It has now been five years since Operation Desert Storm and the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait by an international coalition led by the United States. In some ways the Gulf and the broader Middle East have changed dramatically in that time. In others, change has been less dramatic than predicted by either supporters or opponents of the war at the time. An attempt at a dispassionate assessment on this fifth anniversary suggests that the war did confirm and make more permanent the role of the United States in the defense of the Gulf-already foreshadowed in the tanker war of 1987-88-and changed regional relationships in many ways as well as regional perceptions of the world. But it did not induce the dramatic changes predicted on either side, neither a new birth of pro-Western peacemaking nor a chain reaction of toppling thrones. And of course, the bite noire of the Western coalition at the time, Saddam Hussein, is still in power, if beleaguered and besieged.
This article seeks to look at what has transpired in the past five years in three major areas: the issue of Gulf security and the U.S. presence generally, the question of what threat Iran and Iraq do or do not continue to pose, and the impact of the war on the domestic stability and future of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).
GULF SECURITY AND THE U.S. ROLE
The war for Kuwait was, more or less unapologetically, about access to oil. Energy resources are likely to remain a vital strategic interest of the industrialized world. Nothing in the past five years has undermined the absolute importance of Gulf oil to the United States, the West and Japan. The absence of Iraqi oil from the markets has made the oil of the GCC states even more vital. Although there are vast reserves in the new states of the former Soviet Union and in Russia itself, it will be years before their oil and gas reach foreign markets in large quantities. And the fact remains that the Gulf continues to have both the bulk of the world's proven oil and natural gas reserves and most of its excess production capacity-the ability to increase production quickly to meet a shortfall elsewhere, as happened when Kuwait was invaded.
The other side of the Gulf security coin has always been the weakness of the GCC states themselves. Although they had been spending large sums of money on prestige arms prior to the invasion of Kuwait, none of the six GCC states except Oman had a ground force that could seriously hope to deter aggression. One of the reasons Gulf security is of such continuing concern is not any intrinsic instability in the Gulf states but rather the temptation offered by militarily weak states sitting on an extremely valuable and marketable resource.
During the war, one heard many pledges by the leaders of the Gulf states that their past neglect of their own military deterrent would be remedied. These pledges were, in part, aimed at saying to those in the Gulf opposed to the American presence that, in effect, we will never have to call on the Americans again; we are going to build up a credible deterrent against regional threats. Some Saudi officials even spoke of instituting conscription. Needless to say, although the Gulf states have continued to spend their shrinking budgets on aircraft, naval vessels and frontline armored equipment, there has been little real effort to build up their ground forces, except to some extent in Kuwait. The main reason is a traditional one: standing armies have a potential for making coups.
It is true that the small and heterogeneous populations of the GCC states make a serious army hard to create, and none has the population to permit creation of an army to match Iraq's or Iran's. Deterrence does not, however, always consist of matching one's enemy's capabilities. The philosophy behind France's nuclear program was never to match the Soviet Union in warheads but to guarantee that any attack on France would cost the attacker something. A credible deterrent for a small state can be a mix of a defense force sufficient to guarantee that an attacker will pay a price and that the attack will be slowed until a big power protector can arrive on the scene.
There are problems in defending the region. The small emirates along the coastline-Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE-lack any strategic depth; as the invasion of Kuwait showed, they can be occupied within hours. Saudi Arabia has strategic depth, but its most vital resources, the oilfields, are along the coast and highly vulnerable to airborne and seaborne assault. A more potent ground force could slow down an enemy assault, but perhaps not before the oilfields fell.
For these reasons and the concerns about the political intentions of standing armies, the Gulf states have relied instead on air and naval forces as both a force multiplier (using technological superiority to offset the manpower of potential enemies) and a means of carrying the battlefield beyond their own territory. But even more than this, they have relied on the American defense umbrella.
Before the late 1980s, the U.S. presence in the Gulf was highly limited. Since 1949 the United States had kept a small Middle East Force of a few ships home-ported in Bahrain. The Iranian Revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both in 1979, led to the creation of the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), but CENTCOM was based in Florida, not in its area of operational responsibility. Of the six GCC states, only Oman could be persuaded to sign an agreement allowing U.S. pre-positioning of equipment and joint exercises with U.S. forces. (Extensive pre-positioning also occurred in Saudi Arabia through the close U.S.-Saudi cooperation in building up the Royal Saudi Air Force, but this was not officially sanctioned by an agreement.)
During the Iran-Iraq War the United States further strengthened its Saudi presence by operating U.S. AWACS early-warning aircraft in the kingdom, in cooperation with the AWACS sold to the Saudis. This involvement in Gulf forward air defense marked the growing U.S. presence, but U.S. "bases" were still anathema to the Gulf states, and the strongest opponent of any American presence in the region was Kuwait. This changed with the "tanker war" of 1987-88. When Iran became a threat to oil shipping tankers, Kuwait asked for the reflagging and escort of its tankers, and the United States responded with Operation Earnest Will. The current high-profile U.S. presence dates from that time. Kuwait also joined other Gulf states in ordering American combat aircraft.
The massive U.S. and coalition buildup during Desert Shield and Desert Storm marked a transformation of the U.S. presence in the region. Once the war was over and the large contingents of ground forces left, the GCC states moved to sign new agreements with the United States on facilities and other access. All but Saudi Arabia now have defense cooperation agreements with the United States, and while the Saudis have been reluctant to formalize such a relationship, the U.S. presence there is extensive, aimed at enforcing sanctions, providing a sense of security to the GCC states, and deterring any new adventures by Iraq or Iran. (On the nature of the "threat," see below.)
The United States has maintained a continuing and significant naval presence in and near the Gulf since the war, usually including an aircraft-carrier battle group. This presence was beefed up during the October 1994 Iraqi maneuverings along the Kuwait border and again in September 1995 after the defection of Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law.
At one point in September 1995, the United States had 43 ships in the area, the largest number since the war. A few weeks later, however, it felt the situation was stable enough to leave the area without an aircraft carrier for several weeks, instead deploying ground-based aircraft to Bahrain during the hiatus. U.S. naval forces in the area are now designated the U.S. Fifth Fleet, emphasizing the importance of the region and, clearly, the presumed permanence of the presence.
The other major element of U.S. presence has been air power. Under Operation Southern Watch, which involves air missions over southern Iraq to enforce the no-fly zone there, U.S. aircraft operate out of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Air Force's 4404th Composite Wing (Provisional), the largest composite wing in the Air Force, operates out of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. The word "provisional" in its name is presumably in part a concession to Saudi concerns that the U.S. presence not be seen as a permanent base.
The United States maintains only small numbers of Army and Marine forces on the ground as part of its efforts to train local armies and to maintain the logistical and other lines necessary in the event U.S. forces have to intervene again. But a series of joint exercises with the GCC states now means that U.S. Army or Marine units are constantly being rotated into the region for maneuvers. The United States has won agreement to pre-position equipment for an army brigade in both Kuwait and Qatar, and perhaps the UAE. Ground forces were dispatched to the region in October 1994 after Iraqi maneuvers along the Kuwait border.
Thus the longstanding nervousness about any U.S. presence that was not "over-the-horizon" has been replaced with a significant presence of U.S. air and naval forces and the infrastructure for quick insertion of ground forces who have trained with the Gulf armies. The change in administrations in Washington did not alter the U.S. commitment to protect access to oil. The much more visible U.S. presence, however, has become an issue with some domestic opponents of the existing regimes, which will be discussed below.
This presence is there, obviously, to protect access to oil and reassure the sometimes very nervous regimes of the GCC. But how serious is the threat?
THE THREAT: IRAQ
Clearly, the Gulf states and the United States are cooperating closely to defend against any future aggression against the six GCC states from hostile quarters, which in the absence of the Soviet threat means the two large and well-armed regional powers across the Gulf: Iran and Iraq. The U.S. perception of the threat in the Gulf is not always echoed by the GCC states themselves. More precisely, the U.S. perception of the threat is closer to the view from Kuwait and Riyadh than the view from the other Gulf states.
The potential threat from Iraq is clear enough. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait marked an attempt by one Arab state to annex another entirely, an unprecedented move. The threatening maneuvers of October 1994 may have been an attempt to test the Clinton administration or just a reminder that Iraq still has some teeth. But the Iraqi army was devastated during Desert Storm and while some elite units have been reconstructed, by most accounts morale in the army is low. Senior officers have been purged, and there have been persistent rumors of coup attempts, even by the elite Republican Guard, Saddam's praetorian force.
Draconian punishments were imposed for desertion, suggesting clearly enough that desertion must have become endemic. Part of the Iraqi Air Force remains in Iran five years after fleeing there, and the part still in Iraq cannot buy spare parts. There are no-fly zones enforced by Western aircraft in both northern and southern Iraq. The quarrels within Saddam's own family have fascinated the world. But can he really mount a threat?
A cornered predator is always dangerous, and there is little doubt that Saddam still has some considerable ability to cause trouble. But in his present circumstances, it hardly seems likely that he could send an Army into a neighboring state. (If some of the stories told by his sons-in-law are true, he might well give the order-but could it be carried out?)
Economically, Iraq is prostrate. The sanctions have continued in force, and U.N. inspectors continue to insist that Saddam has not complied fully with the efforts to detect and destroy his unconventional weapons programs, one of several preconditions for lifting sanctions. Iraq has itself rejected a U.N. formula that would allow it to market some of its oil.
Ironically, the very prostration of Iraq has helped to undermine the determination of the Gulf states. There is a growing perception in many parts of the world (one which has been heard in the Arab world for several years) that the U.N. sanctions are not hurting Saddam personally but are making life unbearable for the Iraqi people, and especially those very groups that sought to get rid of Saddam in 1991. Iraq's population is half Shiite, and the Shiites were severely punished after their 1991 uprising. They are being punished still more by the U.N. sanctions. There are growing calls for an easing of sanctions, as they seem to be hurting the wrong target. These calls had long been heard in the Arab world generally (e.g., in Egypt, foremost among the former coalition members) but now are also being echoed by some of the GCC states.
Qatar was the first to seek to rebuild its ties with Iraq, and Bahrain had cautiously made similar noises, while Oman-which prides itself on good relations with all its neighbors-had also been quietly rebuilding links. In 1995, Sheikh Zayed (president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi) openly called for a relaxation of sanctions against Iraq, following similar remarks earlier from the ruler of Dubai. But the GCC summit in Muscat in December continued to insist on Iraqi compliance with all U.N. requirements. Even if four of the GCC states are ready to relax the sanctions, the two that are not are the crucial players: Saudi Arabia, the largest and most powerful, and Kuwait, the most aggrieved. That GCC summit was also a reminder of deeper divisions in the organization, when Qatar walked out on the last day of the meeting in a dispute over the election of a Saudi as secretary-general. Qatar denied reports that the final communique's language on Iraq was an issue in its walkout, the most disruptive event in the history of GCC summits.
Beyond the Gulf region, three of the five U.N. Security Council members are on record as favoring a relaxation of sanctions: Russia, China and France. All, it is true, have commercial and other motives beyond the humanitarian. The United States and the United Kingdom have resisted, insisting that Iraq must comply with all requirements. While the humanitarian arguments are persuasive and it is hard to see what purpose the sanctions are serving at this point, hurting most those inside Iraq who like Saddam least, any relaxation is unlikely so long as the United States is unsatisfied. And in a presidential election year, no American president, least of all a vulnerable one, is likely to appear "soft on Saddam." The chorus of criticism of the sanctions in the Arab world is, however, likely to grow stronger.
Iraq may still pose a theoretical danger, and certainly if the sanctions were lifted and Saddam were free to rearm, he could become a major threat again. It is a stretch, however, to consider Iraq a military threat to its neighbors now.
THE THREAT: IRAN
Almost 17 years after the fall of the shah, the Iranian Revolution is not looking very revolutionary. Its oil revenues have been declining, though it still is a major natural-gas producer. Its political and foreign-policy positions frequently display the continuing tensions between the revolutionary true believers and the pragmatists, and President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has frequently faced problems in implementing his own pragmatic economic programs. Iran has continued to buy military equipment wherever it can (mostly from China, North Korea and various of the former Soviet states) and to vociferously oppose the U.S. presence in the Gulf. There is reason to believe the Western accusations that Iran is secretly seeking nuclear weapons, despite persistent denials from Tehran. Clearly it remains hostile to U.S. intentions and, sometimes at least, highly critical of Saudi Arabia's rulers.
At the same time, it is hard to envision the present leadership of Iran launching any sort of military adventure against their neighbors. They are neither as isolated as Saddam nor as contemptuous of U.S. power. Their military continues to suffer from a shortage of spare parts for older U.S. and European-made equipment. A few years ago their purchase of Russian submarines, Mi0-29s and other Russian and ex-Soviet aircraft, and rumored purchases of airborne early-warning aircraft led to concerns that by the mid-1990s Iran could have a major power-projection capability. It is the mid-1990s, and Iran has no such capability. There appear to have been difficulties in integrating the new equipment, and the airborne early warning aircraft do not ever seem to have shown up. Many of the arms purchases lack the command-and-control infrastructure necessary to use them in the way they were designed for.
It is true that the Iranian nuclear program is disturbing, as proliferation always is. But unlike North Korea, Iran is at least in de facto compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection guidelines. (And the U.S. response to North Korea, which is clearly in violation, has been to buy them off rather than confront them.)
It is also true that the Iranians have built up their forces and at times both surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles along the Strait of Hormuz and on the islands in the Strait, including the island of Abu Musa, control over which it disputes with the UAE. The United States has used this buildup to warn of a growing Iranian threat, especially in the early months of 1995. But Abu Musa has been occupied by Iran since the shah's day (when the West tacitly let him have it), and the surface-to-air missiles, at least, can be described as defensive. Besides, given the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf, what could Iran do? A Silkworm fired against a tanker from either the islands or the coast would provoke a strong American response, and the Iranians have not forgotten that they lost much of their navy in a short-lived confrontation with the United States in 1988.
Thus one might argue that the U.S. presence is useful in deterring Iran from trying anything, but it also makes it highly unlikely that the present leadership, seeking to improve their links with the outside world, would risk starting a confrontation they would be certain to lose. The United States points to the potential Iranian threat to justify, in part, its presence; the U.S. presence effectively neutralizes any such potential threat.
The U.S. preoccupation with Iran is not shared throughout the Gulf. Most of the GCC states have at least tolerable, if not decent, relations with Tehran. The Saudis do not appreciate Iranian media attacks on the royal family, but they, too, have explored better relations. Oman and Dubai have always maintained their historic trading links, and Qatar has cultivated better ties. Bahrain has blamed Iran for the December 1994 troubles there and is less enthusiastic. When the United States in 1995 barred the purchase of Iranian oil by U.S. oil companies even for sale abroad (quite belatedly, and with little immediately apparent reason for doing it when they did), the GCC states made it clear that this was a U.S. issue, not a Gulf Arab one.
In fact, the U.S. policy of "dual containment" provokes some puzzlement in the Gulf. The old Arab proverb, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," reflects nicely the traditional balance-of-power view of how to confront an enemy. Dual containment goes against that logic: it says that the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy. Such policies often force old enemies together against the outsider. Iran and Iraq have made tentative efforts to resolve their own differences, and Iran has certainly helped market some Iraqi oil. Fortunately for those who mistrust them both, the legacy of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War remains deeper than the desire to confront the common enemy. While the U.S. dual containment policy has been debated in journals and symposia, it is less clear that it has been debated within the administration. (Secretary of State Warren Christopher, of course, has had a personal preoccupation with things Iranian since his role in negotiating the release of the hostages in 1979-81.)
INTERNAL POLITICS SINCE THE WAR
In 1990 and 1991 one sometimes heard from opponents of the Western intervention that the Western victory would bring about the rapid decline of the Gulf monarchies amid rising Islamist fervor. Five years on, no one can deny that Islamist fervor is still a major factor in many places, as it was before that hard-core secularist Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, but not a single Middle Eastern government (let alone one in the Gulf) has changed in an Islamist direction. Future changes may well occur, but it would be stretching matters to claim cause and effect from Desert Storm. In the Gulf only one leader has changed: the emir of Qatar deposed his father. While his policies are somewhat controversial, the fact that he has agreed to preposition equipment for a U.S. brigade in Qatar makes it difficult to attribute this change of leadership to a reaction against the Western intervention.
It is true, of course, that domestic dissent in Saudi Arabia has grown, producing some jitters about the future in the wake of the Riyadh bombing in November 1995 and King Fahd's illness a few weeks later. The continuing U.S. presence was clearly the target of the bombing of the National Guard compound in Riyadh, but there has been little to suggest that this represents a dramatic upsurge of anti-Americanism. Most of the Saudi opposition pamphlets and faxes have concentrated on charges of corruption and nepotism against members of the royal family, or human-rights complaints, not protests against the American presence. The exceptions are the faxes from the Islamic Movement for Change, in April and June of 1995, calling for the departure of U.S. and British "Crusader" forces from the kingdom. That group also claimed responsibility for the November Riyadh bombing. But, generally speaking, the Saudis and the United States have kept the American presence unpublicized and relatively low-profile, mostly concentrated in areas such as Dhahran (long an American enclave anyway) and remote air bases. The more extreme complaints heard during Desert Shield about Westerners profaning the Islamic holy places are not heard today, because they would be clearly absurd.
By far the most visible internal problem of any Gulf state since the war has been the continuing wave of unrest in Bahrain. The troubles originally began in December 1994 and intensified after a prominent Shiite cleric was sent into exile. After several months of unrest, the troubles subsided by mid-1995, only to erupt again in December with the first anniversary of the original outbreak. In January of 1996 a homemade bomb went off in the Meridien hotel, and a wave of arson attacks led to new crackdowns and extensive arrests. Bahrain and some neighboring countries have accused Iran of involvement.
To keep the Bahrain troubles in perspective, however, one should remember that the Shiite demonstrators are not calling for the overthrow of the ruling family, but merely for the restoration of the parliament provided for in the constitution but dissolved in 1975. And because Bahrain has a Shiite majority of some 60 percent and a Sunni ruling elite, the issues here are different (at least in scale) from those in other Gulf States.
Kuwait's internal tensions have mostly been alleviated through the restoration of Parliament, which is dominated by groups who may be considered in "opposition" to the emir, though they do not seek to bring down the system. Westerners often dismiss the Kuwait Parliament because of the limited franchise, but it remains unique in the Gulf.
Oman arrested hundreds of people in late 1994 for alleged involvement in an Islamist plot to overthrow the government. But an amnesty was declared by the sultan in late 1995 on the occasion of his twenty-fifth anniversary on the throne. It is unclear whether there is a longer-term dissidence building there.
Saudi Arabia has sought to fulfill some of its longstanding promises of greater participation by creation of an appointed Shura Council, an advisory body that has in fact shown some signs of being more than just a royal rubber stamp. But the belt-tightening created by the country's budgetary problems (due largely to paying most of the cost of the war, including the costs of the U.S. participation) means that there is still considerable dissatisfaction in the country. It does not seem, however, to indicate any imminent revolutionary change.1 The Riyadh bombing could mean that dissent runs much deeper than has seemed evident, or it could be an isolated incident. King Fahd's stroke and his handing of power to Crown Prince Abdullah at the beginning of 1996 naturally raises questions about future policies. In some ways it could be beneficial: Abdullah has rarely been attacked by the Islamists, being seen as free of the corruption imputed to others, and a pious traditionalist in an older Saudi mold. Abdullah, at the same time, cannot make drastic changes in Saudi Arabia's course: the kingdom is still run by a collective group of senior princes, not one man.
Qatar's maverick policies, already discussed above in regard to Iraq, have already led to the sharpest words among GCC members in years and could lead to GCC interference in Qatari internal affairs. Following Qatar's December 1995 walkout from the GCC summit in Oman, the ruler ousted in 1994, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad, made a tour of all five of the other Gulf states plus Egypt and Syria (the "Damascus Declaration" group). Amid warnings from these states about Qatar's policies toward Iraq, Iran and Israel, and the openly expressed intention of Khalifa to return to his throne, Qatar television broadcast an interview with the exiled Bahraini opposition. That crossed a red line the GCC scrupulously avoids: trying to stir up trouble in other member states. There were reports that Sheikh Khalifa was seeking to raise a force to topple his son Sheikh Hamad, perhaps with at least tacit support of the other GCC members, Egypt and Syria. Should that occur, the GCC could suffer serious damage; and once the Gulf states let the genie of interference in each other's internal affairs out of the bottle, all could suffer the results.
FIVE YEARS ON: SOME CONCLUSIONS
Clearly, the Gulf did change in the wake of the invasion of Kuwait, and the U.S. presence, once "over the horizon" now appears there to stay (at least until and unless the rulers change). Western opposition to Iran and Iraq seems unlikely to shift soon, though there is growing criticism in the region of the harshness of the sanctions on Iraq.
Until recently, the divisions across the Arab world provoked by the war seemed to be lasting longer than such Arab divisions normally do. As in other matters, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were much slower than the other four GCC states to forgive, if not forget, their neighbors' stance during the war. In the first few years, the PLO, Jordan and Yemen-all of whom gave some moral support to Iraq during the war-were ostracized by the Gulf states. The PLO gained favor in the West with the Oslo agreement with Israel and has slowly built back its ties with some coalition Arab states (notably Egypt), though the Kuwaitis remain steadfastly unhappy with Palestinians generally and the PLO in particular. Yemen's isolation led to Saudi support for the southern secessionists during its 1994 civil war, but now Yemen and Saudi Arabia have patched up their quarrels and are negotiating their long-disputed border. In the wake of the Iraqi defections, King Hussein of Jordan was finally forgiven by Saudi Arabia, and Jordanian-Kuwaiti relations also began to improve.
The Middle East is not, of course, the same place it was before the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Israel has a peace treaty with Jordan, may soon have one with Syria, and has cut two deals with the PLO, though real peace is still located somewhere over the horizon. The changes in the Gulf have been real, but limited. The U.S. presence appears to be long-term. In the end, five years after Desert Storm, the effect of the war seems to have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This does not guarantee that the same conclusions will be reached on the tenth anniversary, but it seems to be the reasonable conclusion five years on.
1 See Dunn, "Saudi Arabia: Is the Sky Falling?" in Middle East Policy, vol. III, no. 4, April 1995.