A second factor has been a more-balanced approach to military development that has stressed military education, training, and maintenance capabilities. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a leader in this effort, seeking to develop technical interoperability between the U.S. military and future generations of UAE military personnel. UAE military recruits, for instance, must attain an international computer driving license before they enlist, and the UAE Air Force High School and Khalifa Bin Zayed Air College feed well-educated recruits to the UAE Air Force and Air Defense Institute.
A third factor has been a major change in the nature of GCC threats. In the early 1990s, the focus was on a possible overland Iraqi invasion, which meant that the northern Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain) were frontline states, and that land warfare forces (mechanized forces, antitank helicopters, and artillery) were prioritized. With the eclipse of Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a major military power and the later overthrow of his Baathist regime, the focus shifted back to Iran as the key GCC threat. This broadened the number of frontline states -- making the UAE, Oman, and Qatar more important -- and shifted the procurement focus to air and missile defense and naval patrols. A broader range of GCC states are now able to focus their efforts across a narrowed range of military missions.
Key GCC Military Missions
Offshore infrastructure and coastal sea lanes. In 1986 and 1987, Iran undertook or planned attacks on UAE and Saudi offshore oil and gas facilities, as well as Saudi coast guard facilities. In the late 1990s, Iranian gunboats periodically embarked on machine-gun attacks on unmanned gas rigs within Qatar's offshore exclusive economic zones (EEZ).
GCC airspace. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were subject to air incursions and missile attacks, respectively, and in 1991 and 2003, the three northern GCC states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain) were attacked by Iraqi cruise and ballistic missiles. Since 2003, Tehran has stated that GCC military bases and ports could be subject to attacks in the event of a U.S.-Iranian confrontation.
Air Superiority Over the Gulf
A profusion of long-range strike aircraft is also increasing the ability of GCC states to threaten precision attacks on Iranian economic and political targets. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman are each preparing to procure sizeable long-range strike aircraft fleets to add to their already impressive inventories. The GCC states are also determined to invest in sophisticated land-attack weaponry, advanced self-protection suites, and powerful air-to-air defense capabilities.
Although the U.S. Navy will likely always be required to defend against major Iranian efforts to close the Strait of Hormuz, the GCC states are becoming increasingly well prepared to defend their EEZs. Qatar's National Security Shield is a network of radar and coastal surveillance systems linked to a growing fleet of response forces that include combat aircraft, helicopters, patrol vessels, and protective barriers on unmanned offshore rigs. The new UAE Critical National Infrastructure Authority will purchase thirty-four fast interceptor vessels for the defense of offshore infrastructure and ports. As part of Saudi Arabia's $8 billion border security system, Riyadh will purchase coast guard vessels, surveillance aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, and a telecommunications network.
Implications for U.S. policy
Whether the UAE or other GCC states have the intention or resolve to resist Iranian pressure is another matter, but building defensive capability is an important tool in fostering self-confidence in U.S. regional allies. For the United States, the lesson is to sustain its focus on GCC military development and to ensure that affordable and sustainable security assistance initiatives continue to receive the attention and the funding they deserve.