US urges Gulf to build regional missile defence system

If implemented, the proposed missile defence system would unite what is today a patchwork of national missile defence systems in the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

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US policymakers are encouraging Gulf Cooperation Council countries to build a regional missile defence system as part of an effort aimed at countering threats from Iran and keeping the Straits of Hormuz open for trade and commerce.

The two sides agreed to "deepening cooperation" on missile defence "as a key element in their efforts to achieve peace and stability in the region" at a meeting of the US-GCC strategic cooperation forum in New York over the weekend, the Emirates state news agency, WAM, reported on Sunday.

"The international community and the United States is concerned about any disruption of shipping in the region by Iran or its surrogates," a senior official told reporters on Friday, before the meeting.

If implemented, the proposed missile defence system would unite what is today a patchwork of national missile defence systems in the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

The UAE, for example, has signed a deal with US defence contractor Lockheed Martin to purchase a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence valued at nearly $2 billion (Dh6.6bn). Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia all use or have signed deals to purchase a US-made patriot missile defence system, which guards against some incoming missile types.

Coordination between countries is poor at the moment and US policymakers are seeking a more unified system.

"The United States wants a [GCC] system that can link to the new European missile defence system," said Mustafa Alani, director of defence and security studies at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. "The Americans wish to have a curtain [of protection] and the Gulf states could be part of the jigsaw."

The American push for closer security ties comes at a time when tensions with Iran are high.

At the UN General Assembly last week in New York, the US president, Barack Obama, again stressed concerns about Iran's nuclear programme. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called for the international community to draw a "red line" on Tehran's nuclear development.

The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, recently said that if Iran were attacked, it would consider American military bases in the Gulf to be targets.

A regional missile defence system, while not infallible, could "significantly complicate an adversary's calculus" said Michael Elleman, a Bahrain-based fellow at the Institute for International Strategic Studies.

But on missile defence, Gulf countries have so far been reluctant, said Mr Alani.

"There is no agreement among the Gulf states on this sort of system," he said.

High costs, disagreements over command structures, and concerns about long-term threats have hindered cooperation so far. A regional missile defence system would take years to put in place, by which time regional dynamics may have shifted.

"It is a major development that the GCC countries agreed to have this meeting to discuss a regional system, but I don't think there was major agreement."

Still, the moves on defence cooperation are just part of a broader American foreign policy pivot toward the Gulf, especially since turbulence roiled traditional allies in the Middle East.

"The Middle East is currently a region marked by transition with - it comes with both opportunities and risks," a US senior official told reporters on Friday, previewing the US-GCC meeting.

"It is more critical than ever to forge a comprehensive strategy together with our GCC partners in order to address these serious challenges."

Earlier this summer, a report by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged the administration to make the GCC the "centrepiece" of its regional security strategy.

Also this weekend, the US and Gulf countries announced they had reached an agreement to boost trade between the regions, bolstering individual Free Trade Agreements between Washington and Bahrain and Oman.

American officials said that they hoped the strategic dialogue between the US and GCC countries would eventually tackle issues as wide ranging as counterterrorism and public health.