Gulf states dream an impossible union

Caught between Arab Spring and Iran's nuclear aspirations, cooperation could benefit countries.

Gulf Cooperation Council 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gulf Cooperation Council 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), held on May 14 in Riyadh, had been convened  to discuss a possible union between the six member states, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates (UAE) Kuwait and Qatar.
According to the Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, whose brainchild it is, such a union would provide the countries with strength by helping them cope with the threat of Iran and the wave of unrest in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring. 
Predictably, there was no consensus and no decision made. The idea of forming a union was referred to the Council of Foreign Ministers, tasked with submitting a new draft at the next yet unscheduled summit.
Coincidentally, the Saudi institute for diplomatic studies released last week its analysis of the threats facing the six Gulf States, and Iran was listed as the gravest.
The late Shah of Iran, during his reign, initiated a policy aimed at taking over oil fields and Muslim holy sites in the area. Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic republic explicitly aims at exporting its “Islamic revolution” and imposing Shia Islam on the Gulf States and the Arab world. Iran, with a population of 75 million and a regular army of 500,000 soldiers, is working hard at building its offensive capacity, developing long range missiles and modernizing its fleet. Then there is its nuclear program. International sanctions extorting a heavy economic price have not been deterred the Iranians, and the country could gain nuclear weapons in the very near future.
The Gulf States appear to be a puny opponent with their population of 17 million – of which a mere 15 percent are citizens. The others are migrant workers mainly from Asia. Saudi Arabia has a population of 27 million, and a quarter of them  are foreigners. Altogether the six can muster an army of 360,000 men, but they are not under a unified command, and they lack fighting experience. Iran has also exploited the US withdrawal from Iraq, which has not regained the importance it had under Saddam’s Sunni regime. It is ruled today by the Shia majority – which favors Iran – and persecutes the Sunni minority. Gulf countries blame the United States for that sorry state of affairs.
Saudi Arabia is also worried about Yemen, where ongoing conflicts between local forces could lead to civil war and split the country. The Houthist insurrection in the north is still going strong, and Al Qaeda, which is openly hostile to Riyadh, is making progress in several parts of the country.
Then there is the Arab Spring, which has already toppled several dictatorial regimes. Gulf states understand only too well that if they wish to retain their privileges a little longer, they must unite to create an entity which can deter the enemies both within and outside the region.
Bahrain is already battling a rebellion which started last year. The Sunni monarch called on his Saudi neighbor for help. He was not disappointed. Fearing the dire consequences of the fall of the Bahraini regime on the other Gulf kingdoms, the Saudis dispatched 1,500 men and armored vehicles of the “Gulf Shield," the special force set up in the '80s as part of a defense agreement between the six countries.  The force was intended to protect them against outside attacks, which was not the case in the Bahraini crisis; however Saudi Arabia decided that it was clearly endangering Gulf countries and thus warranted an intervention.
Iran condemned what it called “the Saudi invasion” as a blatant interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain. Western countries expressed their dissatisfaction with the move in diplomatic terms. The United States imposed an embargo on arms to Bahrain, but not to Saudi Arabia. Support troops are still stationed in Bahrain, where there are occasional flare-ups.
The strong Shia majority protests what it calls discriminatory measures from the ruling Sunni elite. Bahrain claims Iran is stirring trouble to topple the regime and regain what it calls its 14th province.
The Saudi kingdom is not trouble-free either. Last year there was rioting in the eastern part of the country, where the Shia minority complained of discrimination. The riots were quelled through an impressive use of force, followed by the distribution of thousands of dollars to each local family. The country appears calm today, though a media blackout on the subject prevents a viewing of the full picture. It appears that there are occasional outbursts of violence, leading to swift, violent repression.
The Gulf countries are well aware of the dangers, but they cannot agree on how best to deal with it.
They no longer wholly trust America, especially in view of the cynical way Obama dropped Mubarak, a longtime ally who spearheaded the coalition of pragmatic states against Iran. However they know the US remains their only bulwark, because it is the common interest of both sides. The largest American naval basis outside the country is situated in Bahrain. The three US military bases in Qatar played a vital role in the war against Iraq; it was through Kuwait that American troops entered Iraq, and the US still relies on Kuwait to monitor events in Iraq.
Furthermore, the US navy has a strong presence in the Gulf near the straits of Hormuz. Aircraft carriers patrolling the seas deter Iran from fulfilling its threat of blocking the straits. America has been thwarted in its endeavors to set up a basis for anti-aircraft missiles because Gulf countries have failed to reach a consensus on that point.
Nevertheless the Saudis are convinced that the Gulf countries must have some deterrent of their own. A few years ago the king declared that, should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would try and follow suit. The Iranians did not bother replying. Towards the end of 2011, Riyadh invited Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, which would constitute a conservative block. It is hard to imagine how this would have changed the equilibrium in the region. In any case, the project was dropped after the Saudis belatedly realized they would have to contribute enormous amounts of money to boost the ailing economies of the two countries.
The Saudis also openly supported the insurgents in Syria, supplying weapons to the Free Syrian army in order to topple Assad and weaken Syria’s staunchest ally, Iran. Jordan, with its long common border with Syria, would have been a tremendous asset; however it is not ready to help.
The Saudi king has continued to press for a union of the Gulf countries in which he would lead a unified military command, coordinate the purchase of weapons in the United States and train troops, hopefully into an impressive fighting unit. Most commentators believe it to be a hopeless task.
From what has been gleaned of the summit, it seems that the countries favor a gradual approach. Bahrain, which is in deep trouble, would join Saudi Arabia first; other countries would then follow. The problem is that these countries fear their powerful neighbor which might just “swallow them” and deprive them of their independence. The countries also wonder how the union would strengthen their positions against Iran and help them solve internal problems.  The Saudi vision — uniting the whole of the Arabian peninsula, with the exception of Yemen — seems utopian.   
Oman, which is on fairly good terms with Iran, does not want to anger the Ayatollahs. The same goes for Qatar, in spite of its closer links with Riyadh.  Both might consider some limited economic union. The United Arab Emirates has yet to resolve their border dispute with Saudi Arabia, and there are also some economic issues. Kuwait has not made its position known. Its strong Shia minority vehemently opposes a union with Saudi Arabia, “protector of the Sunnis." Therefore Kuwait straddles the fence.
The only country to openly support the union is Bahrain – though its own Shia minority is very much against it. Needless to say Iran does not like the idea; it accused Saudi Arabia of trying to annex Bahrain, and a member of parliament has suggested that Iran itself annex the country.
No wonder then that the project was temporarily shelved. Gulf countries haven't even been able to set up a common market or a single currency. How could they agree on a political, military or economic model which would seriously limit their sovereignty?
Also they don’t know how to stem the revolutionary tide lapping at their borders.  Even in Saudi Arabia there have been calls to turn the country into a constitutional monarchy ruled by an elected parliament. The king would become a figurehead as is the case with European monarchies. There is not the slightest inkling that the royal family is considering it.
And so the six countries will have to continue putting their trust in America.
Washington is doing its best to strengthen its allies: buying their oil, transferring its technologies and selling huge amounts of state-of-the-art weapons to the Emirates and to Saudi Arabia. It has even resumed arms sale to Bahrain. What America, and its European allies, have not been able to do is stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear goals. Should Tehran achieve them, it would be a whole new game. And so, deep down, many a Gulf state dreams of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites which would free them – at least temporarily – of the threat.
On the other hand, it is hard to see what could save the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, from a mass uprising in the name of democracy.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt.