The last five years have seen a tectonic shift in the political landscape of the Middle East including the Gulf nations. Beginning with the dislodging of the comfortably entrenched regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the winds of the so-called Arab Spring spread eastwards though they caused little turmoil beyond the short-lived Iran-engineered vain attempts to create trouble in Bahrain.
But other developments have taken place in the oil-rich region since. Frustrated by its failure to ignite conflagration in the Arab Gulf region, Iran took to propping up the Shia Houthi rebels in Sunni-majority Yemen to keep the region on its toes.
The West, led by the US, came to an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme and lifted trade and other sanctions. Iraq and Syria witnessed, amid heavy chaos, the rise of ISIS with its utopian expansionist agenda and an all-out war to create mayhem.
The death of Saudi King Abdullah and the coming of the new king brought about a sea change in the political alignments and economic thinking of the government there. Oil prices plummeted to dismal levels with no early recovery in sight.
The increasing reach of the internet and attendant communication technologies handed a new weapon to those with the agenda to spread terror and cause disruption; and criminals found ever new and sophisticated means for terror-funding.
It was against this background that Bahrain last week organised the second Strategic Gulf Conference on Geopolitical Transformation in the Global Sphere. The idea was to impress upon those who would care to listen that the GCC needed to formulate strategies to ensure their military and technological capabilities matched the emerging threats.
The six Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC countries [Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar] have also come to realize that in the wake of its nuclear deal with Iran, the US cannot be expected to admonish Iran for its misadventures in the region or come to their aid with the same vigour and sincerity it displayed during the sanctions regime. Which brings in the need for them to form new alliances and equations and find smart ways to fend off any threats through collective efforts.
It was this doctrine of GCC self-sufficiency and mutual defence which prompted Saudi Arabia to send its forces to Bahrain to protect its sovereignty when the Iran-engineered troubles of 2011 were at their height. Far from coming to the kingdom’s rescue, the US in fact was subsequently found to be hobnobbing with the Iran-inclined elements in Bahrain pretending to be negotiating with the government. This was evidently to score Brownie points with the Tehran regime in the middle of its negotiations for a nuclear deal.
Again, when Iran was trying to gain the upper hand in Yemen through the Houthi rebels, instead of looking towards the international community, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates got together their security forces under a Saudi-led coalition to contain the menace successfully.
While the GCC already has a mutual defence pact in place, the thrust of the Bahrain conference was that the Gulf countries needed to draw up long-term strategies to tackle terror threats.
As one expert put it pithily, “intensifying great power competition may lead the US to steadily reduce its attention and military presence in the Middle East and the Gulf. Iran could benefit from access to anti-access/ area denial capabilities developed by China and Russia, such as missiles and air defence systems to support development of their home-grown capabilities. This calls for the Gulf states to have long-term strategies and policy planning, incorporating more long-term thinking, to tackle terror and economic crises.”
Since the constituents of the GCC have maintained trust and goodwill and dealt with each other through thick and thin over nearly 40 years without any blemish in their record, the task at hand should not be a difficult one.