Alarmed over rising threats in the Middle East and North Africa, the Gulf Cooperation Council is set to launch an unprecedented joint military command, according to regional officials and military analysts.
“At the moment, we are witnessing a new spirit,” says Abdulaziz Sager, head of the Gulf Research Center, a think tank that focuses on the GCC, a six-member group of Arab monarchies.
The NATO-inspired force — which goes beyond existing structures — will be established this week at the GCC summit in Doha, Qatar, Sager says. The new, unified GCC military command is to be based in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
The growing power of militants from the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, plus the influence of Iran — seen in Gulf capitals as meddling in conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen — has added urgency for military cooperation.
Past attempts at a pan-Arab force have failed over political differences and disagreements over basing the force in one country, says Gulf security analyst Mustafa Alalani.
“This is not a military force, it’s a unified command,” he says.
Every country has to donate air and sea power, according to the size of their military, Alalani says. It’s a rapid deployment force, he explains, modeled on NATO’s military structures.
“The Saudis and the UAE are gearing up to take a much harder line,” says Faisel Yafai, a columnist for The National, an English language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.
“They have shifted. They are now doing this front and center,” he says.
The Gulf states have even mended an unprecedented rift with Qatar so the GCC summit could be held, as planned, in Doha. The rift stemmed from Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Gulf rulers also regarded as inflammatory reports broadcast on Al-Jazeera, the Doha-based, Arabic-language satellite TV network.
The recent return to Doha of three ambassadors after an eight-month absence signaled an end to the dispute.
The unusual cooperation comes from one overriding concern, says Yafai, the columnist.
“There is now a recognition, particularly in the Gulf, that if the problem of ISIS is not solved by the region, then it will reach the doors and the gates of the Gulf,” he says.
Domestically, Gulf states have already felt the spillover. In September, an attack that killed seven Shiite citizens of Saudi Arabia was linked to the Sunni militants of ISIS. Gulf officials acknowledge that ISIS has radicalized some Gulf youth, who have joined the group in Iraq and Syria.
Look around the region, from Kuwait to Morocco, says Dubai-based analyst Theodore Karasik of Risk Insurance Management.
“The threat environment has changed dramatically,” he says. “The Gulf states are facing a three-front war.”
He points to the chaos in Syria and Iraq, violence that is headline news in every household in the Gulf. On Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen, there is another uprising, where Houthis, Shiite rebels linked to Iran, recently swept into the capital, Sanaa. On Egypt’s border with Libya, ISIS supporters, led by a Saudi preacher, have captured the northeastern town of Derna and declared allegiance to the so-called ISIS-created caliphate.
“It is a desperate requirement for these states, along with Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, to form a military alliance and to divide the labor of which states are responsible for what,” says Karasik.
Some elements of this force are already in action, he says, from Arab states that signed on to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.
The UAE contributes a vital logistic hub for the operation. U.S. fighter jets take off from al-Dhafa airbase in the UAE for bombing runs on ISIS targets. The UAE air force’s F-16 Falcon, including a highly publicized female fighter pilot, often accompanies them.
“We have some of our best men and women and I think rightly so,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University.
It’s part of a new aggressive posture for the prosperous Gulf, a step the U.S. has encouraged. But it’s one that is also driven by worries that the U.S. may be pulling back from the region and that U.S. relations with Iran are warming. Gulf leaders are on the front line of the ISIS threat at home, a threat understood there much better than in Washington, says Abdulla.
“We should be at the forefront of fighting ISIS,” he says. “Our values are at stake.”