Gulf region’s growing COVID-19-related security challenges

With a view to deflecting from the multiple crises at home, the IRGC has increased its harassment of US forces in the Gulf.

  
Image used for illustrative purpose. A Saudi border guard watches as he stands in a boat off the coast of the Red Sea on Saudi Arabia's maritime border with Yemen, near Jizan April 8, 2015.

Image used for illustrative purpose. A Saudi border guard watches as he stands in a boat off the coast of the Red Sea on Saudi Arabia's maritime border with Yemen, near Jizan April 8, 2015.

REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

The rapid spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has dangerously added to Gulf security challenges, some of which are unique to this region.

First, the pandemic has accelerated superpower competition, especially between the US and China. The rising temperature of this rivalry could affect Gulf security. If the US decides to shift some of its military assets away from the Gulf, for example, there will be a need to recalibrate defense postures accordingly. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states do not need to choose sides, but they could try to bridge their differences. GCC countries are close to both. The US has been a security and strategic ally for decades, as well as an economic and cultural partner. China is a very reliable economic partner, as the No. 1 client for Gulf oil and petrochemicals.

Second, COVID-19 may have changed politics in the US with important repercussions for Gulf security. Democrats and Republicans are trading accusations about who to blame for the uncontrolled spread of the disease in the US. These discussions may shape the outcome of the November presidential election, sharpening the debate about US security priorities abroad, including its military posture and political engagement in the Gulf region.

Third, the pandemic has paradoxically increased the Iranian hard-liners’ adventurism; making threats emanating from Iran more ominous. Most likely, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) thinks that malign activities abroad could divert attention from the troubles at home. The pandemic exposed weaknesses in Iran’s health system and the government’s ability to provide basic services. It demonstrated that — while ideological mobilization could be relied on to keep the regime’s grip on power for a while — during a health crisis like COVID-19, citizens demand performance. The economic pressures under which the Iranian government worked before the crisis were multiplied by the devastation brought about by the pandemic and falling oil revenues.

With a view to deflecting from the multiple crises at home, the IRGC has increased its harassment of US forces in the Gulf and made claims about who “owns” the waterway. Officials announced plans to settle Iranians on UAE islands occupied by Iran since 1971. Through its proxies and allies abroad, the IRGC has upped the rhetoric and actions against the US and its allies, with frequent attacks in Iraq on US and global coalition facilities and renewed calls for them to leave the country. In Yemen, IRGC-trained and supplied Houthi rebels have expanded attacks against government-held territories. While COVID-19 has limited the movement of government forces for fear of spreading the disease, the militias have not limited their movement, ignoring the pandemic’s devastation of the civilian population.

Fourth, in a dangerous development this week, Iran-allied militias in Iraq have called for terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia. Abu Ali Al-Askari, a leader in the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, which is an outspoken IRGC proxy, issued a bizarre statement on Saturday saying that the only way to keep Saudi Arabia away from Iraq was by launching “jihadi” attacks against it “on its home territory,” calling for a repeat of previous attacks against Saudi Aramco’s facilities. On Sunday, Nasr Al-Shammari of Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, another IRGC proxy, issued a similar statement calling for “revenge” against the Kingdom.

These two statements probably represented the IRGC’s frustration at Iraq’s success in forming a unity government and the first moves and statements by the new government implying its desire to keep Iran’s interference at bay. However, they could be a more ominous sign of a planned escalation in the Gulf; trying to take advantage of the global preoccupation with COVID-19 and the talk about shifting US security priorities.

Fifth, in some countries in the Gulf the option to continue security spending at pre-crisis levels may not be viable. The pandemic-induced economic devastation has been compounded in the Gulf by low oil prices and, consequently, sharply reduced oil revenue. Diminished revenues are deepening the recession, as they reduce states’ ability to spend public funds on energizing the private sector, and business prosperity is usually tied to public spending in the Gulf. The added pressure on public funds has created a serious problem of prioritizing spending on security or economic development. This classic dilemma of guns versus butter has not been seen in the Gulf for a while, but it is here again.

The pandemic has led to the scaling down or postponement of some security training and exercises. Training missions by partners have also been affected by travel restrictions and social distancing requirements. Shrinking public funds may mean delaying big-item security purchases to a better time.

Spending pressures at home also mean there may not be funds available to help the other countries in the region that are facing greater challenges because of the pandemic. Strict triage will be a matter of course in deciding aid priorities, so as to focus on the most urgent cases.

These five challenges to Gulf security are not insurmountable, but they are growing and need to be addressed before they become serious threats and more difficult to thwart. A clear discussion between the GCC and its partners is needed to avoid any further escalation and to steer adversaries to the negotiating table in search for political solutions.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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