In the last two months or so, UAE has witnessed some puzzling and unprecedented activities indicating early signs of trouble. For example, after Egypt, UAE arrested a few western NGO workers for allegedly interfering in its political affairs. On the other hand, the country has also made arrests of six individuals that maintained links to extremist personalities and organizations that pose a threat to the national security of UAE. Meanwhile, tensions between UAE and Iran escalated dramatically when President Ahmedinejad made a controversial visit to the disputed islands of Abu Musa. While this was going on, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) moved closer to join the American Missile Defense Shield. The above developments reflect on the complex threat and security perception of UAE and GCC.
In May 2011, The New York times had reported that Abu Dhabi’s crown prince appointed the founder of notorious private security company Blackwater to establish a battalion of 800 foreign security personnel for the UAE. The newspaper had acquired documents showing Eric Prince’s new firm Reflex Responses was setting up the squad with 529 million dollars from the UAE. The mission was to carry on special operations, foil internal revolt, and protect skyscrapers and pipelines from attack. The Times further added that the decision to appoint a foreign security battalion was made before the ongoing Arab uprisings.
After the recent events in Egypt, UAE also intensified its crackdown on foreign NGOs. Egypt had put 43 people on trial over the funding of non-governmental organizations. It was alleged that support from these groups might have assisted in triggering protests against the Egyptian military. At the time, Washington had warned that it would review aid to Egypt if it did not respect rights of NGOs. The U.S. government ultimately paid $5 million in bail to secure the March 1 release of American NGO workers trapped in Egypt. These included Sam LaHood, the Cairo director of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
In the case of UAE, it shut down the regional office of National Democratic Institute (NDI) just days before Clinton visited the region. The country alleges that NDI had been operating without a license and had no legal right to operate in UAE. Moreover, NDI was writing things that were not true. On the other hand, some US officials have contended that UAE is acting at the behest of Saudi Arabia, which has objections on NDI’s program for women.
Following the UAE crackdown, a US State Department official stated to the Foreign Policy magazine:
“As the Secretary has said many times, we believe NGOs play a valuable and legitimate role in a country’s political and economic development. They should be able to operate consistent with regulations and standards and without constraints.”
Earlier, Pakistan went through somewhat similar circumstances after the Raymond Davis incident and over the arrest and activities of Dr. Latif Afridi. After these episodes, Pakistan evicted all foreign security personal and curtailed its intelligence sharing with the US. The events in Pakistan may have triggered an alarm in the Middle East regarding the crossover between social work and covert operations. However, just like Pakistan, GCC is also caught in a complex web of dependencies on the West. While Pakistan has more of an economic dependence on the West, the GCC countries need the western backing for its security and defense needs.
Since the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria, the Gulf countries are increasingly fearful of a similar revolt in their own backyard, and thus are wary of any activity that provides impetus to such an outcome. This worry causes them to be more cooperative to western interests in the region, as witnessed during the Libyan and present Syrian crisis. In these cases, UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have gone out of their way in supporting regime change. At a deeper level, the GCC countries aspire to undercut the influence of Iran and Turkey in the region. These traditional rivalries play out in a similar fashion in the Middle East as India does in the case of Pakistan. Just as Pakistan needs American ties as a buffer against growing Indian clout, GCC countries need US support against Iran.
The foreign ministers of the six Gulf monarchies have joined together in their condemnation of Ahmedinejad’s visit to the disputed Abu Musa Island. Earlier, Abu Dhabi had recalled its ambassador to Tehran “for consultations” a day after denouncing Ahmadinejad’s visit as a “flagrant violation of UAE sovereignty over its territories.” However, Iran called the visit a purely domestic issue.
The threat of Iran has pushed GCC closer to the American Missile Defense shield. Chairman of Russia’s State Duma International Affairs Committee, Alexi Pushkov recently stated, “The building of a missile defense shield is a political step, which signals the possibility of a military strike against Iran.” He made these comments after Hillary Clinton announced building a missile defense shield in the six Persian GCC states.
A Russian lawmaker said that the Iranian nuclear issue is not moving towards resolution, and the likelihood of the full-fledge war is high, as the diplomacy has persistently failed. He said that strike against Iran could escalate into a global war as Iran would definitely respond and the reply could be asymmetrical in nature.
On the other hand, Iranian Defense Minister has criticized the move saying the move is against regional security. “This missile defense shield is a U.S.-Israeli project and anyone who gets involved with this project is, in fact, implementing the U.S. and Israel’s plot,” he said.
Thus, the security challenge of GCC countries and Pakistan has a parallel. Both are wary of western ambitions in their respective regions. However, Pakistan’s economic dependence and GCC’s defense reliance on the West puts them in a bind. The trajectory of the unfolding events in the Middle East conveys that depending on others for security needs can become a liability, in the long run, just as economic dependence, and can be exploited.