Riyadh’s elusive quest for Gulf integration

By Ayham Kamel The recent failure of Saudi King Abdullah’s proposal to turn the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a confederation of states illustrates Riyadh’s recurring inability to integrate Gulf nations into a counterweight against Iran. As wary as the Gulf states are about Iran’s influence, they aren’t ready to turn any of their independence ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/GettyImages
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/GettyImages
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/GettyImages

By Ayham Kamel

The recent failure of Saudi King Abdullah's proposal to turn the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a confederation of states illustrates Riyadh's recurring inability to integrate Gulf nations into a counterweight against Iran. As wary as the Gulf states are about Iran's influence, they aren't ready to turn any of their independence over to Riyadh. It looks increasingly likely, however, that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will establish a mini-confederation of Sunni-ruled states, an alliance that is sure to make Shia Iran uneasy. Heightened sectarian tension and the Gulf states' continued reliance on the US security umbrella will, in turn, make it difficult for the US and other Western powers to disengage from the region.

By Ayham Kamel

The recent failure of Saudi King Abdullah’s proposal to turn the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a confederation of states illustrates Riyadh’s recurring inability to integrate Gulf nations into a counterweight against Iran. As wary as the Gulf states are about Iran’s influence, they aren’t ready to turn any of their independence over to Riyadh. It looks increasingly likely, however, that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will establish a mini-confederation of Sunni-ruled states, an alliance that is sure to make Shia Iran uneasy. Heightened sectarian tension and the Gulf states’ continued reliance on the US security umbrella will, in turn, make it difficult for the US and other Western powers to disengage from the region.

Abdullah had originally proposed a political union for the GCC, but stepped back in response to negative reactions from fellow Gulf states. Saudi Arabia then pushed for a less ambitious confederation at last week’s GCC summit in Riyadh, but even that was anathema to other Gulf states. Both in private and public meetings, GCC leaders had expressed deep reservations about an immediate and broader process of creating a political union. This led Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Saud al Faisal, to clarify that the new framework for integration would preserve sovereignty over domestic issues. Still, there was no traction.

Riyadh and Tehran could not espouse more different ideals, but Gulf states fear Saudi Arabia’s Sunni dominance as much as Iran’s power. The rulers of Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, and Oman have built the foundations of their polities on the principle of remaining independent from Riyadh. In the past 40 years, they sought to reinforce their independence by developing security pacts with Western powers and pursuing policies that distinguish them from Saudi Arabia. Even Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah, the father of the GCC proposal in the 1980’s, is not particularly enthusiastic about the trajectory of Saudi Arabia’s union plan. The Arab Spring and shared perception of Iran’s aggressive intent are creating a new environment, but common fears will probably not translate into the creation of a common polity.

In the meantime, it is increasingly likely that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will establish a mini-confederation. While formally labeled as a GCC union, there are few indications that other states are currently interested in joining under the new structure. Riyadh has long contemplated a union with the al Khalifa regime as a means to resolving the perceived problem of Bahrain’s Shia majority. Saudi Arabia continues to believe that Bahrain represents a strategic challenge to the kingdom, and a collapse of the al Khalifa ruling family could prompt an uprising in Saudi Arabia’s oil rich Eastern Province where the Shia population is believed to represent a solid majority. There is an emerging realization in the palaces of the al Saud that Bahrain’s political challenges are here to stay and that a proactive policy to contain threats from the small gulf island is more of a necessity than a choice.

Last year’s uprising in Bahrain prompted Saudi Arabia to reassess its strategy. Despite the Bahrain regime’s uncompromising stance with the Shia population, Saudi Arabia still worries about the long-term stability of its Sunni allies. These worries are reinforced by Saudi suspicion of active Iranian interference in Bahrain. Last month’s visit by Iran’s president to Abu Musa, the first by a head of state to an island claimed by both Iran and the UAE, increased Saudi fears of Iran’s disruptive role in the region. Riyadh probably believes that visit signals Iran’s willingness to infringe on the internal affairs of Gulf countries and that Tehran could once again claim that Bahrain is part of its historical territories.

A Saudi Arabia-Bahrain confederation would do little more than formalize Riyadh’s leverage in Bahrain’s affairs. Most importantly, a confederation would almost definitively put an end to prospects of a negotiated compromise with Bahrain’s Shia population. Iran would consider the mini-confederation as Saudi Arabia’s de facto annexation of Bahrain, and would feel that it needs to be more proactive in confronting Sunni monarchies in the Gulf. Meanwhile, the failure of the broader confederation means that other Gulf states must continue to rely on the US security umbrella. None of this fits nicely with US aspirations to extricate itself from the region, or with hopes for a calmer oil market.

Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Middle East and North Africa practice.

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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