Will it be a union of guns or of butter? Or will it be a union at all?
That is the question hovering over plans articulated by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members to strengthen their 31-year old organization as they met on Monday at a lavish Riyadh palace.
Hints were being dropped about the parameters of such a union in the run-up to the meeting, most of them coming from Bahraini leaders tripping over themselves with contradictory comments. Samira Rajab, minister of state for information affairs, spoke about a union between her country and Saudi Arabia as the first stage of a wider confederation while Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa said “the union covers all the countries.”
Prime Minister, Khalifa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa signaled to a local newspaper that the union would lead to a political union. “The great dream of the peoples of the region is to see the day when the borders disappear with a union that creates one Gulf,” he said in an interview. Meanwhile, he added, it would focus on security and defense, while Rajab said it could follow the “European Union model,” suggesting it would be primarily an economic confederation.
But Theodore Karasik, director for research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said he has little doubt that the GCC countries, led by its biggest and most powerful member Saudi Arabia, have defense issues on their mind.
“The economy as unifying forces is unfeasible because of differences in the economies between a lot of the states. But when it comes to defense and security, that’s a different matter,” he told The Media Line. “From the GCC perspective the monarchies of the region are surrounded by instability related to the aftermath of the Arab Spring as well as ongoing events in Iran, Iraq and Yemen.”
The standoff between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear ambitions has ratcheted up tensions in the Gulf. The governments in Iraq and Yemen are coping with serious domestic turmoil, as is GCC member Bahrain, compounding the worries of the Gulf monarchies. Their oil wealth enables the GCC countries to stock up on military hardware but their military might is constrained by small populations and a lack of combat experience.
The GCC was formed in 1981 as a way for the Gulf Arab monarchies to bolster security after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and its war with Iraq. But the organization has never come close to cooperating on military matters in the spirit of NATO. Nor did it ever succeed in creating much-touted plans for monetary and customs unions.
Even with the threat perception heightened in recent months, mistrust among the GCC states has snagged plans to deploy a joint missile shield, which Washington has long urged as the best means of defense against any strike by Iran. GCC governments have spent billions on US-made anti-missile platforms but have failed to build a unified umbrella and an early-warning system.
Analysts note that the six GCC countries are not even in agreement about Iran, with Oman and Qatar taking a softer line than the Saudis. The smaller countries, which include the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait, are jealous of their independence from their Saudi neighbor. While all are conservative Sunni Muslim kingdoms, some like the UAE and Bahrain are more freewheeling in their social and openness to foreign influence.
Justin Gengler, a Doha-based researcher whose blog Religion and Politics in Bahrain follows domestic developments in the island kingdom, said Saudi Arabia is using the GCC union proposal to send messages to Iran, the US and Bahrain.
“There is genuine desire among the Gulf Arab countries to project the image of unity and strength not only in the face of Iran, the most obvious target, but toward the US,” Gengler told The Media Line.
Although ostensibly on the same page over the Iran threat, Saudi Arabia has been wary of Washington’s behavior since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. The US backed the ouster of their common ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, last year when mass protests against his regime exploded across Egypt.
While the US has been less forthright in backing the opposition in Bahrain, and indeed, announced it was resuming arms sales to the regime, the Saudis remained concerned about America’s reliability. Gengler said that many Gulf Arabs believe the US wants to maintain a strong Iran as a counter-weight to their own power.
They point to the Iraq War, which enhanced Tehran’s power by toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and leaving a Shi'ite-dominated state, and view the current nuclear talks with Tehran with some distress as a channel for warmer US-Iranian ties.
To Washington, then, the message is: “’We are not utterly reliant on you for security. If you’re willing to pick and choose when to support your allies in the region and when not to (then) maybe we will have to take steps to ensure our own security,’” Gengler said.
Vis a vis Bahrain, Riyadh is worried about the implications of continued division within the ruling Al Khalifa family, and the latter's resulting failure to put down a 15-month-old rebellion led by the country's Shiite majority calling for political reform.
"The talk of union is at least partly a message to Bahrain's ruling family: find a way to move the situation forward, or else we'll do it for you," Gengler said. “The Saudis [clearly] don't want to [see a] Shi'ite government in Bahrain, but they [also] don't want to see a more radicalized Shi'ite population combined with something [even] more dangerous - which is [a once-passive] Sunni [community demanding a much larger role] in politics.”
Saudi Arabia has its own Shi'ite population, which has also been showing signs of restlessness. But they are a small minority. The notion of Sunnis, who make up the lion’s share of Saudi Arabia’s population, becoming politically active, strikes at the heart of the kingdom’s absolute monarchy.