Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Gulf Cooperation Council’s Unified Military Command
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s Unified Military Command

The Gulf Cooperation Council’s Unified Military Command


The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which brings together the countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, took an unprecedented step during its 34th Summit (held in Kuwait City on December 10-11 2013) by setting up a unified military command structure for its member states. This move reflects the commitment of the GCC to establish a credible joint defense force able to advance the goal of collective security in the region. This military command will have a force of around 100,000, half of which would be contributed by Saudi Arabia, the main advocate of this initiative. GCC members will coordinate air, land, and marine forces under one common structure. In this regard, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, has stated: “We want to create a central command that coordinates between all sub-commands and makes them work under one umbrella. But, the new structure [the Unified Military Command] won’t replace the Peninsula Shield forces.”[1] In terms of collective defense, the core purposes of this command structure are to provide strategic and operational command for all GCC missions and prepare members for operational employment as interoperable multinational forces. This command is expected to have a minimum number of operational commands (land, air and maritime command) as well as joint intelligence system and integrated missile defense in order to execute essential operational and peacetime missions. The challenge for this plan is to be able to undertake command and control of the full range of the military missions, including command and control multinational and multiservice forces, but more importantly to be able to support operations under the political and strategic direction of the GCC. This means that the main goal is not limited to improving coordination between different parts of existing national defense systems, but rather to establishing a real joint operational command structure. The progress towards a fully integrated defense system would allow the GCC to become a real military alliance along the lines of NATO.

The creation of an integrated military command structure is an important reform, and can be considered a significant development towards deeper regional military integration. It can benefit from the various weapons systems in the Gulf, and create a new generation of Gulf officers. It can also take advantage of the broad similarity of the military systems and experiences of the GCC’s countries. For that reason, it will be relatively simple to define steps that will harmonize the programs in terms of interoperability, and define messaging standards for communicating between systems at a basic level. A more significant obstacle to effective cooperation, however, is the lack of agreement related to threat perceptions. Indeed, there is no strategic consensus about whom the GCC should guard against. The effectiveness of this command is therefore conditioned by political factors rather than purely military considerations.

That having been said, looking back over the history of the GCC’s defense cooperation we see that the idea of a unified military command is not new. Since the GCC’s inception in 1981, there have been efforts to establish a collective defense force capable of deterring external threats. This is also linked to repeated U.S. attempts to get GCC states to create a joint intelligence system and integrated missile defense. In 1982, the GCC established a Gulf self-defense force, called the Jezira (Peninsula) Shield force, which is commanded by a Saudi and is based in Saudi Arabia.[2] At the time the Peninsula Shield was created, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE insisted on a proviso that “command and control would reside in Riyadh during normal periods; however, in times when the Peninsula Shield is called upon to support a member of the GCC, command and control would resort to the country in which the Peninsula Shield is to be utilized. This insistence made by the smaller GCC member-states is a clear indication that they feared Saudi interference in their internal affairs.”[3] This was in fact among the reasons that the Peninsula Shield was more of a symbolic testament to collective security than a strong military force. After the second Gulf War (1990-91), the idea of unified military command was revived, GCC members showed less interest, opting instead for strengthening the capabilities of the existing Peninsula Shield forces; signing individual defense pacts with Western powers, and acquiring arsenals of advanced high-tech conventional weapons. Christian Koch states that “Saudi Arabia circulated a proposal during the GCC summit meeting in Riyadh in December 2006 calling for the adoption of the principle of ‘centralized command and de-centralized forces’ and disbanding the Peninsula Shield force as a collective single military unit. What the kingdom proposed was that each GCC state should designate certain military units to be part of the new proposed military structure with those units stationed within each state’s national territory and linked to a unified central command. While member states acknowledged the proposal and agreed to study it further, again there was no decision made. What instead emerged is the agreement at the 2009 GCC summit to create a joint force for quick intervention to address security threats.”[4]


[1]The Peninsula Shield Force is a joint military force of 10,000 soldiers established by the GCC in 1984 to deter and respond to military aggression directed against any of the GCC member states. “Stop meddling, Iran told” Khaleej Times, 26 December 2012, Accessed July 29, 2014.

[2] This Force was officially created in 1982, but it became operational starting 1984.

[3] Sami F. Al-Motairy, “The Gulf Cooperation Council and the
Challenges of Establishing an Integrated Capability for Upholding Security” (Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, California, June 2011), 44-45.

[4] Christian Koch, “The GCC as a Regional Security Organization,” KAS International Reports (November 2010): 27-28.