Sec. Hagel Meets GCC Defense Ministers, Emphasizes Cooperation

Middle East and North Africa

For the third time in the past year, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made an official visit to the Gulf to meet with the defense ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As the P5+1 resumed nuclear negotiations with Iran last week, Secretary Hagel traveled to offer assurances that the talks “will under no circumstance trade away regional security for concessions on Iran’s nuclear program.”

Secretary Hagel stressed U.S. commitment to Gulf security, saying, “This has been demonstrated by the United States Central Command’s continued forward military presence, which includes 35,000 personnel; our Navy’s 5th Fleet; our most advanced fighter aircraft; our most sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; and a wide array of missile defense capabilities.” He added, “It has also been demonstrated by recent defense sales agreements, including some of the largest in American history.”

Hagel emphasized the need to for greater coordination to address security threats, proposing, for instance, the establishment of a U.S.-GCC cyber defense cooperation initiative and the development of a Foreign Military Sales case, which could “advance regional defense priorities by accelerating the GCC’s progress toward greater interoperability and more sophisticated multinational force development.” The latter suggestion comes six months after Hagel announced intentions to sell American weapons to the GCC as a unit, in addition to sales to individual states, calling it “a natural next step in improving U.S.-GCC collaboration.”

The visit occurred after the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) released its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015. In the committee report, the HASC repeatedly expresses the need for greater U.S. support for the GCC, encouraging the administration to “shift to an enduring posture” by pursuing status of forces agreements with GCC states to regularly fund American military bases, rather than drawing funding from the Overseas Contingency Operations account. 

The emphasis on U.S.-GCC cooperation by both the administration and the HASC is not surprising given the recently strained relations stemming from a number of foreign policy disagreements. However, even as the administration and Congress try to shore up relations, U.S.-GCC security cooperation has been historically close. U.S. arms sales and security cooperation has steadily increased since 2007. Arms deliveries exceeded $7 billion in 2012 alone, with billions in additional sales agreements awaiting delivery in coming years. Meanwhile, in 2013 GCC countries were widely involved in CENTCOM cooperative exercises.

A Gulf News editorial said of Hagel’s visit: “Both Saudi Arabia and the US have recognized that inattention to their relationship offers grave dangers of a perceived split, which can be exploited by others to their mutual disadvantage. Hagel’s visit redeems a promise he made at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain last December to start regular consultations with his [fellow defense ministers] and to take more note of GCC concerns.”