The Middle East Channel

Gulf disunion

Gulf disunion

The leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait) will meet in May to discuss creating a closer federal unit among the states. The idea of closer integration was first put forward in December 2011 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and recently fleshed out in a speech in the name of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. The potential benefits of creating a $1.4 trillion economic area of 42 million people were championed, as were the potential benefits of close cooperation and coordination in defense and security policy. While all this makes sense superficially, it is all but impossible to see how a meaningful GCC Union could take place.

In light of the Arab Spring and its ramifications in the Gulf region, it is possible to understand the desire in Saudi Arabia to engage in such a union. Specifically, Bahrain has been wracked with protest since February 2011. Today, demonstrations are sporadic but ongoing while protesters continue to be killed and injured, police are increasingly being targeted in retaliation, and Bahrain’s Formula One jamboree in mid-April was severely tarnished. The underlying concerns in Bahrain for both the al Khalifa elite and their fraternal al Saud allies are that the protests are somehow being stoked and supported by Iran, using Bahrain’s majority Shiite population to "export the Revolution." While little if any evidence can be found backing up such a claim (see Bassiouni’s report) this is nevertheless the prevalent fear in Riyadh and Manama. Hence Saudi Arabia taking the startling step of sending in several thousand Saudi troops and a variety of armaments into Bahrain as a show of defiant support in March 2011. This action to which the UAE also contributed troops, while Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman mostly obfuscated, was taken under the fig-leaf of a "GCC Peninsula Shield" force action; a moribund pan-GCC force originating from 1984 that has never possessed an ounce of efficacy.

Some kind of Saudi-Bahraini Union is being discussed as a precursor to a wider GCC Union. Such a bilateral union would normalize the Saudi-led military action in Bahrain to potentially pave the way for the permanent stationing of "GCC" troops in Bahrain, while signaling the death knell for any political resolution with Riyadh having a de jure say over such outcomes as opposed to its already potent de facto sway.

Some in the al Khalifa elite appear to be willing to be subsumed into such a union and this is a startling reflection of their heightened concerns. Given the lack of oil and gas resources in Bahrain, the exodus of European banks seriously damaging confidence in this key industry, the profound socio-economic problems that lie mostly unacknowledged at the root of Bahrain’s political troubles, and the hardening political crisis, there are concerns as to Bahrain’s longer term viability as an independent economic entity. Saudi Arabia already gives Bahrain’s elite huge subsidies and support and there is no sign that this could be reversed soon. From the al Khalifa perspective, therefore, if those in Riyadh are not willing to simply continue the economic support without deeper political concessions, with no end in sight to the political and economic crisis, securing guaranteed long-term backing from Riyadh to maintain the status quo may seem sensible.

Overall, while Saudi Arabia taking on Bahrain as a loss-making, politically unstable appendage with a majority Shiite population may seem to be unattractive, it is preferable to the alternative. They could conversely see the slow implosion of a fellow Sunni monarchy and the potential ascendance to power of the Shiites next door to Saudi’s Eastern province, which contains not only a majority-Shiite Saudi population but also most of the kingdom’s oil fields and facilities.

As for a wider GCC Union, Saudi Arabia has been trying and mostly failing to engender a united GCC line toward Iran. Oman, Dubai, and particularly Qatar have frequently broken rank and pursued more conciliatory policies to Riyadh’s dismay. Such a union, which may include some provision for a joint foreign policy along the European Union model, may be seen in Riyadh as a way to further the central Saudi goal of uniting against Iran.

Yet as hard as Riyadh might push for a Gulf Union as a means of achieving some kind of GCC foreign policy, expect Qatar, for one, to push equally hard in the opposite direction. The current Qatari elite came to power in 1995. It took 13 years with the return of the Saudi ambassador to Doha in 2008 after leaving in 2003 for Riyadh to realize that Qatar was a sovereign country with an independent foreign policy. Such hard-won independence will not be surrendered lightly, especially considering Qatar’s burgeoning, central role across the wider Middle East.

Moreover, what would Qatar, the UAE, or Kuwait, for example, gain from a Gulf Union? Qatar is at the apex of its international popularity currently and is per capita the richest country on earth. Surrendering powers to a union would seem to benefit Doha in no way whatsoever.

It is the same for the UAE. Though they are currently engaged in a battle with mostly non-existent dangerous "Islamist" elements within society, a topic on which they would likely appreciate some rhetorical back-up from neighboring states, the overall abdication of some autonomy would not suit the UAE. Indeed, the prime reason the UAE pulled out of the GCC single currency is that Abu Dhabi’s elite could not countenance the notion of the central bank being in Riyadh — hardly a communally spirited decision.

Kuwait is mired in its own problems with its perennially fractious parliament. The only sure thing about any GCC Union for Kuwait is that it would complicate and exacerbate its already Gordian parliamentary problems.

Oman, as a poorer relation would likely welcome some closer integration and see it as a hedge against future economic instability and Bahrain’s logic, looking down the barrel of long-term political instability and resultant economic dysfunction, is the same.

Another fundamental problem with any alliance is that it would dominated by Saudi Arabia. Geographically Saudi Arabia is more than five times as large as all other GCC States together and its population is around 10 million greater. For decades, geopolitically, Saudi Arabia has been used to leading not only the Gulf region, but arguably the wider Middle East and Muslim world. This combination of raw facts and Saudi’s historical position mandates, from Riyadh’s perspective, that it would "naturally" take the lead in any such union. And this will be profoundly unacceptable to Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE all of whom have forged independent paths in recent years.

Moreover, within recent memory each state can think back to decidedly unfriendly actions and policies from Saudi Arabia. For the UAE there have been frequent disputes with Saudi Arabia over its borders, which spill out and adversely affect border traffic between the two countries. In 2011 a UAE and a Saudi patrol boat exchanged fire, injuring the Saudi sailors who surrendered and were subsequently repatriated to the kingdom. While this was an isolated incident, it hints at wider, deeper bilateral concerns.

Qatar has long had rocky relations with Saudi Arabia. In the early 1990s Saudi Arabia refused to allow Qatar to pipe its gas to the UAE and to Kuwait; there were border skirmishes in 1992 and 1994; Saudi Arabia allegedly sponsored a counter-coup against Emir Hamad al Thani in 1996; Al Jazeera’s coverage of regional issues has long angered Riyadh; and Qatar’s independent foreign policy also sits poorly with those in power in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it is only recently that relations have picked up once more but the previous decade’s worth of lamentable relations have not been forgotten.

In Kuwait not only is Saudi Arabia’s intransigence blocking the proposed pipe for gas from Qatar remembered, but also there is little desire to join together. As the speaker of Kuwait’s Parliament, Ahmed al Saadoun, pointedly commented in February, such a union would be difficult for Kuwait to join "with countries whose prisons are full of thousands who are guilty of speaking their minds."

Lastly, the notion that a Gulf Union might work because the peoples of the Arab Gulf region tend to come from similar religious, historical, social, and familial backgrounds logically makes sense, but so too could the opposite conclusion be drawn. That is precisely the lack of differentiation between a Saudi and an Emirati and a Qatari that will lead these modern day states to resolutely maintain these borders as a means of differentiating themselves from a GCC amalgam identity. Until there is a desire to fundamentally eschew borders in the Gulf region and do away with an Emirati identity in favor of a generic Gulf identity, without a pressing need to join together, a Gulf Union will not be supported.

In the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the Gulf States first came together to form a union: the 1981 Gulf Cooperation Council. It took this seemingly real, imminent, deeply resonant threat from Iran to force them together and even then, the GCC Peninsula Shield force was never effective.

While today those in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see a deep and concerning conflagration with Iran emerging, with Tehran’s tentacles allegedly to be found in Bahrain, Iraq, and the Levant according to the orthodoxy, there are key obstacles in the way to deeper security cooperation. Despite the procurement of hundreds of billions of dollars of equipment in recent years, the stories of chronic interoperability issues within armed forces themselves let alone across national armies or navies are legion. Saudi Arabia itself has four forces: its traditional army, navy, and air force, and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (an entire fourth force nominally to protect the king). Yet it is a case of never the twain shall meet and these forces are as much rivals with little if any cross-communication and training as they are united under the Saudi banner.

Yet the core reason why there will be no meaningful security or military cooperation is that the United States guarantees the security in the Gulf. Difficult decisions to subsume personal and state rivalries, to overcome ingrained problems with joint training and even joined up procurement can be avoided with a U.S. security umbrella. Indeed it may be instructive to note that Bahrain, the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is the only Gulf country seriously considering such a union and is also the only Gulf country about which there has been a debate recently about the removal of U.S. forces. Only when America, like the Ottomans, and the British before them, finally leave the Gulf will the Gulf States be truly forced to come to terms with their own security situation and will potentially countenance subsuming their national proclivities for a collective alliance.

David Roberts is the Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute for Security and Defence Studies in Qatar.