The geostrategic scenario around the Gulf monarchies has significantly changed, a phenomenon that is reflected by shifting American and Chinese approaches to military outposts in the area. As such, a new security season has opened in the Gulf: for the monarchies, pursuing autonomous capabilities in the defence field is, and will be, all the more strategic.
The US is reducing its military presence by withdrawing part of its air defence assets (from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Jordan) and closing some bases altogether (in Qatar), while China “has likely considered locations” for a naval facility, as the Pentagon wrote in a 2020 report: the Chinese might have set their sights on the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
As the systemic competition between Washington and Beijing rages on, Riyadh and the neighbouring monarchies are walking a tightrope: they need both a special relationship with the United States and the expanding cooperation with China to balance security and prosperity in the age of post-oil diversification.
For this reason, the Gulf monarchies are betting on parallel partnerships with Washington and Beijing, hoping to navigate through the regional fallouts of this rivalry. The monarchies are aware that American external security provision has severely diminished compared to the past; at the same time, however, they know Beijing isn’t the alternative to the US despite its growing geopolitical ambitions worldwide.
From Iraq and Yemen, Iranian-related armed groups are stepping up air and maritime threats around the Arabian Peninsula: this is happening while the United States and China are reshaping their security stances across the Gulf and neighbouring waters. On the one hand, Washington has gradually started to detach from a long-time basing strategy (based on military bases and installations) to better counter Beijing elsewhere. On the other hand, China is working to increase its naval presence abroad, also through permanent outposts, likely focusing on the Arabian Peninsula’s waterways and choke points.
The US and its Basing Network in the Gulf: Time for a (more) Flexible Presence
As some American analysts noted, the US’ basing architecture in the Middle East — including the Gulf — was primarily designed to counter threats from states. Today, however, Gulf monarchies and American interests’ in the Gulf are mainly threatened by non-state and hybrid actors, mostly tied to Iran (a dual state system), or part of the jihadi galaxy including al-Qaeda franchises and the so-called Islamic State: in fact, Iran-related armed groups can even coordinate with one another to conduct asymmetric operations in the region.
In times of ballistic missiles and armed drones proliferation — and privatization — a plethora of US military outposts in the Gulf can contribute to deterrence. But they also risk turning into “easy targets” for asymmetric attacks. In July 2021, the US shut down some installations in Qatar (As Sayliyah-Main, As Sayliyah-South, and the ammunition supply point “Falco”), transferring remaining supplies to a centre in Jordan: the rationale behind this was to curb the threat of air attacks from Iranian-backed groups in the Gulf.
More broadly, the US is reconsidering traditional patterns of security presence in the Gulf whilst trying, at the same time, to reassure Saudi Arabia about its enduring security commitment to the region: this was the message for Saudi Vice Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman Al Saud (MbS’ brother), who visited Washington at the beginning of July. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) signed a preliminary agreement with Saudi Arabia in January 2021 to use airbases and ports in the west of the Kingdom (Yanbu, Tabuk, Taif) to counter Iran’s asymmetric attacks and its allies’ destabilising activities, such as the Houthis in Yemen (Ansar Allah). This highlights the US’ emerging “flexible logistics network” approach to the Middle East, based on overflight agreements and pre-established access to ports rather than new, permanent naval bases.
Additionally, the restructuring of the American military presence in the Gulf also comprises air defence. Since June 2021, the US has started reducing the anti-missile systems it had deployed following the shocking attacks against Saudi Aramco in September 2019. These include the withdrawal of eight Patriot antimissile batteries from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan. The Thaad system (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) is also to be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, while jet fighter squadrons will be reduced, too.
The US and China. A Growing Rivalry for the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula’s Waterways?
One thing is for certain: Gulf monarchies’ current threat perceptions don’t overlap with Washington’s, at least on one point —China. The US has recently outlined security priorities in the Middle East: CENTCOM’s three lines of effort were discussed by General Kenneth McKenzie (CENTCOM Commander) during the Posture Statement before the Senate Armed Forces Committee in April 2021. The American strategic direction is clear: first, deterring Iran and its proxies; second, countering violent extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State; third, the strategic competition against China on top of countering Russia.
General McKenzie especially stressed China’s “long-term goal of expanding its military presence to secure vital routes of energy and trade”, given Beijing’s substantial dependency on Gulf oil. The content of the 25-year-long Chinese-Iranian cooperation agreement signed in March 2021 remains vague. The partnership places Iran within China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with likely implications for maritime infrastructures and ports access; on the security side, it could include — although not necessarily — joint naval training (in December 2019, Iranian-Chinese-Russian naval drills were indeed held in the Gulf of Oman), and military facilities, too.
Nonetheless, a hypothetical Chinese military facility in a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state — or, to a lesser extent, a naval access deal — would complicate the latter’s relationship with the US. On this point, Washington’s eyes are now focused on the UAE, its closest ally within the GCC. However, the Chinese-Emirati cooperation has been tightening (think about “vaccine diplomacy” and Huawei’s 5G technology): recent transport flights, with two China People’s Liberation Army planes landing at an UAE airport to unload undetermined materiel, further raised question marks from the US front.
US-China Competition: Where Do Gulf Monarchies’ National Interest Stand?
Within such a tense global scenario, the Gulf monarchies can try to preserve their national interest only by pursuing parallel partnerships with both the US and China. With this approach, the monarchies would work to maximize the security and economic benefits generated by these alliances whilst attempting to avoid — or limit — direct frictions. For instance, military education, training, and technical knowledge transfer for the Gulf monarchies are all fields wherein the US still has the upper hand on China , with an additional eye to interoperability.
But as the American-Chinese strategic competition deepens, Gulf monarchies’ room for manoeuvre also narrows. From their perspective, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and the rest can hope that Washington and Beijing will find ways to promote cooperative goals over power politics, starting — for instance — from maritime security and freedom of navigation in Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb straits.
In the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, only US-China win-win goals can help the Gulf monarchies mitigate the risks of the, inevitable, parallel partnerships policy.