpolitik in this country has represented but also for the competing interests between them that were illustrated by their contrasted support to President Morsi and, later on, to the al-Sissi regime, and for the way Gulf monarchs framed their financial support to the new Egyptian leader as compensation for the possible drop in Western investments and aid to the country following the overthrow of President Morsi.

Combined with the aforementioned shift in the global economic context, the evolutions within the MENA region, where they could increasingly defend and assert their own interests, independently from or regardless of their Western partners. have in fact led to a confirmation and strengthening of the Arab Gulf monarchs’ ego-centric reflexes,[6] allowing them to move onto competing power plays and to deeply reshape regional security dynamics. On the one hand, their assertion of rival agendas is creating additional tensions in many of the places they engage in – which has been particularly visible in places such as Syria, Libya or Yemen but also in the Horn of Africa, against the backdrop of persisting tensions between the Quartet (UAE, KSA, Bahrain, Egypt) and Qatar as well as that of the increased rivalry with Iran, which also benefited from the power vacuum associated with the unfolding of regional events since 2011. On the other hand, the shifting of dependency logics between Arab Gulf States and their Western traditional allies and protectors that might have been at play recently seems to be depriving the latter of their ability to convince their Gulf partners to behave as they see fit to ensure regional security and stability, as tends to be illustrated by the non-resolution of the Gulf crisis – which one would assume they want resolved for at least one reason: presenting a unified front to contain Iran.

What does this all mean?

Going back to the two main and interconnected features which the Gulf security paradigm has traditionally relied upon, that is a RSC characterized by the existence of the GCC as a loose yet effective collective security entity, and an overall alignment of Arab Gulf leaders’ interests with those of their Western protectors, the current state of relations within the Gulf and between regional leaders and their traditional partners seems to point to a deep shift in this paradigm. As a result of new regional and international incentives meeting with new internal priorities, foreign and defense policies of the UAE, Qatar and KSA have evolved in such a way that their strategic ties within the GCC are possibly severed beyond repair, while their relative advantage in the relationship with their Western allies appear to prevent the latter from embarking on a serious pursuit to bring everyone to their senses for the sake of regional stability. In the face of this gloomy picture, it is anyone’s guess where the empowered Gulf rivals might want to bring their confrontation next, both in terms of escalating tensions and in terms of their translating in additional powerplays in the region, and beyond.

It is in any case worth noting that regional and global changes having occurred in the past ten years suggest that a reassessment of the state of international relations and its various sub-fields as applied to the Gulf region is needed. It is for instance interesting to underline that while economic interconnection and interdependence at the regional and global levels are generally considered as pacifying factors, using this as leverage has become one of the weapons of choice of Gulf decisionmakers to endorse policies which are sometimes far from bringing additional peace or security. Connected to this broader issue, the evolving role arms deals play in regional (geo)politics is certainly a topic worth exploring, not least because it more generally points to a redefinition of power in international relations. Finally, it can be argued that recent developments in the Gulf tend to prove how important it is to move away from analysis frameworks overemphasizing the political and military aspects of security and to adopt a more comprehensive approach encapsulating risks factors in their plurality and diversity (by including economic, societal and environmental dimensions of security in the equation) – which could eventually help increase unity and cooperation.


[1] This points to the fact that military procurement in the Gulf has long been considered as a political act toward their allies and protectors more than an actual way to increase their capabilities of self-defense. Arms purchases indeed used to serve –and arguably still do, to some extent– as an instrument of foreign policy providing more security but only indirectly, through the implicit protection guarantee it buys from strategic partners. On the different incentives driving arms purchases in the Gulf, see Emma Soubrier, “Mirages of Power? From Sparkly Appearances to Empowered Apparatus, Evolving Trends and Implications of Arms Trade in Qatar and the UAE,” in David DesRoches and Dania Thafer (eds.), The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf, Berlin: Gerlach Press, 2016, p. 135-151.

[2] At the workshop in Beirut, the erosion of the capacity and authority of many states linked to the proliferation of transnational flows of people, capital, and ideas that they could no longer effectively regulate was referred to by Waleed Hazbun as one of the relevant takeaways of theories developed towards the end of the Cold War to explain how global politics was being transformed by simultaneous developments at multiple scales and levels.

[3] Or “role” on the regional and international stage, echoing May Darwich’s argument that “a change in the role of external actors has led to significant change in the regional structure and henceforth in the national role conceptions by regional actors,” building on the premise that “the foreign policy of regional actors in not only driven by interests and physical survival, but also about by social positions and standing in the system, i.e. role” (See May Darwich’s paper).

[4] Barry Buzan, People, States and Fears, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1991, cited in Gregory F. Gause, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 3-4.

[5] Emma Soubrier, “Evolving Foreign and Security Policies: A Comparative Study of Qatar and the UAE,” in Khalid Almezaini and Jean-Marc Rickli (eds.), The Small Gulf States: Foreign and Security Policies, New York: Routledge, 2016, p. 123-143.

[6] It is in fact possible to distinguish between two levels of “egoism” in the security dynamics of these states which, associated with the strong personalization and centralization of their power, lie at the heart of their polities and strategies: the “rational egoism” of states and the “ethical egoism” of self-interest. These ego-centric reflexes constitute one of the specificities of what I call the “Prince-State.” This concept, which I developed in my PhD thesis and will soon publish on, points to a political system in which the Prince’s perception and his client and influence networks have a paramount importance in threat definition and in the development of strategies to address it – in terms of military doctrine, foreign and defense policies, external engagement, and arms trade.