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The Persian Gulf is a relatively constricted geographic area of great existing or potential volatility. The smaller states of the gulf are particularly vulnerable, having limited indigenous populations and, in most cases, armed forces with little more than symbolic value to defend their countries against aggression. All of them lack strategic depth, and their economies and oil industries depend on access to the sea. Conflicts involving the air forces and navies of the larger gulf powers inevitably endanger their critical transportation links. Closure of the Strait of Hormuz--which was threatened but which never actually occurred during the Iran-Iraq War--would have a catastrophic effect on regular ship movements.
The oil drilling, processing, and loading facilities of the gulf states, some of them on offshore platforms, are vital to their economies. In an era of highly accurate missiles and highperformance aircraft, the protection of these exposed resources against surprise attack presents enormous difficulties. Even those states that can afford the sophisticated weaponry to defend their installations can ensure their effectiveness only through proper training, manning, and maintenance.
Most of the Arab gulf states, although vulnerable by air and by sea, are relatively immune from ground attack. Because of their geographic position on the Arabian Peninsula, they are exposed on their landward side only to vast desert tracts controlled by Saudi Arabia, with which they are linked by security treaties. Potential aggressors in the region, although heavily armed, lack the equipment or experience to project their forces over long distances. The only realistic possibility of overland attack seems to be in the north, where Kuwait has no natural line of defense and its oil facilities are near both Iran and Iraq. In early 1992, Kuwaiti officials disclosed plans to construct an electronic fence stretching more than 200 kilometers along the Kuwait-Iraq border. Although some obstacles might be emplaced to obstruct an Iraqi crossing, the main purpose of the fence is to prevent infiltration. Border guards of Kuwait's Ministry of Interior are to patrol the fence area.
In the south, reunited Yemen had inherited large stocks of military equipment from the Soviet Union's earlier support of the PDRY. The PDRY's political support of Iraq in the Kuwaiti crisis caused the GCC states to regard it as a potentially hostile neighbor. Although offensive operations against Oman or Saudi Arabia, with which it shared long, undefined borders, seem unlikely, the encouragement of border infiltration by all three countries cannot be ruled out.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 introduced a new threat to stability in the gulf. Shia form a majority of the population of Bahrain and an important part of the foreign labor force in Kuwait and are considered potential dissidents in any future hostilities. Numerous terrorist actions in Kuwait during the 1980s were attributed to domestic Shia instigated by Iran (see Kuwait: Internal Security , this ch.). Iran is one of the strongest military powers of the region and has historically sought to extend its influence to the Arab shore of the gulf. Nevertheless, fears of military confrontation subsided after the Iran-Iraq War ended. The influence of the more extremist elements within the Iranian government appears to have declined; Iran also had opposed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
In spite of Iraq's defeat in 1991, Kuwait remains the most vulnerable of the gulf states. Despite the crippling of Iraq's offensive military capabilities, it continues to be a formidable military power in the region. Its postwar manpower strength is estimated at 380,000, including at least three intact divisions of the elite Republican Guard, as well as large stocks of armor, artillery, and combat aircraft. Only with the assurance of outside support can the GCC states be confident that they can successfully resist renewed Iraqi aggression.
The gulf Arabs believe that a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict will enhance gulf security. Direct conflict with Israel was a remote contingency in early 1993, although Israel's doctrine of preemptive attack and its demonstrated ability to hit distant targets must be reckoned with in their strategic planning. Because the northwestern areas of Saudi Arabia are well within range of Israeli attack, air defense units that would otherwise be available to the GCC for gulf defense must be positioned there. Efforts of the Arab gulf states to upgrade their air defense systems have often been viewed by the United States Congress and by the public as hostile to Israeli interests.
In early 1993, one year after Saddam Husayn's defeat in the Persian Gulf War, the region's security appeared more stable than in many years. The fear of a communist encroachment or of a superpower confrontation has evaporated. Iran seems to be seeking greater accommodation with its gulf neighbors, although the Tehran government is continuing its military buildup and insists that it has a role in regional mutual security. Iraq, although still hostile, does not present a significant military threat. The United States and other Western powers have indicated that they will act against any new instability in the gulf that endangers their interests.
Data as of January 1993
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