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Business as Usual in the Persian Gulf: Results from the GCC Annual Summit

INSS Insight No. 152

The agenda of the Gulf Cooperation Council's thirtieth annual summit, which ended last week in Kuwait, was particularly ambitious. Among the topics on the table were establishment of a joint economic council and connection of the inter-state electrical grids and railways. However, the credit crisis in Dubai, the ongoing warfare on the Saudi-Yemeni border, and Iran's developing nuclear program and its negative involvement in the region - challenges that make it difficult for the states to adopt a uniform security and foreign policy yet more than ever require them to overcome the disagreements and rivalries - weighed down the discussions.

Despite the fact that cooperation seems more important than ever in light of the increased threats in the Gulf region, it remains a theoretical concept only. In fact, this has been the case since 1981 when Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE established the GCC. That year, the fear of revolutionary Iran and the spillover of the Iran-Iraq War into their own territories made these nations realize that they needed a framework for cooperation.

However, the establishment of the GCC stemmed not only from negative developments, but also from the nature of the regimes, their shared religion and roots, and previous cooperative processes meant to - as the nations declared in their founding charter - lay the foundations for overall integration.

The declarations of the heads of state before the most recent summit reflected the competing agendas and different priorities brought to the summit by each member state. Even the summary of the conference focused on the lowest common denominator: the repeated call for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and for the nuclear disarmament of the Middle East (including Israel), the expression of support for the position of the UAE on the issue of the three Gulf islands occupied by Iran, criticism of Israel's policies on the Palestinian question, a call to maintain Iraqi stability, and an expression of support for the government in Sana'a and for the right of Saudi Arabia to defend its sovereignty in the face of insurgent attacks.

In recent years, the nature of the threats faced by GCC member nations has changed. Radical Islam has become one of their internal challenges; other threats include the lack of Iraqi stability, the possible disintegration of the Yemeni nation, and above all, Iran's nuclear ambitions. Yet despite the severe threats, the Arab Gulf states have so far been unable to present a united stance on these central issues.

The lack of a united front regarding Iran was especially evident at the summit. Some states attempted to introduce specific reference to the nuclear issue, but the opposition of other member states resulted in no more than a weak call to make the Middle East a nuclear arms free zone. Thus while the nations might truly desire to coordinate their positions on the Iranian nuclear question and other issues, each continues to calculate its own balance of profits and losses.

Alongside the (usually private) expressions of concerns about Iran and demands regarding the nuclear issue on the part of some states, conciliatory declarations about Iran's right to nuclear energy for civilian purposes are also heard. It may be that this approach is motivated by uncertainty about America's continued commitment to their security. The nations are concerned that in certain scenarios, they may be left with a nuclear Iran on their own to cope, and this is what makes each nation adopt a different policy line.

Qatar and Oman, for example, do not view the severity of the threat from Iran to the same extent as the other nations, and prefer to appease Tehran as a way to contain its ambitions. Other states have voiced radically different stances, even if only behind closed doors. For example, just this week the Bahraini foreign minister singled out Iran's nuclear program as "the greatest threat to the region." These divergent positions, however, only perpetuate the GCC's weakness.

In addition to their respective approaches to threats, it is possible that Saudi Arabia's power and the imbalance between the nations are a stumbling block to cooperation, leading to more independence in security and foreign policy decision making and a propensity to act according to particularized interests. Thus even on "soft" issues such as adopting a common currency, the states find it difficult to work together. While Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain have ratified the agreement about a common currency, already in 2006 Oman announced that it would not be able to meet the threshold conditions, and in May of this year the UAE - the second e economy in the GCC - followed suit. The UAE attributed its reservations to an overly dominant Saudi Arabia, evidenced by the intention to situate the central bank in Riyadh.

The nations finally agreed on the appointment of a new secretary general for the organization (from Bahrain) to replace the current one (from Qatar) effective as of 2011, and formally started the work of the economic council, which is supposed to serve as the foundation first for the central bank and then for the common currency (without a binding schedule). Likewise, a decision was made to establish a military intervention force to provide a response to situations such as fighting the Houthi rebels. According to the declaration, this force is meant to serve as one of the main pillars supporting regional stability and security. It remains to be seen whether these ambitious decisions will in fact be carried out effectively or are destined to end up like their predecessors.

The Persian Gulf is a central front vis-à-vis the threats affecting the future of the Middle East and beyond, and current trends stand to increase its importance as a critical arena for regional security. While the Arab Gulf states have common interests when it comes to maintaining Iraqi territorial integrity, preventing Iran's drive for nuclear weapons, and containing Islamic terrorism and religious extremism in the area, each nation has a somewhat different perspective on what policy to adopt. The assumption that it would be easy for the Gulf states to reach a consensus on these issues because of their economic, governmental, and cultural similarity has not been borne out.

Rather, a closer look demonstrates that the GCC is a host for competing security interests and imbalances in wealth, internal stability, natural resources, and territory. The declarations accompanying every summit paying tribute to the common challenges, trust, and good neighborliness stand in complete contradiction to reality. Summit conferences are important in themselves as a stage on which to present the semblance of Arab unity, but they cannot replace the implementation of joint decisions or effective cooperation.

As the GCC approaches its 30th birthday, some observers point to the need for strengthening its institutions and introducing reforms into the decision making process. In this context, there was talk of establishing an internal court for conflict resolution and founding a joint parliament. However, even strengthening the organizational apparatus does not ensure a consensus on basic issues of national security, especially when accompanied by a basic lack of trust, historic hostility, inter-tribal rivalries, and territorial disputes.

Instead, organizational reform, comprehensive as it may be, is liable simply to add another layer of redundant bureaucracy. It is certainly not enough to bring about an essential change in the GCC's contribution to regional security. The latter will continue to be marginal unless an honest effort is made by the monarchs to let go of disagreements, stop hiding their heads in the desert sand, and strive to adopt joint security and foreign policy at a time it is most critically needed.

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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