Strength in Unity?

By Barzagan, Darius | The Middle East, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Strength in Unity?


Barzagan, Darius, The Middle East


In the wake of the latest Saudi arms purchase deal, DARIUS BARZAGAN examines the strengths and weaknesses of the GCC states.

The South African state arms manufacturer, Denel, is busy tying up what may prove the biggest weapons export deal in the country's history, by selling artillery systems and missiles to Saudi Arabia at an estimated cost of seven billion Rand (nearly $1 billion). If successful, the business will revive the flagging fortunes of South Africa's arms industry, which has been under pressure following local defence cutbacks.

But whether huge arms purchases will enhance the desert kingdom's security is moot, there are many who believe the GCC states will always rely on foreign support in the face of external military threats.

The bulk of the Saudi order is for the long range G-6 artillery system, which is considered world class. The Saudis attempted to buy the G-6 system in the past through the then South African arms company Armscor but the deal fell through after Washington reportedly threatened to halt sales of F-16 fighters to the kingdom if the deal with South Africa went ahead.

Since 1994 South Africa has been aggressively marketing weaponry in the Middle East. But its fortunes have been mixed. Successful deals have been done with Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. But a signed deal with Turkey was reversed by the Cabinet's National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) because of Turkey's questionable human rights record.

And last year a three billion Rand contract with Syria, to upgrade the fire control systems of its fleet of T-72 tanks, was reversed after unprecedented American-led international pressure.

But some analysts question whether massive arms purchases by the Gulf states really bring the security they desire. There are no delusions about the foundations of power amongst the GCC states. These are regimes that know their own weaknesses, they may mistrust each other, but nevertheless the similarities between their respective civil societies, economies and the nature of dynastic monarchical rule, mean that they are essentially playing on the same team.

However, despite noises about military integration and the standardisation of weapons systems, it would be wrong to see the GCC as a self-sufficient. defence association. For one thing the rulers of the Gulf states are acutely aware of the risks a drastically enlarged military could pose to their own rule, all the more so if it owed its allegiance to an institution like the GCC as opposed to the ruling families themselves.

To be fair, the Gulf states have probably never conceived of their security as something to be managed by themselves alone. Up until 1971 the security of the Arabian peninsula was guaranteed by the British presence, after which the so-called "Nixon Doctrine", in which Saudi Arabia and the Shah's Iran were to be the dual pillars of regional stability, prevailed. With the fall of the Shah, Iraq effectively became Iran's replacement.

The GCC itself was essentially created in response to Iranian gains on the battlefield in 1981-82 and was followed by massive investment in both military hardware and, crucially, the military infrastructure of the Gulf states.

The latter contributed to the breathtaking speed with which the Coalition forces were able to assemble men and material in the Gulf, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The reality is that Gulf Arab security was, and is, reliant on indigenous troops offering no more than a "holding pattern" until assistance can be sent from overseas.

Viewed in this light the GCC is little more than a facade of institutional modernity. The formal structure exists to legitimate foreign (i. …

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