Formally speaking, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a coherent alliance; but is it in fact so?
The six GCC states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman) have much in common: socioeconomic and political structures, political culture, and obsessions of security and threats. Although they differ in their perceptions of threats, the GCC states define security in a very narrow, one-dimensional way: as the status-quo continuity of the political regimes.
These common elements were the formal declared reasons behind formation of the GCC in 1981. Article 1 of the organization’s Basic Law explains that it was established as a result of the six states’ “peculiar relations [and] shared characteristics and systems, based upon the Islamic doctrine.” Article 4 declares the council’s final goal to be the complete unification of the six states.
In actuality, these motives for founding the GCC were soon forgotten, and the organization became almost exclusively security-oriented. This shift suggests that the council’s nature depends less on the inner workings of its members than on the vagaries of external circumstances. Further, the council’s history indicates that the common elements of the GCC states — what brought them together in the first place — have come to be sources of differences. All this matters to the United States because troubles in the GCC states could require another direct American military involvement.
We cover three main topics here: the circumstances that led to the council’s formation, differences among the GCC states that cause misunderstanding and possible conflict, and the various views of GCC states regarding external threats. The conclusion considers what steps need be taken for the GCC states to flourish.
The Persian Gulf region experienced no less than five profoundly important developments in the decade prior to the GCC’s formation in early 1981: the British withdrawal, the oil price revolution, the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iran-Iraq War.
British withdrawal. In 1971, Britain announced its intention to withdraw from east of Suez — including all of the Persian Gulf. In the American and Soviet view, this created a political vacuum; they responded by engaging in a wide-ranging competition, and the Gulf region became an arena in the cold war. Distrust become the name of the game. Washington considered the Gulf region vital to its interests and acted as the heir of Great Britain while Moscow attempted to gain a foothold through South Yemen and Oman.
Oil price revolution. After the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, crude oil prices began to escalate in a dramatic fashion, moving from $3.01 on October 1, 1973, to $5.19 on October 16, 1973, to $34.41 on November 1, 1980. As some of the largest oil producers, with the largest known oil reserves in the world, the future GCC states assumed a pivotal role in the world economy. Thus did six states with a combined population of approximately 13 million become crucial to the stability of the global economy and its political order.
Iranian revolution. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the movement that toppled the shah of Iran, creating (in the American view) another power vacuum in the Gulf. Iran had been seen as a buffer between the USSR and the Gulf, while the shah served as the region’s “policeman.” To keep the Soviets out of a rapidly changing area, Washington found it imperative to establish a new regional order. That the new Iranian leadership from the start declared its intention to export the Islamic Revolution to the whole Muslim world, and to the Gulf region in particular, made this American concern all the more urgent.
In the Gulf monarchies, the export of Iran’s revolution was seen as a severe security threat, and not incorrectly, for most of them have significant numbers of Twelver Shi`i citizens who found the revolution’s slogans especially attractive. The fall of the shah also cast doubt on the United States as a reliable ally, leaving the monarchs wary of too great dependence on a single external power.1 Perhaps this role had once been filled by Great Britain but could not be by the United States, and not under current circumstances. Operation Desert Storm improved this reputation slightly, but still the wariness remains in place.
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Before December 1979, Soviet troops stood more than 1,000 kilometers from the warm waters of the Gulf; in that month, the distance narrowed to 500 km., as Leonid Brezhnev sent them to save a communist regime in Afghanistan. This assault created a fear in the monarchies that no obstacles stood between Moscow and the Gulf, and made them more doubtful of Soviet intentions. The American reaction — helping the Afghan mujahidin defeat the Soviets — further inflamed anxieties in the region about the Gulf becoming an arena of struggle between the two superpowers, quite to its own detriment.
Immediately after the invasion, President Jimmy Carter declared Gulf security critical to American national interests and promised to defend the region: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. It will be repelled by use of any means necessary, including military force.” Any attempted Soviet penetration, in other words, would bring with it a direct great- power confrontation. The U.S. government then created the Rapid Deployment Force (later called the Central Command). Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher soon thereafter declared a readiness to participate in the force. But the Gulf states collectively refused to participate in Carter’s project: instead, they asserted self-responsibility by forming the GCC.
Iran-Iraq War. The Iraq-Iran War that began in September 1980 worried the Gulf monarchies and the West as even more of a threat to the region than the Soviet invasion. The West saw both parties to the war as enemies, for, different as they were, Islamic Iran and Ba`thist Iraq shared an intense antagonism to the West and had either clearly won the war, it would no doubt have sought to establish hegemony over the Gulf, thereby threatening vital Western interests. The West’s best strategy was to have the two parties exhaust each other. In contrast, the GCC states considered revolutionary Iran a greater potential threat, due to its radical Islamic ideology and its special appeal to Shi`is, and so backed Iraq. They did not favor a prolongation of the war, seeing this (correctly) as the spur for Iraq to build a huge military arsenal.
Forming the GCC
These five events came fast and hard within a single decade, moving the region from the periphery of world affairs to its very heart — and including it as a theater of the cold war as well. To take at least some control of their own fate, Arab states of the Gulf found they had to react collectively. Sensitivities and mistrust among the six still existed, but the perceived external threats, plus the internal repercussions, exceeded all other concerns. With the security and stability of the region at stake — and so the very legitimacy of the regimes — the GCC had to be formed.
On February 4, 1981, the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates signed a declaration bringing the Gulf Cooperation Council into existence. A few months later, on May 25, 1981, the leaders of the six states signed The Basic Law of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (its constitution), which calls on the members to cooperate in all fields, with the eventual goal of political unification.
This grand talk notwithstanding, security concerns were the main cfor forming the organization. As a result, the GCC’s efficacy depends on the fear of threats. In times of tranquillity, tensions among the GCC states grow; in times of turmoil, these disappear. As the well- known Arabic proverb puts it, “I and my brother against my cousin, and I and my cousin against the stranger.” The two-year period between the Iraq- Iran War and the invasion of Kuwait (August 1988 to August 1990), when threats receded, saw the council lose importance. In sum, the GCC is purely a security institution; the rest is window-dressing.
Sensitivities and Mistrusts
Most GCC countries became sovereign states only after the British withdrawal of 1971, following which they enjoyed an economic boom that permitted them to reach affluence without passing through the throes of economic development. The combination of recent independence and financial power created a range of tensions within and among the GCC states. Ideally, the Council should encourage concession and counterconcession among members within a framework of common objectives and interests. But this has not been the case: tense national feelings and delicate sensitivities obstruct GCC coherence. Collective efforts have accomplished very little; virtually all the GCC’s achievements have been attained through bilateral agreements. In particular, bilateral agreements have solved several border disputes, the most threatening problem within the GCC — such as those between Saudi Arabia and both Oman and the UAE.
Drawing on a phrase of Alexis de Tocqueville, what is missing from the GCC is the art of “working together.” Requiring, as it does, that political decisions require unanimity, is a sure way to stymie a collective organization. That the elites mistrust each other adds a second level to the problem; indeed, almost every GCC state sees another state as a potential threat. Small states fear larger ones. The members of one dynasty belong to this tribe and that one to that tribe — and in the desert, tribal relationships were based not on recognizable territories with fixed border lines but on pure, rapidly shifting power relationships. The mix of this historical background with the modern state gives the Arabian Peninsula much of its singularity. The oil boom, by allowing states to disburse oil wealth instead of taking the usual paths to modernization, had the effect of exacerbating this overlap of tradition and modernity. For example, it created interest groups that fear any sort of cooperation among the six; this phenomenon is most observable in Oman and in some components of the UAE.
The concept of a nation-state remains utterly alien to the region though Saudi Arabia, which came into existence through military campaigns, and so depended more on direct participation of its citizens, is more of a nation than the other GCC states, which came into existence as a consequence of the British withdrawal in 1971. Kuwait has the most highly developed political institutions. Oman has an acute sense of history.
Border disputes have become the most threatening factor within the GCC. Borders have special importance in the Gulf region, where huge pools of oil might lie below any piece of land or water, no matter how remote. Thus, any slight reduction in size could significantly harm a state’s finances. Should the border follow colonial lines, historic dynastic domains, tribal areas controlled by a certain dynasty, bilateral agreements between leaders prior to independence, or de facto circumstances at a certain moment? In contrast to the Organization of African Unity, which requires members to accept the colonial borders — no matter how implausible — to preempt potential disagreements, the GCC has no such rule.
External Threat Perceptions
Westerners, and Americans in particular, see Iran and Iraq as the major, or even the sole, external threats to the Gulf region.5 In the GCC states, quite different views of the external threat exist; as usual, there is no common view to the GCC as a whole, but individual ones to each state. Overall, the GCC states suffer from few immediate or direct external threats. As Gregory Gause observed in 1995: “By a conventional definition of security, that is to say protection from foreign military attack, the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are more secure than any time in their independent existence.”
Saudi Arabia. With 70 percent of the GCC nationals and 88 percent of its total land area, Saudi Arabia is the great power of the GCC. The well- being of the whole region depends on its security and stability. Threats to Saudi Arabia are thereby synonymous with threats to the GCC itself.
Saudi Arabia has no urgent potential external threats, particularly since the waning of the Iranian Revolution and the defeat of Saddam Husayn. Iran had been a threat through the 1980s as it attempted to export a revolutionary ideology that had some appeal to Saudis, and especially the 8-10 percent of the Saudi population that is Shi`i. A settlement in 1993 between the regime and Shi`i dissidents largely halted the potential Iranian interference, though Tehran can still intervene in Saudi affairs through indirect means — by meddling in the domestic affairs of other GCC states. Iraq and Yemen had been considered the major external threats, but are less so with the defeat of Iraq in Operation Desert Storm and the Saudi resolution of border disputes with Yemen.
With these threats dissipated, the Saudi political elite sees American pressure to carry out political and economic reform as the major external threat to their country. Unlike other GCC states, Saudi Arabia was established on the basis of a puritanical religious political movement. Religion and politics are intertwined, and Western pressure is looked upon as potentially devastating to society and polity alike. The Saudi elite approaches very cautiously any development, external or internal, that would drastically change its own traditional role.
Putting the relationship between society and polity in Saudi Arabia in the form of an equation, it goes as follows: the state’s political hegemony + the elite’s traditional role = the society’s welfare. Diminish the left side and the right goes down too, and vice versa.
Kuwait. Prior to the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Kuwaitis had doubts about the intentions of some GCC states, particularly Saudi Arabia, but the GCC solidarity with Kuwait during the occupation eliminated almost all mistrust. Today, Iraq is the only major external threat, and it endangers not just the regime but the very existence of the state. Iraq has become an obsession to Kuwaitis, elites and average inhabitants alike. Iran, on the other hand, no longer seems to be treated as a potential external threat. Kuwaitis, and especially the 25 percent of them who are Shi`i, find the Iranian revolution less appealing after the Iraqi invasion, an event that unified Kuwaitis and created a national consensus on the legitimacy of the regime.
Qatar. Qatar was long considered an echo of Saudi Arabia in foreign policy, oil policy, and domestic conditions, owing to the two countries’ many social and ideological similarities. However, the accession of a younger generation in the palace coup of June 1995 brought with it a policy resentful of Saudi Arabia (for taking Qatar for granted and siding with Bahrain in a territorial dispute). All the other GCC states consider Qatar’s new foreign policy provocative. The specifics appear to be more a justification than a cause; the real problem, it seems, lies in a Qatari resentment of the Saudi role as the big brother; a new generation, replete with enthusiasm and “modern” national feelings, is asserting its place. The elderly generation usually dealt with tensions by the traditional means, such as personal visits or asking for generosity. Such ways worked beautifully to solve even the most disruptive problems, far away from “m” political negotiations. In contrast, while the new generation may have some modern skills, it lacks both a modern mentality and familiarity with traditional experiences, so it flounders between the two.
Oman. Oman appears not to perceive an external threat. Sultan Qabus Bin Sa`id follows a “balanced policy” that aims not to provoke anyone. He attempts fully to resolve border problems with neighbors and normalize relations with all parties, including Iran, Iraq, and Israel. Although this appears similar to Qatar’s foreign policy, there is a major difference: Omani policies are predictable and balanced, and so do not antagonize the other council states.
Bahrain. Iran is Bahrain’s major external threat, primarily through its interference in Bahraini domestic affairs. With some 70 percent of Bahraini citizens being Shi`i, the mullahs in Tehran have a particularly strong appeal in this small island country. Bahrain’s Shi`is are more affected by harsh economic conditions than other segments of society, increasing their openness to the revolutionary rhetoric coming from Iran. The disturbances of recent months were but one example of the effects of deprivation plus outside ideological agitation. According to the Bahraini authorities, Tehran sought not only to mobilize the Shi`a population against the status quo but to gain power on the island through violence. Further, although Iran formally renounced its territorial claims in Bahrain in 1970, political indicators suggest that it will never truly renounce such a claim.
Bahrain has a tense relationship with Qatar, to the point that the two countries have almost come to blows over on several occasions. Their territorial disagreement reflects historic differences between the countries’ governing dynasties. Bahrainis also fear that Qatar is becoming Iran’s stalking horse in the GCC, adopting positions that could one day harm Bahrain in a crisis.
The UAE. Iranian expansionism is the most worrisome external threat. While Tehran has no apparent ambitions in the Emirates itself, and its revolutionary agitation has no appeal in Emirati society, it seeks a hegemonic role in the Gulf, and this led it to occupy the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs, previously part of Al-Sharjah, a component emirate of the UAE. This dispute will likely be resolved through negotiation; military confrontation is a remote possibility. In contrast, India and Pakistan could pose a profound threat to the Emirates, for citizens of those two countries make up more than 50 percent of the UAE population. New Delhi or Islamabad might interfere in the domestic affairs of the Emirates by calling on their nationals to claim their full rights, as expressed by the U.N. Human Rights Declaration, or to go on strike if state-to-state relations deteriorate. Such steps would paralyze the whole state, which would be forced to do what those outside powers demand.
If the GCC states face no major external threats, they do have significant internal problems. All of them have serious economic difficulties, due to a combination of lowered oil prices, lavish and irrational governmental spending (on defense and security in particular), unsound economic arrangements, and growing indebtedness. As a result, standards of living are in decline.
Combined with the high rate of foreign employment, these economic conditions create social problems: growing unemployment, escalating crime, and emerging terrorism. These may have political consequences: more discontent, an incapacity by the state to assimilate new social elements, an expanding ideological diversity, more claims for political participation, and growing pressure for drastic reforms.
Individual GCC states have their own problems too. Saudi Arabia has difficulties accepting modern political institutions, with economic rationalization, and with social integration. Kuwait has the problem of the biduns (literally, “withouts”), individuals whose families have long lived in Kuwait and who serve in every sector of the society and state, but who do not enjoy Kuwaiti or any other citizenship. Bahrain has an aggravated level of unemployment among nationals, difficult economic conditions, and a growing sectarian issue. The UAE has a problem of too many foreigners and a weak state structure.
Improving the GCC
The best policy for deterring external threats is to eliminate internal problems. Building huge armies with massive arsenals is not enough to guarantee against external dangers, nor does it construct a long- lasting stability if the country itself is not stable. Russian military strength prior to World War I did not prevent the Bolshevik Revolution; nor did a huge arsenal prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. The shah of Iran could not fend off revolution with a sophisticated and modern defense system or security apparatus. In the long term, coercion alone does not ensure regime stability.
This applies to the GCC as well, where stability and security cannot be achieved through the mere accumulation of weapons or the ascendance of the security apparatus. Saudi Arabia must develop political institutions and legal structures, and rationalize its economy. Kuwait must define and implement a flexible concept of citizenship. Bahrain cannot have a stable future if its economic and sectarian problems became endemic. The UAE must find plausible solutions to the population imbalance and strengthen federal institutions.
The most important step toward solving the GCC’s internal troubles — and also toward deterring its external threats — lies in transforming it into a politically unified federal state. This federal state could construct a wide framework for free labor and capital movements, which would go far toward reducing the influx of foreign labor and balance the population in countries like UAE by allowing the national surplus labor in countries like Bahrain to seek jobs held by foreign labor.
Secondly, Yemen should have a place in the GCC, either by becoming a member or associating in some other arrangement, for, as a major state in the vicinity, it should not be left isolated. Such isolation encourages Yemen to seek arrangements outside the Gulf region, and those could threaten GCC security; Yemen’s membership in the Iraqi-sponsored “Arab Cooperation Council” prior to the Kuwait War shows what mischief this can cause. Integration would also bring the Yemeni labor force to the GCC states, where it is most needed.
Thirdly, the GCC states should work out a collective agreement that accepts the current boundaries. Without such an agreement, the GCC could explode from internal differences.
- Abdullah al-Ashal, Al-Itar al-Qanuni wa’s-Siyasi li’l-Majlis at-Ta`awun al-Khaliji (Riyadh: n.p., 1983), p. 77.
- Gulf Center for Arab Studies, The Political Report, Mar. 1981, p. 22.
- State of the Union address, Jan. 23, 1980.
- Ibid., pp. 16-17.
- This is the outlook, for example, in Robert E. Hunter, ed., The United States and the New Middle East: Strategic Perspective after the Persian Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1992); and in Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, Domestic Politics and Territorial Disputes in the Gulf (Abu Dhabi: International Institute for Strategic Studies, the IISS Regional Security Conference, June 13-16, 1993.
- F. Gregory Gause III, “The Political Economy of National Security in the GCC States,” paper presented at the Gulf-2000 conference, Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, Abu Dhabi, Mar. 27-29, 1995, p. 1.
- See Turki al-Hamad, “Political Order in Changing Societies, Saudi Arabia: Modernization in a Traditional Context,” an unpublished dissertation presented to the University of Southern California, Jan. 1985. See also Peter W. Wilson and Douglas F. Graham, Saudi Arabia: The Coming Storm (Ar, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1994), chaps. 2, 5, 6.