Knowing Thy Gulf Partners

By Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey R. Macris, U.S. Navy

In addition, prior to conducting business one must first establish trust and a relationship by drinking tea and conversing. Thus, a visiting officer must never introduce himself with a curt "Good morning. Let's get down to business," because an Arab unfamiliar with the businesslike West would take offense. Some might consider introductory small talk inefficient, but to an Arab it gauges sincerity. And once trust is established, a simple handshake will seal a deal.

Many also mistakenly believe that Arabs dislike the United States. Although most local residents disapprove of America's unconditional embrace of Israel, they applaud the superpower's fostering peace and prosperity in the Gulf. And many have relatives in the states, and send their children here for education. In short, most locals greet Western sailors as treasured ambassadors from afar.


When attempting to capture the essence of the Gulf's militaries one must, unfortunately, generalize, but each nation possesses a navy as unique as its populace. That said, when viewed from the distant perspective of a Western naval officer, several broad themes emerge:

The GCC countries and their navies are young. Today's states did not emerge until the 1970s, when the British withdrew from the region. Most Gulf navies, then, are just 25 years old, and are still maturing. In addition, the GCC navies-like the combined population of their states, 20 million-are small. They pale beside the region's most formidable power, Iran, whose 65 million citizens put to sea more than 250 vessels. The charter of the GCC navies is growing, but at present it concentrates on coastal patrol missions such as drug interdiction, fisheries enforcement, and border security. They do not profess the twofold mission of the West's navies: to keep open the Strait of Hormuz and to project power to influence events ashore. Accordingly, although boasting some modest mine-countermeasures capabilities, none of these navies could keep the Strait open if Iran were to mine it, nor do they possess much experience in amphibious operations.

The GCC navies believe that the ideal navy is a collection of the best hardware. To achieve naval superiority, according to this logic, a leader should buy the world's most advanced missile boats, air defense radars, and ship-based helicopters. The militaries that emerge, however, feature a panoply of disparate weaponry. One nation, for example, possesses French frigates, U.S. corvettes, German torpedo boats, British mine hunters, Japanese tugs, and equipment from Italy, the Netherlands, and others.

The result can be logistics and training nightmares. Most difficult are the interoperability problems.

Why buy from different nations? To their credit, many GCC leaders have discovered that they will receive more value by buying hardware from many different suppliers, pitting one bidder against another. But two other factors also play a role. First, by spreading out contracts among numerous suppliers, a GCC country can keep more Western nations engaged in the Gulf, thus bolstering its own security. Second, a lack of openness in the region's arms procurement process sometimes leads to charges that purchase decisions are made to benefit a particular group rather than an entire military.

Most substantive decisions come from above. Decisions that might fall to a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy frequently fall to a GCC commander or captain. In one country, for example, the Minister of Defense each month reportedly hand-signs several thousand ship and aircraft diplomatic clearances. In addition, at planning conferences in the Gulf, U.S. leaders normally send a lieutenant to craft an exercise's scope and schedule, whereas GCC leaders might send a rear admiral, captain, or commander.

Related to centralized decision making is the relatively low priority assigned to joint operations. This may be a function of the youth of the region's navies-it took the United States 200 years to evolve to its current level of interservice cooperation-but GCC political leaders also bear a burden that U.S. leaders rarely have endured: the ever-present possibility of insurrection arising from their military chiefs. To keep a close eye on their service chiefs, most rulers demand that communication between the services be routed through the Defense Minister, who scrutinizes interservice activities. Not surprisingly, different branches seldom exercise together.

But the top-down, centralized nature of these navies is not born solely of precaution. Cultural norms also play a role, because gulf society is fundamentally hierarchical. Deference to senior family and tribal leaders is an ingrained facet of Arab culture.

The product of this top-down philosophy is a navy that relies on tight schedules and preplanned campaigns. Exercises, for example, feature timetables that emerge several months-and sometimes more than a year-in advance. Last-minute modifications can cause problems. In a recent amphibious exercise in one GCC nation, the hosts were unable to adapt when a U.S. landing craft failed.

This inability to react quickly also may have societal roots: in these oil-rich states, where the government supplies most of life's essentials such as jobs, subsidized food, and housing, citizens have more security than their Western counterparts. This is, of course, a gross simplification, but in the West residents must adapt to losing jobs, changing residences, and other of life's surprises. Coupled with the cult of the individual prevalent in most Western societies, it's not surprising that American and European military personnel seek and receive more responsibility and are more comfortable with chaos and uncertainty than their GCC counterparts.

A large gulf exists between officer and enlisted. Most GCC officers have attended college; however, very few GCC enlisted personnel have completed even secondary education. Accordingly, their sailors often serve as guards and sentries but lack the skills to perform essential ship and aircraft upkeep-jobs done by Western noncommissioned and petty officers-and these duties frequently fall to imported laborers from southern Asia. In addition, the GCC navies often hire Western advisers to manage such operations as maintenance and training. Thus, a twofold difficulty develops: reliance on both imported laborers and foreign mentors.

Relying on foreign assistance stems in part from the region's recent rapid development. Only within the past two generations has there existed a comprehensive education system. It will take time for these nations to be able to field an endogenous military whose members are born, schooled, and trained in the region.

Some members of the GCC navies frown upon odd hours. At sea, for example, ships seldom sail for more than a few days, so as not to separate sailor from family. Around-the-clock operations are rarities, and holidays and weekends (generally Thursday and Friday) are sacrosanct.

In short, quality of life is an important consideration, sometimes at the expense of military preparedness.

The GCC navies do not yet "put it all together. " Command, control, and communications issues do not yet receive the attention that they warrant. In U.S.-GCC exercise planning conferences, for example, Arab officers sometimes do not express concern that they cannot encrypt their communications with Western allies. In addition, GCC military training appears to focus on unit-level proficiency, such as surface gunnery and damage control. Such mastery is important, but military training doesn't end there. Militaries must put it all together, with command-post drills and joint contingency training, for example. This is expensive, however, and requires a level of experience that the GCC militaries do not yet possess. These nations, just two generations "out of the desert," have the hardware of modern navies, but are still building the institutions with which to employ it to its fullest.

Nations and Navies

In many respects these six GCC navies are similar, but they are not homogenous, and the West's navies do not have an equal interest in all of them. Bahrain's Navy, for example, is small and unusually competent, and the nation's importance to the West greatly exceeds the size of its fleet. Home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet's headquarters, Bahrain for five decades has hosted U.S. warships. Its leaders have been strong supporters of the U.S. Navy, even when it was not popular. In the wake of the British departure, for example, Bahrain in the 1970s weathered intense domestic, Iranian, and Saudi pressure not to grant the United States access to its facilities.

Bahrain's recent decision to purchase U.S. F-16s and an Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigate will draw the two nations even closer. In addition, the United States and the small island state share a strong concern regarding Iran. In short, Bahrain is the U.S. Navy's strongest regional ally, as it likely will remain in the future.

Bahrain's giant neighbor Saudi Arabia boasts a fleet second only to Iran's. With thousands of miles of coastline, the kingdom's mammoth size makes it a key naval player. In a regional conflict, Western ships would deliver heavy military equipment to Saudi ports. The kingdom's Navy, however, suffers two afflictions. First, the ruling family-of desert bedouin heritage-never has shown intense interest in maritime affairs. Second, the kingdom's political system-all decisions emanate from the top-fetters naval leaders. In exercises scheduled more than a year in advance, for example, Jubail and Jeddah fleet commanders must wait until hours before commencement to receive final approval to sail; several costly and complex bilateral exercises have been canceled in recent years because the Riyadh leaders never granted final consent. Coupled with a rough-hewn, cantankerous national demeanor, this leadership paralysis makes it unlikely that the Saudis will ever lead the GCC's navies. The kingdom's mass, political power, and oil resources, however, ensure that it will always play a role in any naval contingency.

The Sultanate of Oman, by contrast, boasts a long seafaring heritage: Henry "the Navigator" in the l5th century reportedly recruited an Omani navigator for a voyage to India. Today its Navy is well connected, for its chief is the Sultan's cousin. The nation is most important to the West because of its location at the mouth of the Gulf: commercial channels into the Strait cut through its territorial waters. Any allied counter to Iranian mines inevitably would involve the Omanis. Of note, the Sultanate's naval leaders recently inquired about acquiring more mine warfare equipment, which would benefit both Oman and the West.

The United Arab Emirates is distinguished by its unparalleled naval support facilities. With the region's most vibrant economy, the loose federation of sheikhdoms boasts Jebel Ali, a massive deep water port and free trade zone (the only Gulf harbor where U.S. carriers pull pierside), and Dubai Dry Docks. Between the two, Western navies can conduct almost any repair. In addition, the UAE serves as an important logistics hub. Its efficient commercial airports and seaports allow navies quickly to transport supplies. Also, the nation's cosmopolitan cities provide tremendous liberty opportunities.

The two remaining GCC navies are modest but warrant mention. Every day, Kuwait's Navy sails close to armed speedboats from Iraq and Iran, around which a conflict might always erupt. The nation's government, however, remains obsessed with a land attack from its two hostile neighbors. To the south, Qatar's Navy is undergoing a major facelift, as it decommissions and replaces its aging missile boats. When its mammoth North Dome natural gas fields become operational, the nation will depend more on its Navy to protect the huge offshore investment.

Western Action

"Knowing thy partners" is a first step toward protecting the West's vital interests in the Gulf, but more can be done. First, Western naval leaders must recognize that the GCC navies-like the coalition members themselves-are young institutions not yet able to join together to deter Iran and Iraq. The GCC itself is a fragile institution, still suffering growing pains. At a recent GCC Muscat summit, for example, Qatar's delegation stormed out, charging Saudi domination. Thus, if these oil-rich Gulf nations are to remain free from Iraqi and Iranian aggression, the West must continue to project its military might to the region.

Second, Western navies should augment their mine warfare capabilities. The United States two years ago permanently deployed to Bahrain two Avenger (MCM-1)class mine-countermeasures ships. In addition, the United Kingdom in 1998 plans to deploy an MCM task force. Western naval leaders should do more, however-such as permanently basing in the region (or leasing to GCC allies) a greater number of MCM assets. If a crisis were to erupt today, several weeks would pass before additional mine warfare ships arrived from the Atlantic or Pacific.

Third, the West should educate a greater number of GCC officers. In bilateral exercise conferences, for example, the Arab officers who accede most often to Western calls for improving command, control, and communications are those who studied at Annapolis, Monterey, Newport, or Fort Leavenworth. Sadly, foreign education programs are under attack from U.S. budget cutters. A small investment in education, however, pays a lifetime of dividends as these officers advance.

Fourth, the West's navies should develop a communications architecture that all allies-GCC and Western can use. In today's multinational Gulf exercises, the vast majority of radio voice communications are unencrypted clearly unacceptable.

Finally, Western navies ought to cultivate support, both at home and in the Gulf, for staying in the region. As memories of the Gulf War fade, pressure will mount from Western legislators to pull sailors home, and from Gulf leaders to dispel them from Muslim environs. Informing legislators of the nascent Gulf navies' weaknesses should stem the former, and exhibiting a better understanding of the region might staunch the latter. Thus, there is much to be gained by knowing our Gulf partners.

Commander Macris recently returned from a two-and-a-half year assignment in the Persian Gulf. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he soon begins his department head tour at VP-46 at NAS Whitney Island, Washington.



Conferences and Events

2016 Coast Guard Academy Conference

Mon, 2016-10-24

US Coast Guard Academy

As part of The U.S. Coast Guard Academy 2016-2017 Leadership Lecture Series The U.S. Naval Institute presents Historical and...

Maritime Security Dialogue

Defense Forum Washington 2016

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Sun, 2016-10-30

Book Launch Party

Wed, 2016-11-02

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership