GCC: military bases important, but alone can't deter foes

GCC: military bases important, but alone can't deter foes
5 min read
23 Dec, 2016
Western bases in the GCC and proposed Gulf bases in the near-abroad cannot alone guarantee deterrence against geo-strategic foes, argues Naveed Ahmed.
Russian military base in Syria [Getty file photo]

The planet has about 1,000 foreign military bases, ranging from super-alert massive military compounds and small airstrips in the middle of tiny islands to low-key naval or aviation listening posts. Dating back to the 19th century British Empire, the apparatus reserves unique significance in the playbook of war strategy.

While Great Britain maintained global military supremacy with a network of permanent naval bases besides other ingenious tactics and wicked strategies, technological advances in Germany and Japan coupled with hyper-nationalism challenged her irreparably. England then lost its luster while saving grace in the Second World War, and left behind the legacy of foreign bases.

With over 800 foreign military installations today, the US only counts its bases that are worth $10 million and occupy more 10 acres of land. Russia has 9 bases outside of its own borders, the UK and France 13, Japan, Australia, Israel, Turkey, Netherlands, India, South Korea and Chile one each.

Innovations and invention of the 21st century notwithstanding, nearly 1,000 foreign bases of numerous ilk dot the planet today

The emergence of aircraft carriers was largely dependent on land bases for refueling and other supplies to stay afloat in dangerous or unchartered waters. Nuclear-fueled aircraft carriers did considerably help staying afloat for ridiculously long hauls but still, certain strategic locations were too good to be abandoned by the powerful nations during the cold war allowing quick response, striking power and self-protection.

Though the British decided to leave the Arabian or Persian Gulf region, they preferred maintaining bases there. Of course, it was before a bloody revolution brought Iran in the control of Ayatollah Khomeini, when their primary purpose was projection of power vis-a-via the Soviet Union and retention of influence over the ruling monarchies.

Ever since, the foreign military cantonments have proven their utility at regular intervals. Some helped deter attacks, others were instrumental in dethroning a defiant dictator or terrorist hub in rocky landlocked regions. During the last decade, the bases evolved from larger offshore cantonments to smaller detachments in larger number of countries. The invention of drones has also contributed to the emerging trend. 

Foreign military cantonments have proven their utility at regular intervals

But exactly when the world is fearing full-fledged Cold War 2.0 between Washington and its erstwhile rival, Moscow, America’s president elect has unflattering words for offshore deployment of military assets. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump questionned his country’s age-old policy of playing the lead role in NATO while explicitly urging Japan and South Korea to be responsible for their own defence.

The Gulf is one region where anxiety has hit the ceiling as Trump doubted the policy of permanent offshore deployment. Despite realizing that Trump’s most consistent habit is his inconsistency, the petro-rich Gulf states are scrambling their respective Washington lobbyists to halt the move.

Though the Iranian interference in Yemen and eventual coup by Houthi militia against an elected government could not be deterred by extensive presence of US, British and French military assets, the GCC nations including Saudi Arabia haven’t written off their significance in the larger picture. The role the US assumed in the Yemen campaign was of minimalistic, i.e. intelligence sharing.

What good do the bases bring to the Gulf states? Would they be useful in case Iran and its proxies proceed against one or more of GCC countries beyond Yemen?

With the fall of Aleppo, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its proxy militia will not sit idle. They have already warned of Aleppo-style excursion in Yemen and Bahrain.

The peculiar strategic environment of the Gulf region requires a unified response to external military threats, whether hybrid or otherwise

Multifaceted response

To ward off threats like these, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE used 75 per cent of their military spending from 2002 to 2014 in purchases of military hardware from the US, Britain and France, the nations that have bases in the GCC region, according to SIPRI Arms & Military Expenditure Programme. Their combined defence expenditure soared up to $113 billion, with 60 per cent share going to Saudi Arabia. It also noted that military spending increased 135 percent in the UAE and 112 percent in Saudi Arabia during 2005 to 2014. This September, the US Congress authorised arms sale worth $8 billion to Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. The trio will acquire fighter jets to maintain their air superiority.

The Arab militaries’ shopping spree suggests that reliance on western powers stationed in the GCC is not an option. Each of six nations has kept up with technological advancements in military hardware while acquiring them in good numbers too.

Then comes the question of the US and other European powers based in the GCC taking on Iran if it explicitly attacks the Arab nations while sparing the foreign facilities here? Increasing tensions sans outbreak of hostilities amplify the significance of foreign bases.

But the failure of western powers to act in Syria while dragging Turkey alongside vividly reflects on any likely scenario in the Gulf region. Iran and its Arab neighbours are too close to comfort, with little time for diplomatic response. Accidental war seems more likely here due to absence of hotline and confidence building measures (CBMs).

The peculiar strategic environment of the Gulf region requires a unified response to external military threats, whether hybrid or otherwise, while eventually teaming up with Turkey, China and Pakistan to build their own military industrial complex. 

Meanwhile, the Gulf foreign bases will do a little more than deter Russian designs and Chinese influence in the years ahead. While Beijing has maritime rights over Pakistan’s Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea, Washington’s bases may assume a more active role to guarantee their own interests as well as their ally, India’s. The loyalty of US, UK and France to the ruling monarchies can vary from one country to the other, depending largely on his popularity, the country’s wealth and geostrategic significance. But none of the trio will defend its host regime as did Putin’s Russia for Bashar al-Assad.

Naveed Ahmad is a Doha-based investigative journalist and academic with special focus on diplomacy, security and energy issues. Follow him on Twitter: @naveed360

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.