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Gulf Security and the U.S. Military: Regime Survival and the Politics of Basing

Gulf Security and the U.S. Military: Regime Survival and the Politics of Basing by Geoffrey F. Gresh. Stanford University Press, 2015, 179 pp.

As a self-described “desert rat” in Saudi Arabia from 1993 to 2002 and other nations in the Middle East, Prof. Geoff Gresh’s work was a trip down memory lane as well as insightful into the high-level negotiations (many directly involving kings, sultans, and US presidents) involved in the United States securing military basing rights in these countries. This is a thoroughly researched, end-noted, and indexed work that uniquely adds to the literature on the geopolitical factors that have affected basing decisions over the years in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman.

It provides useful lessons learned for those involved with current and future negotiations with any Gulf nation. Every USAF colonel and above who thinks he or she may be involved in such decisions should read this book. It is an essential primer, written in such a way as to be scholarly, yet fully comprehensible. The 179-page main text could be read quickly, but to fully leverage the extensive references in the almost 75-page endnote section, will require much more time and effort.

One of Professor Gresh’s underlying themes is that the United States needs to be sensitive to Gulf nations’ internal security concerns—which are made worse by US military presence. The US military does not appreciate how its very presence can cause significant issues for the Gulf monarchies. Reading this book will create a greater appreciation for the challenges and sensitive issues within Arab societies. For any service member who has deployed to the Middle East, this work will help make sense of the experience and perhaps bring “closure” to certain hard-to-understand aspects of those deployments.

Professor Gresh’s main points are as follows: First, despite other research to the contrary, the leadership of Gulf nations, particularly the monarchies, is constantly computing the calculus between external national security threats (e.g., Iran) and internal security concerns (e.g., protests, bombings, etc.) as they decide on the continuation or establishment of US military basing rights. Secondly, additional economic and military aid will not make the difference to nations whose oil revenue is in the billions. Finally, only when the perceived external national security threat is deemed to exceed the threat of regime overthrow from its own disenfranchised society will Gulf states agree to US basing. The prime example, which most of the book is based upon, is the historical record of the US military in Saudi Arabia starting in World War II.

To summarize the main case of Saudi Arabia, not until Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990 did Saudi leaders agree to large-scale US military basing. The high-level US delegation led by GEN Norman Schwarzkopf traveled to Saudi Arabia and provided photographic evidence of Iraqi tanks massed on the Iraq-Saudi border, indicating Iraq could move into Saudi Arabia within 48 hours. The new basing arrangement was above and beyond the low-profile US military training mission in Saudi Arabia that had been in existence for years. It was also above and beyond the US military forces stationed in Saudi Arabia for the Elf One Operation, which was only allowed after another direct external national security threat was demonstrated when Iraq attacked a Saudi oil tanker during the Iran-Iraq War. True to this geopolitical theory, US basing rights in Saudi Arabia were terminated as soon as Saddam Hussein was defeated. In August 2003 the US flag was lowered at the Prince Sultan Air Base, and the US military base was closed.

By the third main chapter on Oman, Professor Gresh’s work does seem to get a bit repetitive. However, the reader should “stay the course” as the analysis and conclusions really come together in the next to last big chapter. Some of the best material is in the final chapter and might be worth reading first. This book is unique in that there are not many books widely available on this particular subject (i.e., history and geopolitics of US military basing in the Persian Gulf) or written in such an easily grasped manner. A comparison to other works in this same area is difficult to make.

I highly recommend this book to Airmen on the Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) staff or Airmen assigned to US Central Command (USCENTCOM) as either permanent party or deployed in an AFCENT or USCENTCOM capacity who will interact at the 0-6 level and above. The insight into all that has gone into the “base life” one will experience and perhaps off-base privileges is certainly worth the effort and time to read this book. One benefit of reading this book is becoming more conscious of just how much the average Gulf nation citizens detested seeing a US citizen in their society, no matter how low profile or well-mannered. Future deployed service members may well consider spending less time downtown, unknowingly creating problems for US policy makers, and more time safely on the base reading a good book like this one.

Wayne L. Shaw III, Lt Col, USAF, retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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