GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
The Arab Spring: the Changing Dynamics of Alliance Policies in the Gulf
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper analyses the impact of the Arab spring and of changing dynamics in the Middle East on the Gulf Cooperation Council states’ external and internal security policies. It aims to highlight the current limits and growing contradictions of the smaller GCC states’ alliance policies.

It is usually asserted that GCC states view threats primarily through the lens of regime security rather than through more conventional balance of power considerations (Gause, 2010; Cooper 2003). They balance threats rather than aggregate power, and threats may also be internal, not solely external (Davis, 1991). In particular, threats to regime security are seen to be particularly salient to rulers because of the importance of transnationals identities in the region (Barnett, 1998). In this regard, when GCC states make alliance decisions, they seem to prioritize threats directed against the legitimacy and the stability of their ruling regimes: they do not choose their allies based primarily on the distribution of power among regional players, but rather on how regional events and regional rivals could affect their domestic security. Accordingly, the decision of smaller Arab Gulf states to join the Saudi-led GCC in 1981 is best explained by leaders’ concerns about the spread of internal unrest following the Iranian revolution, rather than fear of military spillover from the Iran-Iraq war or the possibility of direct Iranian military invasion (Gause, 2003).

The focus on internal threats also explains why there has been so little external security cooperation at the GCC level (Cooper, 2003; Russell, 2007). In order to avoid any external disruption of the status quo, the GCC states have opted instead to rely on extra-regional protectors, which also allows smaller GCC states to maintain some degree of regional autonomy and room to maneuver within the Saudi orbit (Gause, 2010). Interestingly, while the IR literature on small states claims that cooperative strategies are usually preferred by states to maximize their influence – at the expense of their autonomy- , traditional alliance policies in the Gulf offer a contrasting model. Indeed, the multilevel framework of alliance (multilateral/GCC for internal security; bilateral/extra-regional powers for external security) has allowed smaller GCC states to secure their independence and stability through security policies and alignment behaviors that have guaranteed both their protection and their autonomy – at the expense of their influence, to a great extent.

However, with the changing dynamics in the region and the prominent rise of smaller GCC states – Qatar and UAE in particular- this model is facing important limits and contradictions. Significantly, while alliances have traditionally been favored for autonomy and protection, smaller GCC states’ growing influence mainly originates today from their own resources and capabilities (soft and hard power capabilities). The question, therefore, is to what extent does the rising regional influence of the GCC states, triggered by the changing dynamics in the region and growing domestic capabilities, undermines traditional alliance policies in the Gulf?

In order to answer this question, this paper identifies and analyses three main factors that explain the current challenges facing the GCC states’ defense and security cooperation policies: first, as a result of the gradual overlapping of the sub-regional security systems of the Gulf and the Levant triggered by the Arab spring and the civil war in Syria, there has been a lack of consensus among GCC states regarding the nature of internal threats and how to prioritize among these threats. Indeed, while the fear of Iranian-led Shia uprising continues to unite GCC states today, as demonstrated by the PSF intervention in Bahrain, there is no agreement regarding the identification, assessment, and prioritization of other perceived internal threats, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The second factor lies in the differences that have arisen over the past ten years between the GCC states and the US over their political and regional outlooks and threat assessment, as well as growing doubts about both the US’ willingness and capability to impose a regional order that could secure the GCC states’ core interests. Third, I will address the rivalry between GCC states as they become more involved politically, financially and militarily in most of the areas of regional unrest, and compete for influence in the power vacuum created by the Arab spring.

By analyzing these factors, this paper will examine the interplay between the changing dynamics in the Middle East and the security policies of the smaller GCC states, through the lens of IR and security studies. It will also identify the current limits and contradictions of an alliance model that favors both protection and autonomy at the expense of influence.