When the Arab people aligned themselves with the British against their Ottoman rulers during the First World War, they did so under the assurances given to King Faisal of Syria that, in return, the Arabs would receive their independence in the form of their own sovereign kingdom. The kingdom was to span from Turkey’s southern border in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, and bound by Persia in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. These Arab aspirations were dashed, however, when they discovered the Sykes-Pikot treaty, in which Britain and France had secretly agreed to divide the Arabian territorial spoils amongst themselves.
It is largely because of this British-French agreement that the borders of the greater Middle East are abundant with unnaturally straight lines. There have been previous attempts by these nations to break these externally prescribed boundaries, most notably by Egypt and Syria with their formation of the United Arab Republic and the two’s confederation with North Yemen to form the United Arab States.
Throughout these attempts, which took place from 1958 to 1961, there were even hopes of Iraq joining their ranks. However, the experiment was short lived as former Egyptian president Gammal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian leader over the confederation, failed to institute a fitting political system for the new administration, resulting in Syria’s secession through military coup and the United Arab Republic’s ultimate demise.
There was additionally a five-year effort in the mid-1970s, when now-deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi attempted to unite with both Egypt and Syria in the Federation of Arab Republics, which brought only a cacophony of disagreement from its leaders and resulted in its abortion. To this point, the world’s oil dependency has shifted the regional balance of power to the Gulf states, which are now attempting to accomplish what their brethren in the Mediterranean had previously failed to achieve.
On December 19, King Abdullah I of Saudi Arabia called on his fellow Sunni monarchs in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to form a ‘single entity’ – a Gulf Union, a la the European Union, with a joint currency and unified strategy with regard to foreign policy and security. The aspect of security is high on the list of all the GCC states at the moment as they are becoming increasingly concerned with the growing threat of their Shiite nemesis, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran has arguably been engaged in a covert war with the GCC’s Sunni kingdoms over the recent weeks and months. This tumultuous situation was highlighted by Iran’s alleged assassination attempt of a Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington. Events then spiraled in the subsequent weeks as the Islamic Republic was implicated in a series of plots in Bahrain, directed at the British and Saudi embassies there, as well as the country’s causeway linking it to Saudi Arabia.
A Sunni Gulf-union would serve to isolate the Islamic Republic far beyond its current state. The agreement of Qatar and Oman is especially notable, as these two states have maintained traditionally independent foreign policies, often balancing their ties between the Saudis and the Iranians. Now that the United States has ended its military presence in Iraq–a brief sigh of relief for Iran–the US is now engaging its Gulf allies to act as the counterbalance in the region. The US has been fostering this new relationship by filtering thousands of its troops from Iraq into neighboring Kuwait and signing arms agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain - the latter already houses America’s naval 5th fleet. If that was not enough to put Iran back on its heels, the GCC is now taking its own initiative by engaging countries like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco for possible GCC membership.
Iran is no doubt looking to offset this counterbalance by asserting its influence in fellow Shiite-neighbor Iraq while fomenting unrest amongst the Shiite populations existing in the Sunni Gulf States. However, due to the unrest in its primary ally, Syria, the GCC countries have found opportunity there as well and have effectively isolated the country by expelling it from the Arab League, thereby limiting Iranian influence once again.
Given time, the move may provide for the eventual downfall of Assad’s regime, giving rise to a new Sunni authority, providing for another possible GCC member. Should the aforementioned scenario come to fruition, Iran will slowly see itself become the pariah state it is on its way to becoming. It would only be able to rely on the Shiite-led Iraq who, given the decision, may look to cozy up to its neighbors to the west in its effort to establish itself as a regional leader with its vast oil resources and potential infrastructure developments.
With the world’s leading oil producers becoming increasingly steadfast in their resolve against a nuclear Iran, the rest of the world will find continued relations with the Islamic Republic less and less beneficial.
For the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, their pursuit of nuclear weapons was expected to put them on the fast track towards regional hegemony. Ironically, that decision may prove to be their undoing.
The writer is an intelligence analyst at Max-Security Solution, a risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.