By Cecilie Hellestveit
Ongoing efforts spear-headed by Saudi Arabia for a Union of Gulf States are encountering resistance in various capitals. Attempts to move the project forward in May stranded, largely due to sceptisism expressed by the smaller Gulf-countires. But negociations behind the scenes have alledgedly moved the deadlock forward, and efforts are renewed this month when Foreign Ministers of the six potentially incumbent Union members reconvene to discuss the plans.
In December 2011 Saudi Arabia proposed that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) should move “to the stage of unity in a single entity” . (See also the earlier blogg “Towards a Gulf Union” by Tora Yssen). In addition to Saudi Arabia, the proposed union includes the Sunni monarchies of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It could be denominated the Gulf Union of (mostly) Sunni Monarchies.
Reluctance by GCC-countries seems in part to be based on what such a union would imply for the smaller Gulf-States and their ability to excert influence in a union dictated and dominated by the Saudis. Saudi Arabia will likely become a giant within the union, and critical voices have branded the move as outright Saudi imperialism. In May, the United Arab Emirates in particular raised questions about whether closer cooperation would give too much power to Saudi Arabia, leading the GCC leaders to put the plan temporarily on hold.
But sceptisism also revolves around whether the Union will have its intended effects, implisitly questioning the ulterior motives with the Union. Although a process of integration in the GCC is no exceptional development, but to the contrary reflects a general tendency of integration of regional organisations of similar type and magnitude, it is nevertheless interpreted as a move undertaken for two specific purposes. The proposed Gulf Union is Saudia Arabia’s (and Bahrain’s) response to the perceived threat from Iran on the one hand, and it is a pre-emptive measure to reduce the threat from the popular uprisings in the Arab world on the other.
The proposal is seen as a bulwark against the growing influence of Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. The plan envisions a unified military and foreign policy across the Gulf Cooperation Council, which of course also includes Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. However, the intentions to forge a closer military and political union with other Gulf Countries risk exacerbating tensions with Iran. The smaller Gulf-states are located along the western shore of the Gulf, and Iran has unresolved territorial disputes with several incumbent union countries. Over the past six months, tensions have risen again in the dispute between Iran and the UAE – a country with overall friendly relations with Iran – concerning some tiny islands next to the Straight of Hormuz. A union would multiply the controversial issues and thereby also the flashpoints that could potentially increase tensions between (what would then be) one entity on each side of the Gulf. An integration of the GCC countries does not only hold the promise of stability.
A different but equally important rationale relates more directly to internal stability in the Peninsula. The proposal will provide the Saudi authorities with a golden opportunity to rearrange their internal affairs, giving it a shape and form that will work as a bulwark in case the tide of Arab uprisings should eventually reach the Peninsula in a more un-manageable shape and size. It will also enable the Saudis to surveil and control – and even direct – how the smaller Gulf-states respond to this challenge. Seen from Riadh, a unified and coordinated effort is necessary in order to prevent this destablizing threat from getting a foothold in any of the Gulf-countries. Saudi Arabias swift response to developments in Bahrain over the past year is but one illustration of how important it is for the Saudis to control developments in its neighbouring States. Reservations in small Gulf-states are strong based on uncertainty about how these Saudi considerations and interests will play out in practice.
Although some differences may have been overcome before the new round of talks, the Saudis (and Bahrain) have no easy task convincing the rest of the GCC to go along with their project for Arab Gulf unity.