Gulf Military Cooperation: Tangible Gains or Limited Results?



The muted nature of discussions about military cooperation between the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) can be attributed either to the generally covert nature of military operations or to the increasing links between military security and more than one external  security command. However, it is safe to say that since the GCC was first established in 1981, the member states have succeeded in achieving a high level of strategic co-ordination on a number of levels with the aim of creating a framework for defence co-ordination.

A kind of a defence strategy has evolved in the GCC that defines the general concepts and delineates the policies that govern its defence orientations. This level of strategic planning is characteristic of great powers, whose interests, aspirations and operations extend beyond their borders. Similar international organisations or regional alliances, such as NATO, also undertake such strategic planning to define their commitments and coordinate their defence operations.

The Gulf Security Agreement, signed at the GCC’s 21st Summit in Manama in December 2000, merely affixed an official stamp on existing military cooperation. The GCC’s combined military force, Dir' al-Jazeera (Peninsula Shield), had already long been in existence. The 2000 agreement prepared the ground for far stronger military cooperation and co-ordination. This   seems to have reached a high point in 2014, and includes the formulation of a unified defence strategy and military command, the linking of anti-missile systems, and bridging capacity gaps by establishing a joint force for rapid intervention.

It seems likely that Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, political instability in Iraq, the upheaval in Syria, the emergence of Daesh or the so-called Islamic State (IS), the advances of the Houthis in Yemen, and America’s overtures towards Tehran, all gave the GCC clear incentives to strengthen its collective defence and security systems. However, while the GCC states have moved beyond monitoring threats, and have established mechanisms that are capable of counteracting threats militarily, the greatest obstacle to security cooperation persists, namely: convincing the decision makers that the security of the region is in the interest of all nations and requires a greater military strength than their separate forces can effectively provide.


It is interesting to note that in defining the organisation’s objectives as the promotion of cooperation and co-ordination among the member states, the GCC Charter does not specifically mention military cooperation, although it does name other fields of cooperation, including economic, finance, trade, customs, communication, education, culture, media, tourism, legislation and administration. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the GCC as a vehicle started out in 1981 as a military formation, despite being painted in the colours of the desert and carefully camouflaged to avoid attack from other warring nations in the region.

This early caution set a precedent for the later formulation of the GCC’s security doctrine. In response to the Iran–Iraq War of 1980-1988, the first-ever GCC security conference was convened on 24 February 1982. The basic principles, aims and objectives of military cooperation were agreed upon during that summit, with a view to the member states signing a comprehensive security agreement in future.

At this juncture, the need for unity and interdependence between the GCC states was clear, and collective security measures were adopted as a way of saving the smaller countries of the region from military invasion or ideological infiltration by more powerful neighbours who might have evil intent. Thus, the documents produced at the 1982 gathering reflect the GCC’s apprehensions about the possibility of imminent attack by Iraq or Iran, and the need to collectively resist possible interference in their internal affairs.

If such apprehensions were instrumental in launching GCC’s military cooperation agenda, subsequent backtracking from this agenda can be attributed to one of two factors. On the one hand it is in the nature of military activities to be cloaked in secrecy. On the other hand, member states may have been reluctant to accept the link between the GCC’s security and wider security issues as a means of addressing the chronic power vacuum in the Gulf.

This compels Gulf observers to delve into the issue of military cooperation within the GCC with a view to analysing its tangible gains and limitations.

Repelling external challenges

The Gulf Security Agreement, signed at Manama in December 2000 was primarily about the GCC making the transition from co-operating on matters of defence to a position of collective self-defence. Accordingly, member states agreed that external aggression against any member would be regarded as aggression against them all; that any threat facing one state would be regarded as a threat to all, and would necessitate various measures, including the use of military force, being taken to aid the victim of aggression. The agreement also provided for the development of the Peninsula Shield, and for the enhancing of military cooperation by arranging joint military exercises, agreeing on defence policies, and augmenting the countries’ collective defence capacity by strengthening the local arms industry. In addition, it was agreed that all collaborative activities would fall under the direction and supervision of the GCC’s Supreme Council through its Defence Council’s High Military Committee, whose meetings are coordinated by the Adjunct Secretary-General for Military Affairs.

It can be argued that the structure of the prevailing world order is constituted partly by military alliances and collective security pacts such as NATO, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Gulf Security Agreement. This seems to indicate that the militarisation of the GCC is likely to remain a feature of the region, and of how it interacts with the wider world.

The Peninsula Shield: centralised command over decentralised forces

Although it may be far from perfect, the formation of the Peninsula Shield is regarded by the GCC states as the lynchpin of their collective defence agreement, and as an important milestone in Gulf military cooperation. At its third summit held in November 1982, the GCC’s Supreme Council decided to constitute a combined force composed of 5,000 soldiers drawn from the six member states. At its 26th summit held in mid-December 2005, the Supreme Council decided to expand the strength of the force and diversify its armaments. Renamed as the Peninsula Shield Force, it became a mechanised force composed of foot soldiers, armoured carriers, artillery and combat support elements. Since its inception, the force has held periodic training sessions and joint military exercises with the armed forces of each of the member states. The first such exercise took place in the United Arab Emirates in 1983. From 1986 onwards, training has been centralised at King Khalid Military City in Hufer al-Batin in northeast Saudi Arabia.

In the past, the Peninsula Shield Force has been the subject of much criticism. Characterised initially as primarily a symbolic force, it was often viewed with scepticism. The Iran-Iraq war and another conflict in 2000 led the GCC to increase the strength of the Peninsula Shield again. At their meeting in Muscat in October 2002, they re-emphasised their security concerns, and the combat readiness of the force was again reinforced in Kuwait in February 2003 amidst preparations for the war launched by the US against Iraq.

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in November 2005, the Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yusuf Bin Alawi, suggested that there might no longer be any need to maintain the Peninsula Shield Force.(1)

Initially this suggestion was supported by the authorities in Riyadh, who added that each state could keep the units they had contributed to the force under their own supervision and control so that they could be recalled as required. However, by November 2006, the Saudis had changed their minds, suggesting instead that the Force be expanded and placed under a system of joint command and control. In May 2008, consensus emerged that units of the Peninsula Shield would be stationed in their countries of origin, and be reinforced with naval and air forces so as to enhance their capability. In 2009, the force was strengthened even further by the addition of a Rapid Intervention Force.

These constant changes in the status and role of the Force have, at times, created doubts about whether GCC’s military partnership was disintegrating or simply redefining itself. However, the Peninsula Force itself has proved that calls for its liquidation were devoid of any strategic sense. For example, when GCC troops entered Bahrain on 14 March 2011 to safeguard strategic key points in that country under the Collective Self-Defence Agreement, and at the request of the King, the operation was quite successful by military standards. The troops achieved their operational objective with professionalism, clarity of direction, firmness of intent, and ease of movement. By mobilising quickly, and maximising the element of surprise, they deterred the threat of a foreign takeover and restored peace and stability. For many, the success of this operation helped atone for their confused and ineffectual response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

By 2014, the number of military personnel exceeded 30,000.(2) These troops possess the requisite competence to take a combative role in a conflict but a number of obstacles remain in their way. For instance, the force has limited authority. The GCC has begun taking steps to rectify this by formulating a joint defence strategy and a unified command structure, which will grant the force a degree of freedom to act within an agreed framework, and without having to refer tactical matters to political decision makers. However, the diversity of views between the six member states means that this project is expected to still take some time.

A united approach to defence strategy

There is little doubt that the GCC’s member states have succeeded in achieving a high level of military coordination in several spheres since 1981. However, the one conspicuous shortcoming is the lack of long-term planning with all the potential complications that this would involve. Essentially, the element of strategy seems to be lacking; where then is the GCC’s strategy?

This question is posed to signal an important concern. In an organisation of different countries, it is natural that the challenges faced by each country, and therefore their respective objectives, will be different. It is difficult, however, for a unified force to strive towards a variety of different objectives. As yet, few efforts have been made to formulate common strategies for national or homeland security that would cover the political, economic, social, cultural and other aspects involved in ensuring the collective security of the member states. Similarly, operations remain confined to narrowly routine affairs rather than delving into the requirements of shared infrastructure and troop deployment, the diversification of weaponry, or the development of shared strategies.

Effective military forces find it imperative to rely on defence strategies that define concepts and policies, and, in turn, govern and determine defensive orientations. Such strategies are formulated by the world’s great powers whose interests, aspirations and actions transcend their own borders. International and regional organisations, such as NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), also develop such strategies to define and coordinate defensive operations, and to guide their activities in relation to their obligations.(3)

In the case of the GCC, however, the political decision-makers have maintained military cooperation for three decades without ever evolving a unified defence strategy. Indeed, this concept was not even discussed until the Kuwait summit of December 2009, when the Council resolved to adopt a unified defence strategy. Subsequently, priorities for action quickly became clear as a strategy defined the foundations and principles on which the GCC could build their capacities to repel aggression and enhance cooperation. Efforts to develop a strategy gradually strengthened the independence of the military structures, meaning that comprehensive efforts could be made to evaluate the security environment, including emerging threats, challenges and dangers.(4)

A united military command

Unity of command is the first principle of war. The subject of a united GCC military command prompted much discussion and analysis when it was placed before the closing session of the GCC’s 33rd summit in Manama on 25 December 2012. As it was, the 2012 proposal for a unified defence strategy came in the wake of the formation of a unified military command that had already achieved a number of military successes.(5) Ideally, the GCC should have placed military cooperation and strategy under a separate structure, instead of spreading it across the existing structures of the general secretariat. Initially, cooperation therefore took various forms, and was organised by assorted committees, with one committee for training, a technical committee for weapons, air-force bases, naval bases, the Peninsula Shield, and various other components splintered here and there.

The creation of a joint command was a step in the right direction. It is expected that a Saudi national will be appointed to head the unified command structure, and will make Riyadh its headquarters. (If NATO’s example is followed, the position of supreme commander will belong to the country that contributes the most to the force.) This command should consist of professional officers of the highest ranks. No forces will join the command on a permanent basis but will remain stationed in their native states, being called upon as required for joint exercises or to respond to emerging threats. The member states’ forces’ competencies and responsibilities should be defined according to guidelines approved by the GCC heads of state and their defence ministers. At the same time, the military command should be vested with real powers so that it can make assessments independently, as well as make and execute plans according to the prevailing exigencies, whether in peacetime or in war.

In any period of a state of war, the permanent command should exercise operational control over the combined forces of the GCC states, aiming to deter or repel any act of aggression. In peacetime, it should concern itself with:

• Evaluating possible threats.

• Envisaging and preparing response plans for various emergency scenarios.

• Co-ordinating the various forces via their commanders-in-chief.

• Offering advice on matters of military strategy.

• Acquiring weapons and surveillance equipment to enhance the capacity of the different forces to undertake joint military operations.

• Establishing and managing a centre for communications as well as joint intelligence and military operations.

• Supervising joint exercises, as well as the training and inspecting of troops.

• Ensuring the highest level of combat readiness at all times.

• Advising various forces on their readiness for war.

• Allocating the military contributions made by each member state.

The GCC’s anti-missile shield

The GCC states cannot ignore the threat posed by Iran’s missile arsenal. Not only does Iran possess a variety of long-range cruise missiles, it also has access to advanced ballistic-missile technologies. The current thinking in the GCC states revolves around the creation of a network of anti-missile systems capable of intercepting and shooting down any ballistic missile that targets their cities, military bases, refineries or gas and oil pipelines. Because any threat to oil production affects the interests of North America and Europe, the Americans and Europeans would probably rush to the aid of their trade partners in the GCC if a missile attack occurred.

The concept of a missile shield initially developed out of the deepening ties between the GCC and the West. The proposal first emerged after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but was deferred by the Khaleejis (Gulf Arabs) themselves. The idea re-emerged in 2012 amid deepening tensions between Iran and the Western powers over Iran’s nuclear programme. It is anticipated that the major part of the Gulf missile shield would comprise missile launchers, radar systems and American surveillance systems, which would mostly be situated at stations in the GCC states. However, in attempting to establish and deploy a missile shield the following concerns have emerged:

• The Americans first tried to market the idea of a missile shield to the Saudis, but found no support in Riyadh. Thereafter they touted the idea around the GCC states more broadly.

• Some decision makers in the GCC states remain sceptical of US claims about Iran’s missile capacity. They suggest that the US’s real aim is to bolster Israel’s security, and express apprehension about the role Israel would play in the adoption of such a missile shield.

• Besides the potential significant financial burden of such a missile shield on the GCC states, Khaleejis question the effectiveness of its adoption once the Iranian missile crisis is resolved and once tensions ease between Washington and Tehran. They argue that the illusion of an American umbrella would then quickly evaporate, and question whether the Khaleejis would then turn to Russia or China to strike a better deal (as the Saudis did when they acquired Chinese East Wind missiles in the 1980s in response to US pressure).

• Grandiose American missile projects have been a feature of the second half of the twentieth century. US reactions to the Cuban missile crisis, the Korean missile crisis, the elimination of mid-range American and Soviet missiles, the creation of missile shields in Poland, the Czech Republic and Turkey, all created international tensions and misgivings. Many wonder if a missile shield in the Gulf could contribute to creating a geopolitical climate similar to the Cold War in which a Russian–Chinese–Iranian axis is pitted against the US and its allies.

 Russia certainly seems to see the missile shield project as being directed against it as much as Iran. Similarly, Iranian foreign minister Ahmad Wahidi has said that the missile shield forms part of a ‘Zionist–American programme’ and warned that anybody who joins it would be seen as a partner in the game being played by Israel and the US. The question remains whether the missile issue would foment even further tension between the GCC states and Iran.(6)

Pro-Iranian media have already spread rumours about differences between the GCC states regarding a united military command and the organisation’s capacity for rapid action (although it is possible to create separate commands and merge them within minutes in an emergency). Some Iranian analysts have also suggested that the GCC states are even wary of sharing information with one another because allowing the US to help them establish a missile shield would give the US access to all their data with no obligation to share information with the GCC states in return.(7)

Bridging the capacities gap

The sound of bombs falling on Houthi strongholds in the south of the Arabian Peninsula was heard amid escalating consternation in the Gulf at the US’s impending strategic withdrawal from the area. At the GCC’s 30th annual summit in December 2009, it was agreed that a joint rapid-intervention force would be established. The resolutions signed at the summit empowered the rapid intervention force to respond in emergencies when it is difficult to quickly move regular forces from their barracks to the centre of operations.

At that time, involvement in military operations outside the region remained outside the purview of the GCC member states, not only because it was difficult to move troops over long distances, but because of the strategic position taken by the GCC’s leaders. It is not difficult to understand the impetus for establishing the new defence unit. More recently, the IS has already outwitted the military machines of Iraq, Syria and some other areas, which has forced the GCC states to acknowledge their need for a well-trained rapid-intervention force.

Because modern warfare tends to be fought on several fronts simultaneously, it is difficult for any single GCC member state to maintain all the different kinds of forces that may be needed. Again, a combined rapid-intervention force helps to bridge this capacity gap, and solves the problem of the uneven distribution of forces across the region. Although the details of this force were not made public until recently, it is expected that special units will initially have sufficient naval and air capacity, and will expand in due course so as to be able to engage on several fronts simultaneously. This means that they should be able to protect the oil fields and other strategic installations in difficult conditions and with sufficient strength to equal that of any enemy among their neighbouring states. Although it is premature to infer the motives and powers behind the creation of this force, it is possible to affirm that its formation is another step on the path to military cooperation between the GCC states.

A noble goal and a clear vision

The realisation of the goals of the GCC requires leaders with a clear vision and understanding of their mandate to expand cooperation between member states and to address any gaps that might appear. It is not surprising, therefore, that military cooperation between the member-states has gradually developed both qualitatively and quantitatively since the organisation was formed. Active cooperation remains ongoing military coordination at various levels from troop manoeuvres to military training and the development of a united military strategy.

Of course, critics are quick to raise questions and point out problems. Thus, some argue that the scarcity of human resources in the Gulf region makes the GCC’s military force a merely symbolic one, which puts it in great jeopardy. They suggest that, even in the least critical of situations, the force is likely to be rapidly immobilised and unable to defend member states. Such critics may not be aware of how much the GCC states have achieved with the aid of modern technology. Warfare today is no longer about a handful of soldiers firing traditional guns. The GCC states possess exceptionally advanced military technologies, and rank second in the world after only NATO in terms of weaponry.

If the member states suffer from a human resources deficit, they could address this by deploying retired military experts (after all, expertise never retires), by conscripting young men and women, or by opening admission to the Peninsula Shield Force to volunteers, encouraging young citizens to enlist in defence of their nations and peoples.

The GCC member states’ military cooperation is partly obstructed by the lack of clarity as to the source of the threats they are likely to face. Some member states see danger in the border disputes that arise between GCC states from time to time. The solution to these differing perceptions lies in raising awareness about the common threats faced by all the GCC members. In the past, events such as the Iran–Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait helped to increase this kind of heightened awareness. At present, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the political conflict in Iraq, the situation in Syria, the rise of the IS, and the US’s overtures towards Iran, are all serving a similar purpose.

Another obstacle to stronger military cooperation is that member states tend to be excessively attached to the idea of state sovereignty. When achieving military cooperation impinges on the sovereignty of certain states, it is clear that not all the member states entirely trust the notion of Khaleeji unity and fraternity. Perhaps, however, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, more people have been persuaded of the importance of military cooperation.

The GCC states also lack a common policy on arms acquisition. It has been argued that securing arms from a diverse range of suppliers can be an advantage, and that reliance on a single source might create an unhealthy sense of dependency.(8) However, the standardisation of light weaponry across the GCC states would enhance economies of scale. Likewise, at a logistical level, uniform storage practices, markings, and identifying symbols would help to prevent problems related to the transfer of military equipment between member states. At present, the armouries of the GCC countries contain more than twenty different types of troop carrier, ten different types of tanks, and twenty-five different types of aircraft. This level of diversity is a nightmare for military planners who have to coordinate supplies and reinforcements.


A united military strategy represents a major step for the GCC states. However, it is imperative that the GCC states take similar steps operationally and formulate a common military policy to guide the manner and conditions in which military operations can be conducted. Without such a policy, there is a risk that any given military action will be right in one context and wrong in another.

Now that the GCC states have passed through the stage of monitoring threats, and are taking practical steps to meet such threats with a high degree of military professionalism, the greatest obstacle to stronger cooperation remains the inability of member states’ policymakers to transcend their narrow state-centric perspectives. Policymakers must be made to see that the security of the Gulf region has an international dimension, and that, to establish a collective security system in the region, the GCC states must assemble a force that is greater than the sum of the existing fragmented forces of their member states.

*Dr. Zafir Muhammad Alajmi is the  executive director of Alkhaleeji Monitoring Group.

1. Peninsula Shield Forces,, March 15, 2011,
2. Nawaf Obaid, “A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine”, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center, May 2014,
3. Major General Ahmad Rahmani, a strategic expert and one of the masterminds of the GCC defense strategy, Personal Interview, October 26, 2014.
4. GCC Secretariat-General, 1 December 2010, news report on the 31st session of the Supreme Council of the Gulf Cooperation Council on December 6-7, 2010, Abu Dhabi,
5. Dr. Dhafer Al-Ajmi, “Duties of the Unified GCC Command”, Al-Arab, January 2, 2013,
6. Dr. Dhafer Al-Ajmi, “Gulf Missile Shield: Military Deterrence or Political Burden?” Al-Arab, 11 April 2012,
7., Skepticism and Mistrust Foil US Shield project with the Persian Gulf states, Al-Arabiya, May 7, 2012,
8. Dr. Dhafer Al-Ajmi, Security Dilemma: Obstacles Impeding Union and Blows of the Butterfly Wings, Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya, Issue 196, April, 2014, Vol. 49 pp. 19-20.