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The Pivot to the Arctic: Implications for the Gulf Cooperation Council

The Arctic is of growing geopolitical importance, and not just for Arctic nations. The interests of the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula are also at play, say Theodore Karasik of the Lexington Institute and Alexander Murinson of NATO Defense College.

Written by Theodore Karasik, Alexander Murinson Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
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The Russian icebreaker Admiral Makarov in the Eastern Bosphorus Strait departs for the summer shipping season on the Northern Sea Route. The icebreaker will pilot ships carrying containers, general and other cargo to the ports of Chukotka and the Northern Sea Route.AFP/Vitaliy Ankov/Sputnik

Circumpolar politics over Arctic resources are taking shape. Countries circling the shrinking Arctic ice mass are seeing potential strategic and economic opportunities. Security factors are also in play. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are concerned about what will happen next in what can be termed a “pivot to the north policy.”

Due to climate change, experts predict that as early as 2040 a significant part of the Arctic Ocean will melt, which will facilitate the extraction of natural resources from the sea bottom and reduce global transportation costs. This trend is reshuffling Washington’s strategic priorities and global policies, especially with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. For the GCC states, the question becomes one of strategic priorities in the North versus the South. The Suez Canal is currently one of the key global choke points, but its significance is bound to decrease as Arctic passageways build volume. Geopolitically, the Arctic’s future will impact GCC interests.

Nations across the world are hurrying to stake claims to the Arctic’s resources, which could amount to 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas. There are emerging fisheries and hidden minerals. Cruise liners filled with tourists are sailing the Arctic’s frigid waters in increasing numbers. Cargo traffic along the Northern Sea Route, one of two shortcuts across the top of the Earth in summer, is on the rise.

The U.S., which assumed the two-year rotating chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council in 2015, has not ignored the Arctic, but critics maintain that the U.S. is lagging behind the other seven council members (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden). This is a circumpolar strategic mistake.

Security Dimensions

The melting Arctic also is creating a new front of security concerns. Russian president Vladimir Putin said expanding Russia’s military presence in the Arctic was a top priority for Moscow. Earlier this year, Russia began rehabilitating a Soviet-era base on the New Siberian Islands and it has pledged to restore a number of Arctic military air bases that fell into neglect after the USSR’s collapse in 1991.

Although Putin said he does not envision a conflict between Russia and the U.S., which have both called for keeping the Arctic a peaceful zone, he added, “Experts know quite well that it takes U.S. missiles 15 to 16 minutes to reach Moscow from the Barents Sea,” which is a part of the Arctic Ocean near Russia’s shore.

Given its investment to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in its northern infrastructure, Russia is the dominant actor in the Arctic region, according to many observers. Russia wants the Northern Sea Route, where traffic jumped from four vessels in 2010 to 71 in 2013, to eventually rival the Suez Canal as a passage between Europe and Asia. The Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia takes only 35 days, compared to a 48-day journey between the continents via the Suez Canal.

At the first stage, this will open the Arctic region for all-year navigation. This gives Russia, the country with the longest maritime Arctic border, a tremendous advantage in providing shipping and collecting passage and customs fees from international shipping as the Arctic becomes suitable for navigation without a need for ice-breaker fleets.

China is also seeking to be part of any Arctic opening. In March 2010, Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo said: “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it … China must plan an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.” Eighty-eight to 95 percent of resources in the Arctic fall within one of the five Arctic Ocean coastal states’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and China is unlikely to challenge the provision within the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that creates the EEZs. This, coupled with Chinese companies’ lack of Arctic expertise, suggests that China will partner with Arctic nations in resource extraction rather than act alone.

Noting the above challenges, a U.S. strategy in the Arctic under the Trump administration should embrace the following reinforcing components.

In light of growing discrepancies between American and Canadian interests in the Arctic zone and competing claims with Denmark, the U.S. would be well advised to pursue a policy of engagement with Norway because their national interests align in the region. Russia is adopting a confrontational posture vis-à-vis Western countries of the Arctic basin.

The legal component, the UNCLOS, finds support from all the uniformed services and especially the U.S. Navy. American military leaders have always discriminated when it comes to treaties, traditionally resisting those (like the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court) that might put U.S. servicemen and women at risk. But they support UNCLOS because it will enable, rather than complicate, their mission. But, as the United States was the driving force behind UNCLOS’ negotiation, it should be no surprise that the treaty offers, as Stewart Patrick memorably put it in a commentary for the Atlantic, “everything the U.S. military wants, and nothing that it fears.”

The treaty’s primary value to the U.S. military is that it clearly sets out maritime states’ rights, duties and jurisdictions. The treaty defines the limits of a country’s “territorial sea,” establishes rules for transit through “international straits” and defines “EEZs in a way compatible with freedom of navigation and over-flight.” It further establishes the “sovereign inviolability” of naval ships calling on foreign ports, providing critical protection for U.S. vessels. More generally, the treaty allows states to exempt their militaries from its mandatory dispute resolution provisions, allowing the U.S. to retain complete military freedom of action. At the same time, the treaty does not interfere with critical U.S.-led programs like the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Nor does it subject any U.S. military personnel to the jurisdiction of any international court.

Some have argued that UNCLOS has already become “customary international law,” and thus Washington has little to gain from formal accession. But custom and practice are far more malleable and subject to interpretation. Other states may soon push the Law of the Sea into new, antithetical directions if the U.S. does not ratify the treaty. China, a party to UNCLOS, rejects U.S. interpretations of the treaty’s freedom of navigation provisions, and continues to assert claims to control over virtually the entire South China Sea. But it is hardly alone as Brazil, Malaysia, Peru and India have also resisted freedom of navigation within their EEZs, in contravention of their obligations.

As it has for years, the U.S. Navy regularly conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to challenge excessive claims of territorial exclusivity. But as a non-party to the treaty, Washington lacks any legal standing to bring its complaints to an international dispute resolution body. More broadly, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard officials complain that non-membership complicates everyday bilateral and multilateral cooperation with scores of international partners.

If these security benefits were not enough, the U.S. business community is unified in its support for the treaty for two reasons. First, UNCLOS would protect U.S. rights to sole commercial exploitation to all resources on and under its extended continental shelf (that is, beyond 320km/200 miles). This area, which is estimated to be twice the size of California, is rich in oil, gas and other exploitable resources. Second, accession to the treaty would allow the U.S. to sponsor its own national companies to engage in deep sea-bed mining.

The Trump administration should focus its efforts on creating a formidable polar fleet, with new basing and maintenance facilities to meet the challenges of international competition in the Arctic. The Council on the Arctic Future, if formed, would combine federal and public-private partnerships (PPPs) to formulate and monitor a cohesive and multipronged strategy on the Arctic, so the U.S. in this new race for the last frontier would not find itself in the position of being the last to know. Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is likely to support a strong collaboration with Russia on Arctic affairs in energy extraction, there is a long-term security concern.

GCC Stakes in Arctic Activity

Egypt, as the owner of the Suez Canal, serves an important role in GCC food security, counterterrorism efforts and supply chain economics. Several Arab Gulf states have made major investments in the Egyptian economy, particularly with respect to the Suez Canal. When West-East or East-West sea traffic passes through the Arctic Ocean, the Indian Ocean’s supply chain environment, which includes the Suez Canal, could shift and impact shipping routes in the waterways abutting the Arabian Peninsula. The Arab Gulf states, which see supply chain logistics as part of their transformational economic policies, will lose income and revenue as a result of the shift in shipping away from this region. In addition, the GCC members are well-versed in EEZ politics, not only in the Persian Gulf but throughout the world.

Yet there is more to the equation, which is not all negative from the GCC’s perspective. GCC members have opportunities for their sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) to invest in the Arctic region. Forward-leaning SWFs such as the UAE’s Mubadala already transact with Russia and Norway. The Qatar Investment Authority is investing in Rosneft and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). It serves the GCC’s interests to make investments in these Arctic countries, which have contributed both resources and guidance to the GCC states across a number of spheres from finance to security.

The Trump administration’s view on the Arctic is pro-energy, meaning it will favor exploiting the region further. Despite the fact that the GCC states are moving into the arena of carbon capture and renewables, the Trump administration’s stance is worrying to GCC officials, who see climate change as a security threat and also view such developments in the Arctic as a threat to their strong position in global energy markets. Climate change appears to be accelerating and causing irrevocable damage. The consequences will be long-term and may include decreased economic activity, agricultural disruption and population dislocations across the planet.

Such increases in global consumption of energy resources will have geopolitical implications for the GCC and beyond. Resource scarcity is occurring on a global basis, especially with regard to water accessibility. Many of the woes of the Middle East and North Africa, as exemplified by Syria, are partial outcomes of the negative impact of climate change on water security. If Middle Eastern states fail to address these issues meaningfully, further political fallout across the Arab world is a likely result that GCC officials cannot afford to ignore.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s knowledge of Arctic energy issues, specifically Russia’s interest in boosting exploration and production, will influence the White House and the Kremlin’s relationship. The GCC has a role to play in this dimension of U.S.-Russia relations, underscored by Qatar’s investment in the Russian oil market. Washington’s new “transactional” foreign policy will likely permit the Arab Gulf states to work with Russia and other circumpolar countries, perhaps with U.S. support. Ultimately, the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula have stakes in the melting of the Arctic ice cap. The GCC is recognizing the importance of circumpolar affairs.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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