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Changing Shape of the US Security Guarantee

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Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs

Tag: Government Policy Security UAE USA
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Historians of the development of the Gulf region commonly hold that security there requires close involvement of a Great Power: the British through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, until in the ill-starred Defence Review of 1968 a weakening British government announced that it would withdraw from east of Suez, and then the United States from the end of the first Gulf War in 1991.  Supporting this point is the two-decade gap between British exit and US presence Professor Jeffrey Macris has recently described in The Politics and Security of the Gulf as a period of turmoil marked by the 1973 oil crisis, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Iran-Iraq War between 1982 and 1988, and finally Saddam Husseins Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  The conclusion that US President George H W Bush drew in 1991 was that stability across the Gulf and uninterrupted flow of oil required that the US remain engaged in the Gulf to provide a de facto security guarantee.
Although the US implies security commitments to the whole of the Gulf region rather than expressly stating them, few doubt that the US considers this part of south-west Asia, lying at the cross-roads of three continents and containing at least 40% of the worlds known supplies of oil and gas, remains vital to its national interests.  Of late US relations with Iran have become increasingly strained by Tehrans nuclear ambitions and apparent meddling in Iraq and Palestine.  In response the US appears to treat the Gulf states, and particularly Saudi Arabia, as its primary bulwark against Irans expansionist tendencies and against the ebb and flow of Islamist extremism.
However, the Obama administration also seems to recognise, arguably belatedly in the context of Iraq, that the physical presence of its military forces in the Gulf is as much a catalyst for opposition as it is a source of reassurance, deterrence and stability.  During the fevered months that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq, the US, with little public notice, quietly withdrew all its forces from Saudi Arabian territory.  Those who did notice generally described it as part of a US military redeployment required to counter the growing insurgency inside Iraq.  Yet the Al Qaeda-inspired wave of terrorism that gripped Saudi Arabia in 2004 certainly quieted and all the Gulf states remain reticent about allowing US forces to camp for too long or too visibly on their soil.
In this context the recent news of Saudi and UAE arms procurements takes on special meaning.  The largest ever US arms sale$67 billion worth to Saudi Arabiawill deliver 84 F-15s (and upgrades to 70 more), 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 Black Hawk troop carrying helicopters, and 36 Little Bird liaison helicopters.  In addition, talks may be well advanced to upgrade Saudi Arabias ballistic missile defences with Patriot Block-3 and possibly a THAAD systemballistic missile defences similar to those the US has already agreed to sell to the UAE military. 
Overall, it would appear that the US administration is quietly adapting the shape of its security guarantee leaning increasingly on the provision of equipment, training and advisory support rather than in the old fashioned American boots on the ground.  This approach not only boosts the Gulf regions own defence and deterrent capabilities but it appears to have the added advantage of income for the US defence industry at a time when western powers are all looking to reduce defence expenditure.  The sale may be worth 75,000 US jobs.  And of course it keeps US soldiers out of harms way.  Thus the news from Saudi Arabia last week, added to earlier sales to the UAE, seems to mark a change to the nature of US involvement in the Gulf. 
President Obama remains equally reluctant to deploy military into Yemen to counter the growing threat from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  In an echo of the Saudi deal, rumour in Washington says that the administration is split over whether to reinforce President Salehs government with $1.2 billion of additional defence capability.  Many see this as a prudent way of rolling back the AQAP threat without too much direct US involvement.  Others fear that Yemens president will simply use the new capability to take on his own enemies, instead of undertaking needed political and economic reforms that might prevent greater instability.
The apparent hands off form of US security guarantees to the region makes sense from Washingtons perspective but it will not be enough.  History suggests that whichever power bears the responsibility of being the worlds policeman will also need to remain directly engaged in the Gulf.  Thus even as the US ramps up its equipment sales to Saudi, the UAE and other GCC member states, it will need to retain a physical presence as well.  The US Navy, as the Royal Navy before it, fits this role.  The 5th Fleet is unlikely to withdraw from Bahrain any time soon.

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