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Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and the New “Game of Thrones” By Anthony H. Cordesman

Millions of viewers are still waiting for the new season of the Game of Thrones to appear on television. The good news is that a real world game is already being played out for free in public by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. The bad news is that this real life show has no gratuitous sex, no excessive violence, and no fascinating series of conspiracies. Worse, there are no cunning dwarfs and scheming eunuchs, and the real world princes involved are behaving even more stupidly and self-destructively than the fictional royal figures in the television series.

The other good news is that Islamic extremists lack dragons, and Iran is scarcely filled with supernatural monsters from the North. The fact remains, however, that the additional bad news is that the Arab Gulf states need unity, more effective cooperation in fighting terrorism and extremism, and a far more structured and integrated approach to deterring Iran and outside threats.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar (along with Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman) all need to pay far more attention to the cost of security forces and arms transfers, and the need to fund the civil aspects of stability as well as pay for security. What they all do not need is princely ego trips, dead-end confrontations that open up the Arabian Peninsula to Iran and paralyze effective military cooperation, or to gratuitously pressure the United States into choosing between its strategic partners and allies.

There is still some hope that Secretary Tillerson can end this reality show before its resemblance to Dumb and Dumber becomes truly damaging. He has already persuaded Qatar to make the most important concession to be negotiated—taking a far stronger stand on fighting the financing of extremism and terrorism—and did so in a way that will put similar pressure on all the Gulf countries. (Qatar had already denied that it had ever made the statements that supposedly led to the Saudi and UAE effort to create an Arab Gulf embargo before they imposed the embargo.)

Certainly, the last thing the Arab states and the United States need is to see things get worse and Iran be given even more of an opening to Qatar—and to do so while the Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) largely ignore Iraq’s need for aid and recovery and effective counterbalances to Iran. It will be equally damaging to reinforce the long-standing national divisions that already divide and undermine the GCC.

The tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE (joined by Bahrain and Kuwait) are only part of the story. Saudi Arabia and Oman have been at odds since the founding of the GCC. The UAE still has a few remnants of the days when it had three separate sets of security forces, and each GCC country still pursues its own security efforts with far too little emphasis on standardization, interoperability, common efforts to develop focused mission capabilities and deterrent efforts, and integrated air, maritime, and missile defense systems.

There are still far too few common training and support efforts and systems, efforts to create common approaches to joint warfare, and giving sustained operational capability the same priority as buying the most expensive new weapons. (A tendency some critics call the “glitter factor” and others “toys for the boys.”) There is still too much investment in wasteful national economic projects tied to given arms sales and supposed efforts at national military production that are really little more than expensive efforts to assemble imported systems.

Fortunately, some of these failings are already offset by strategic partnership with the United States. The failures in the GCC have helped lead to a de facto Arab Gulf state reliance on the U.S. to provide some of these functions in terms of exercises, training, and planning. They have also helped create a network of U.S. and common bases and de facto U.S. prepositioning of interoperable weapons and facilities that do help tie together the Arab GCC states, Jordan, and Egypt.

They collectively offer the opportunity to create a more effective alliance and mix of forces than the GCC states alone could ever provide. The GCC states also gain from access to sophisticated U.S. command and control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems that they cannot really afford even collectively, and from U.S. warfighting experience in actually using such systems in combat.

Nevertheless, there is still something very wrong about the GCC’s long history of relying on the rhetoric of cooperation rather than the reality. There is something wrong about games of thrones where Saudi Arabia and the UAE should go to war in Yemen without Oman (which has a common border with Yemen). And, there is something wrong about the failures to create effective systems to integrate air and maritime defense, and the lack of real progress in missile defense.

There is something even more wrong about the lack of any real-world Arab and GCC coordination in dealing with the upheavals in Iraq, Libya, or Syria; truly integrating Egypt and Jordan into their security efforts; and opening up one window of vulnerability after another to Iranian penetration and spoiler operations. (Iran does not so much project power, it exploits Arab divisions and weaknesses.)

These games of thrones and divisions within the GCC and Arab world have allowed Iran’s Al Quds force to use of train and assist personnel, limited arms shipments, provision of Iranian volunteers and support of the Lebanese Hezbollah to have far more impact than should ever have been the case. Like the failure to properly provide and target aid to the weaker Arab states, and the slackness in the effort to fight extremism, they have done immense damage to the Arab world.

They have allowed an Iran whose major conventional forces border on being a military museum of older U.S., European, and Russian systems to create an increasingly serious ballistic and cruise missile threat, and a mix of asymmetric naval-missile-air systems that pose a far more serious threat to maritime traffic and petroleum exports in the Gulf, nearby waters, and the Red Sea than should be the case.

Iran is no superpower or super conspirator. Iran’s success is driven as much by the game of thrones between Arab Gulf princes and other Arab regimes as by outside powers. This is sometimes disguised by the fact one cannot deal with any state without suitable deference to its leaders, and criticism is limited by a certain amount of royal ass kissing. Even princes, however, have to grow up—particularly when they approach or reach middle age.

In practice, this means accepting the need to accept the kind of compromise that Secretary Tillerson is seeking or creating one of their own. The Arab Gulf leaders need to focus on the fact that extremism is a critical threat to all of their countries and regimes. They need to come together in accepting that the best way to deal with Iran is to both create the strongest possible deterrent and degree of unity. The Arab states should offer Iran serious incentives to change its behavior and focus on development—rather than confronting Iran with disunity and poorly organized military forces and demonizing all of its regime.

The Arab Gulf states (and all other Arab states) have an equal need to look beyond security and focus on internal stability. Disunity, insisting on the most expensive new weapons, and a lack of integrated security efforts are now coupled to massive security expenditures and arms transfer agreements. These are far more expensive than they should be, and even the Gulf’s wealthiest oil state cannot really afford the current level of effort.

To put these costs in perspective, data issued by the IISS and SIPRI indicate that Iran only spent about $15.9 billion on security in 2016, some 3.9% of its GDP. (Iran’s supposed windfall from the JCPOA needs to be kept in careful perspective. The EIA reported in June 2017 that Iran’s oil revenues peaked in 2012 at $99 billion a year, then dropped with the crash in oil prices in 2014 to $29.4 billion in 2015. These export revenues only rose to $36.2 billion in 2016, driven largely by a limited increase in world petroleum prices).

In contrast, the GCC collectively spent well over $91 billion (and spent over $117 billion in 2013 before the oil crash). This was near six times what Iran spent. An official U.S. estimate of arms transfers issued by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) indicates that the GCC took $30.4 billion in arms deliveries during 2012-2015—more than 30 times the $100 million reported for Iran. During this same period, new GCC arms orders rose well beyond the level several Gulf states can really afford. New GCC arms agreements totaled $84 billion compared to only $600 million for Iran.

Despite some nonsense about the size of Arab Gulf military efforts—and burden sharing—spouted by both President Obama and President Trump, every Arab Gulf state except Qatar routinely spends more of its GDP on security than the United States. Most spend far more than twice the 2% of GDP the U.S. is asking of its NATO allies.

Some Arab Gulf states spend far too much on security, and do so at the cost of civil development, meeting popular needs, and fighting the causes of extremism. Saudi Arabia spent $80.9 billion on security in 2015, 12.7% of its GDP. It still spent $56.9 billion in 2016, or 8.9% of its GDP. This was roughly equal to Russia, and more than Britain, France, and Germany. Oman spent $9.1 billion on security in 2016, or 15.2% of its GDP. (Iraq, driven by a real war, spent $17.9 billion in 2016, or 11.6% of its GDP.)

The United States may be partially at fault for pushing too hard for Arab Gulf force improvements regardless of cost and the impact on internal stability. The fact remains, however, that current Arab Gulf spending and arms transfers are shaped in large part by the failure of the “game of thrones” states to cooperate, develop effective, integrated, and interoperable capabilities, buy only what they need, and save where they can take advantage of their strategic partnership with the United States. Who needs a foreign threat when you have careless princes?

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.

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