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A Window of Opportunity? Europe, Gulf Security and the Aftermath of the Iraq War

Workshop (GRC, Bertelsmann Stiftung, C·A·P) in Dubai

Workshop, Gulf Research Center (GRC), Bertelsmann Stiftung and Center for Applied Policy Research (C·A·P), Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 23-25, 2004.

Summary by Dr. Christian Koch (GRC)

13.12.2004 · Bertelsmann Forschungsgruppe Politik

The US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 once more highlighted the inadequacy of current Gulf security arrangements. For one, the regional states - Iran, Iraq and the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - have failed in the past decades to develop a sufficient vision of a more durable Gulf security system and have made little substantive progress towards establishing an effective and constructive dialogue with one another. The role played by outside powers, in particular that of the United States, added further obstacles to the process of overcoming existing dichotomies in turn perpetuating the existing cycle of insecurity. The questions that were thus posed to workshop participants was whether the current environment allowed for new attempts at regional security interaction and whether there was a definitive role for the European Union (EU) member states to play in bringing about such an arrangement.

Inside the GRC workshop.

From the outset, the workshop produced a number of concrete observations. First, the asymmetric system currently in place with its three disparate poles of Iran, Iraq and the GCC is not only internally unbalanced but is further complicated by the external environment. This is a system that is unsustainable and counterproductive. Second, regional and external relations are almost exclusively conducted on a bilateral basis thereby preventing the emergence of a common vision on a possible security arrangement. The result is that a multilateral effort based on inclusiveness has never been seriously attempted. Third, the current situation in the Gulf including for example the US occupation of Iraq or developments in conjunction with the Iranian nuclear program, tend to reinforce rather than lessen existing threat perceptions. None of the key actors in the region appear willing to undertake initiatives that could break the current cycle of instability and violence.

These observations were complemented by several other remarks that stretched over both the presentations and discussion periods. For one, there is a need to look at security in the broad sense, i.e. that it is insufficient to look at the current situation solely from a geo-strategic perspective. In fact, issues such as political reform, education, youth unemployment and the role of foreign expatriate labor were all identified as factors that impact the security environment. In that context, it is furthermore necessary to differentiate between individual and regime security. Policies in the past have tended to support the latter and thereby promote stability and the status quo at the expense of longer-term inclusive security considerations. In the end, however, it is simply inadequate to focus on external security without considering the internal security dimension.

The current environment in the Gulf

It is clear that if a more lasting security arrangement for the Gulf region is to come about, the demand for change has to come from within the region. Unfortunately at the moment neither a comprehensive vision from the regional states nor a consensus on how security can be attained in the near future exists. A number of commentators clearly lamented the fact that there is little demand for change from within the region and the attitude of the regional states towards a more sustainable system remains unknown. For example, based on the lack of involvement or announcements from the GCC States regarding developments in Iraq, the question was raised whether rulers and the population truly feel that the current arrangements in place are actually detrimental to their long-term security. What appears to be missing is any sense of urgency. Yet, without such a commitment it should be clear that security will continue to be formulated and imposed externally.

The main complicating factor for the moment is the situation in Iraq and serious doubts were voiced whether security arrangements can actually be contemplated while the country is unstable and under US occupation. An end to the current combat operations and the movement towards some form of stable political transition were thus identified as prerequisites for any broader considerations. At the same time, there was consensus that the removal of Saddam Hussein had removed one of the key obstacles of the past and that therefore initiatives should be put forward outlining the future role that Iraq can play in the Gulf. The key question to be considered is of a more medium- to long-term nature in terms of how to re-construct the Iraqi state without increasing the sense of danger to the other regional states. While it is clear that Iraq has legitimate security interests in the Gulf, neither a weak Iraq subject to the interference of others nor a rebuilt strong state with possible military means to supports its interests is seen as supportive of a future stable Gulf security arrangement. The scenario of a stable yet largely de-militarized Iraq in the meantime is uncertain and unlikely. An Iraq under the influence of Iran appeared to be considered by the Arab states of the Gulf as another negative scenario which could undermine the Gulf regional security and stability.

The situation with regard to Iran is even more complicated. From the Gulf perspective, there is a clear sense that Iran has not abandoned its strategy of dominance or that the Islamic Republic looks towards the GCC States as genuine partners in a security process. While participants agreed that any future security discussions must include Iran if these are to be viable, it was emphasized that any Iranian role must be constructive and based on moderation. In that regard, statements from Iran in terms of its nuclear program or its current intervention in Iraq are anything but reassuring as far as the GCC states are concerned.

Due to the determination of the United States to exclude Iran from any security considerations, the key challenge thus remains of how to bring about a constructive dialogue with Tehran. The role of the European Union is important here but as far as Iran is concerned the EU does not have the deliverables that would allow the central and outstanding issues between Iran and the US to be resolved. Similarly, it will be difficult for Iran to support a process that in Tehran’s view simply supports the status quo and legitimizes the US military presence in the region.

The bottom line is that if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate and the confrontation with Iran over the country’s nuclear program escalates, it will not be possible to focus on a long-term strategy for the region. Therefore, it is critical that the immediate spotlight be on trying to deal and resolve these issues before their impact is felt on the wider regional front.

Next to Iraq and Iran, the United States is another complicating factor. More than anything else, the decisions and actions being made in Washington will determine the direction of security arrangements in the Gulf. Yet on three fronts, there is little hope for optimism. First, the inability to manage the reconstruction efforts inside Iraq has made Iraq an importer rather than an exporter of security for the region. Based on current policies in place that is unlikely to change. Second, by identifying Iran as a member of the axis of evil, the US has automatically excluded a key element from any future security considerations. Under the second Bush administration term, there is also little likelihood that the US will begin to reconcile itself with Iran over the coming year. Third, the US does not appear to have an interest in promoting a new multilateral approach to security discussions and instead continues to favor bilateral relationships. As a result, it will be difficult if not impossible to agree on priorities and stabilization measures for the region. The US will thus be as much a part of the problem to Gulf security than one of its solutions.

The European Role

All of the above issues focus the discussion on what role Europe could play both in terms of the current environment as well as putting forward an alternative approach to security. While it was agreed that a European role would be desirable as far as the Gulf is concerned, there was little agreement about what specific aspects such a role would or could entail. At the outset, one of the key questions is whether Europe has the collective will to tackle the issue of Gulf security, and even if so whether it will be possible to put forward a unified EU strategy for the region. While it appears that the EU is beginning to look at developments within the Gulf with more concern, including identifying regional security as having a direct impact within Europe proper, current arrangements remain predicated on bilateral relationships. Moreover, it was repeatedly pointed out that the discussions within European institutions and the possibilities of a shared approach are at the beginning. For the moment, the EU simply appears as not quite ready to take a proper initiative.

The fact that the EU is not seen as a unified actor in the region is further complicated by its unwillingness to take on a more direct security role or to challenge the US over its approach to the region. On the one hand, it is clear that the EU is not about to replace the US as the security guarantor of the GCC states, although to support its own long-term credibility it was suggested that the EU does need to better mobilize its own security assets in terms of confidence-building measures and proliferation initiatives. On the other, US policy is highly frustrating to the Europeans and there appear to be little effective means of influencing the direction of the US administration. The degree to which a joint US-European approach was required in order to promote regional security discussions was a subject of debate although it was clear that the lack of clear priorities was not helping the overall process.

Nevertheless with the US apparently uninterested and with the GCC states unable to promote a common agenda, there was agreement that a sustained European effort could prove critical. If a regional security dialogue was to occur, there is a need for an honest broker, a role that Europe with its good relations to all the regional states, with its institutionalized dialogue and with its experience in promoting a neighborhood policy as evidenced in the Barcelona process could play. Particularly important is the fact that the EU believes that dialogue works and that there is a feeling within the institution that it does have something to offer for the region.

Paving the Way forward

All participants agreed that the direct application of other security processes to the Gulf region is something that is not possible. While there are a number of models that can be looked at, neither is fully transferable to the region. Moreover, models by themselves are not enough but are defined by the substance that they provide.

The focus for the moment therefore has to be on the process itself rather than on the end-result. Abandoning the approach that looks as security in favor of one promoting confidence-building would be one way to stimulate further debate. Similarly, emphasis should be on creating the conditions for integration and interdependence particular in terms of regional economic development so as to take away the ability to conduct military campaigns and to raise the cost of being left out of developments. Here, there is already a lot of movement taking place and the EU as the prime example of economic integration leading to political unity can further promote the course of action.

Participants of the workshop.

More important is the ability to initiate a regional dialogue process whereby actors have the chance to voice concerns and points of view in an informal manner and initially without binding commitment. Historical conditions might not apply as far as the Gulf is concerned but as the Helsinki process in Europe made clear, the initiation of a structured dialogue can have far-reaching positive consequences when the impediments to agreement fall away. Under such a process, it would also be possible to conduct discussions on multiple levels so that the inability to come to an agreement in one area does not necessarily prevent forward movement in another. Again, in this context the European experience and role appears useful.

The key question that the workshop could not provide the answer for is where the responsibility for starting such a process lies. Due to the fact that the regional elite remains hesitant, that civil society as a force for change remains underdeveloped and actors like the US are not interested in further upsetting the status quo, the burden falls more directly on European states and the EU. There was agreement that the Gulf is facing a critical period and that it does not have the luxury of time to delay necessary reform or undertake required initiatives. At the same time, there exists an opportunity to take advantage of the war weariness in both Iran and Iraq and the feelings of real insecurity that have hardened in the GCC states. The EU provides the example that reforms are required both from below and above and that with innovative thinking it will be possible to break the persistent cycle of insecurity in the region. In that sense, even modest beginning steps within the GCC can have lasting and far-reaching consequences for the entire region.

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