GCC Debates Gulf Union

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Last December, Saudi Arabia proposed an expanded, tighter and stronger union for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Now, months later, high representatives of several Gulf states, as well as Jordan and Morocco, have met in Riyadh to discuss the idea. The Saudi proposal came during a time when instability in Bahrain seriously rattled the region’s Sunni rulers, who grew concerned that restive Shia populations could threaten their stability and supremacy.  This has led much of the commentary about the “union” to focus on Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the presumed first merger in a new GCC. The reaction to the proposal was mixed among GCC member states and received a serious pushback from Iran, the clear regional rival of the proposed union.

According to some news reports, “thousands of Iranians rallied Friday against plans for union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain…and an influential cleric denounced the idea as an ‘ill-fated plot’ that will never be tolerated by Muslims. In Bahrain, thousands of mainly Shiite also protested against the union outside the capital Manama….Tension between Iran and U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states has run high in recent months with Arab leaders accusing Tehran of fomenting Shiite Muslim unrest in Bahrain….The dispute worsened when Tehran denounced efforts by six Gulf Arab states at a summit earlier this week to forge [a] closer political and military union, largely to counter Iran’s growing regional power.”

However, Iranian objections to the plan received a cold shoulder by the Arab League, which called “on Tehran on Monday to halt what it described as a media campaign against Bahrain over a proposal for political and military union between Gulf Arab states….Riyadh’s initial goal appears to be a merger with Bahrain, where majority Shi’ites have been staging pro-democracy demonstrations targeting the Sunni Muslim ruling family for over a year. Bahraini leaders have been publicly receptive to union.”

According to the Lebanese Daily Star, ultimately, the GCC could only “agree to keep studying [the] union proposal…. Gulf leaders agreed Monday to allow more time for further discussions over a Saudi proposal to turn the six-nation council into a union likely to start with the kingdom and unrest-hit Bahrain. The leaders who met in Riyadh have instructed their foreign ministers to ‘continue studying the report of the special commission,’ Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said.”

Judging from the regional commentary and editorials, this was perhaps to be expected. While there is some support for the Saudi proposal among the GCC member-states, most observers still have reservations about how to implement the needed reforms and institutional changes.

Gulf News’ Francis Matthew believes “there are several challenges to this idea of a union, not least that the details have not been made clear….the Saudi foreign minister insisted this week that the proposed union should be for all GCC members, and not just for two (referring to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia)….But doubts have been expressed all round the GCC. For example, in February, Kuwait’s parliament speaker, Ahmad Al Saadoun, said that union between members of the GCC is unlikely, [due to] to differences in political systems….The GCC is a group of like-minded nations, who share a common heritage of Gulf culture. But they have not built the shared political structures that would allow the pooled sovereignty that is required to allow full political union to flourish.”

A similarly ambivalent message was expressed by Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, who, in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, cautioned: “While the proposed Gulf Union enjoys tremendous support at both the popular and official levels, this support does not obviate the need for sustained efforts to reach agreement on the practical modalities of this historical project. Work toward the Gulf Union is certain to continue until it becomes a reality, which should not be in the too distant future. There are of course some discordant voices that have raised doubts about the union’s value or even cast aspersions on its motives. Those noises are largely self-serving and come mostly from hard-core nationalists and extremists at the other side of the Gulf, which is expected.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Adel Al Toraifi offers a set of suggestions for making the Gulf Union a reality: “It seems there are opposing stances and legitimate questions regarding the Saudi call for a Gulf union, perhaps the most prominent of which is the debate around the mechanism or form of this planned union….the Gulf States want to achieve an idealistic image of a union without acknowledging the natural constraints of any large-scale, comprehensive project….If the Gulf States are serious about the union project, they should establish a defense union first, for this was, and still is, the primary motivation for cooperation between them, ever since the establishment of the GCC.”

Writing in support of the project and on “the power of unity” for Asharq Alawsat, Hussein Shobokshi also raises some concerns about the real challenges ahead: “The Gulf Union, if it is launched with conviction and without compromise, will be a quantum leap, not only in terms of form and name, but in terms of goals, hopes and ambitions, and we must take advantage of this historic political opportunity….The governments and people of the GCC have an important opportunity and a historic choice, and similar circumstances may not come again to achieve it. This opportunity must be used wisely to form a genuine union, as that is the ultimate goal.”

In another Asharq Alawsat op-ed, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed confesses he would be opposed to a Gulf Union should it force “Kuwait to abolish its parliamentary system and concept of political participation just to appease Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman. I would reject the proposal if it forces Bahrain or Dubai to implement Kuwaiti and Saudi regulations restricting social freedom, such as closing down cinemas or curbing tourism and hotel services….I think the political and social concerns regarding the establishment of the Gulf Union come from a lack of clarity around the proposed idea….Hence if we take the proposal from a positive frame of mind, we can understand that it does not aim to impose any system, nullify the character of any member state, or marginalize any ethnic group.”

Finally, Tehran Times’ Mohammad Farazmand sees nothing but realpolitik at play in the Saudi plan: “Saudi Arabia is the only government that is enthusiastically insisting on the establishment of such a union….The proposal shows that Riyadh is very concerned about the Arab revolutions and their potential impact on the balance of power in the region….Thus, the proposal for a Saudi-Bahrain union is viewed by many analysts as a continuation of the Saudi Arabian government’s intervention in Bahrain, which began in early 2011, to suppress the popular protests in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom. In other words, Saudi Arabia’s military intervention did not quell the uprising and the proposal for a union is another hasty decision meant to prevent Bahrain’s contagion from reaching the shores of Saudi Arabia.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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