Old threats to the modern Gulf states

The biggest threats to the modern Gulf states come from wars and risks that are very old-fashioned

The last time America’s defence secretary met his GCC counterparts, in 2008, the Middle East and the world looked very different. That was before the Arab Spring swept across the region and before financial crisis ravaged the economies of the West.

When Chuck Hagel arrives in Riyadh tomorrow, he will be talking about missile defence, cyber security and the Syrian civil war. How different those first two are from the last. Back in 2008, the then-defence secretary Robert Gates could have argued that the Middle East was entering a postmodern warfare landscape. Indeed, separately, a conference in Amman last week argued for something similar, pointing out the importance of special forces, of technology and intelligence gathering.

And yet, very close to home, the GCC faces wars and challenges of a much older order. On three sides, the region is beset by struggles that would not have looked out of place in the 19th or the beginning of the 20th centuries. Start with the conflict in Syria. That looks anything but postmodern. A grinding, relentless ground and air war that has shattered cities – witness the near-total destruction of Homs, smashed by mortars and bombs, pockmarked by bullets. Look at the millions on the move, internally displaced or living in camps in Turkey and Jordan.

Or in Iraq, where the US invasion unleashed long-dormant forces and terrible politics that helped sectarianism gather strength. The roadblocks set up in both Syrian and Iraqi cities to keep one branch of one religion from another branch does not look postmodern at all.

Or look at Yemen, where despite the use of sophisticated drone technology to fight an insurgency on the cheap, Al Qaeda militants were still able last week to reach the presidential palace in the capital. The underlying threat in Yemen, and across East Africa, is of water-shortage, leading to the potential for mass migrations of people, fleeing war and hunger. Again, scarcely postmodern.

That does not mean that the region’s strategic environment should not include special forces or the latest technology. But it cannot only be that. The Middle East is living through one of its toughest moments and the long-term effects of the Arab Spring are only now being felt. In the coming years, the strategic environment that regional states find themselves in might look very similar to the past.

Published: May 10, 2014 04:00 AM