The primary audience of the U.S. Army War College is members of the U.S. national security bureaucracy, weighted heavily toward members of the Department of Defense. The college’s web site says its students are officers from all branches of the military plus “senior civilians from key agencies throughout the U.S. Government.”
With that said, Mohammed El-Katiria’s analysis of the Gulf’s future in the wake of the Arab Spring will add to that growing sense of unease shared among U.S. security managers. While the Gulf monarchies ostensibly appear composed, beneath that calm are deep, unresolved social, ethnic, political, and economic frictions. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are diverse but El-Katiria reminds us that they are all run by small, ruling families that ban authentic political parties. There are no checks and balances to control the powers of the ruling families who appointed themselves to key government positions and accrue many privileges, internal stability is undermined by fighting within the ruling families over plumb positions, and clear rules for leadership successions are lacking.
The kingdoms’ autocratic dictates once tolerated by a non-politicized populace are no longer tenable. Economic and educational changes, coupled with the internet and social media, has resulted in a politicized youth. A 2011 survey found that 60 percent of the GCC youth considered democracy to be their top priority. El-Katiria argues that the Gulf has entered “a new era” where “socio-economic grievances” have “transformed into a growing political quest for liberties.” Bahrain and Oman has witnessed the most widespread protests and exercised the most brutal government responses in the Gulf, but similar dissent has appeared on a smaller scale in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The ruling families seem ill suited to make the requisite reforms. Their default response to increase the size of cash handouts to its citizens to quite discontent has its limits. It’s a short term stratagem but not a long term fix for a frustrated youth seeking substantive social change. The “GCC are part and parcel of the Arab World,” El-Katiria notes, and “they cannot escape the influence of the revolutions and political transitions that follow them.”
Enveloping the kingdoms’ internal tensions is the rise of political Islam. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was correctly portrayed as a “horrifying scenario for the GCC rulers,” making the GCC’s support for the military takeover in Egypt unsurprising. But Egypt’s turmoil and Saudi Arabia’s support for Salafists in Syria poses only to exacerbate the Shia-Sunni split in the Gulf. The systematic discrimination by the state apparatuses against Shia citizens in most GCC countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, El-Katiria observes, “has structurally damaged the political legitimacy of the rulers and the social cohesion.”
Iran stands as the most significant external threat confronting the GCC. Unceasing fears that the Islamic Republic may be building nuclear weapons has obscured the fact that “tensions between Iran and most GCC countries have historical, ideological, and geostrategic roots, which make their animosity a structural feature.” The monarchies’ immediate anxiety is Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions. Such concerns are not unfounded: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards echoes the Shah’s ambition to be the “protector” of the Gulf and Ayatollah Khomeini’s aspiration to export a Shia-led revolution resonates among the monarchies today. But a serious lapse on El-Katiria’s part is not noting the dearth of hard evidence substantiating claims that Iran is behind the GCC’s domestic troubles; rather, the evidence shows the discontent arises from legitimate domestic grievances.
El-Katiria advises that U.S. interests in the Gulf – the supply of oil and freedom of movement for the U.S. military – is best served by preventing the rise of any hegemonic power, meaning Iran but by implication, also Saudi Arabia. He warns the overthrow of any monarchy or a shift in support from the GCC away from the U.S. would severely disrupt U.S. military operations in the region, including Afghanistan. El-Katiria’s recommendations are predictable: increase U.S. military training and armament to the monarchies against Iran and “encourage” them to make substantial changes to their political system.
El-Katiria is in an untenable bind: his readership needs a realistic assessment of the Gulf’s stability as well as advice on how to advance U. S. interests, as currently defined by U.S. security managers. He can’t – and doesn’t – explain why well entrenched, ruling families, lavishly supplied with U.S. weaponry, would voluntarily give up their wealth, power and privileges in the name of democracy and stability. It’s a quandary that resists a simple explanation. Similarly, his suggestion that Iran poses a seriously offensive threat to the GCC, necessitating the sale of more weapons to the monarchies, is not credible.
Similar omissions in El-Katiria’s monograph are discussion that the monarchies face pending food and water shortages, dissipation of its oil and gas resources, and environmental degradation. The materialization of such troubles will exacerbate existing social tensions within the monarchies and inexorably will cause further social upheaval. El-Katiria’s critique of the GCC may unnerve his readership but he’s pulled his punches – the situation is worse than he writes.