Saudi and Gulf leaders held discussions in Riyadh this week on proposed moves toward greater unity. The meeting, however, revealed little genuine enthusiasm for such a project outside of Saudi Arabia itself and beleaguered Bahrain.
But while it is unlikely that proposals for greater Gulf unity will bear fruit, the very fact that they are being raised at all is significant. It reflects two things: firstly, the overriding concerns felt by Saudi Arabia regarding Iranian ambitions in the Gulf area and beyond; and secondly, the Saudi conviction since the Arab Spring that the West and the US cannot be relied upon and that therefore the Gulf monarchies themselves must organize – in their own neighborhood as well as outside it – to defend their interests.
The meeting of the 14th Gulf Cooperation Council Advisory Summit in Riyadh this week had been built up by the Saudi and Bahraini media as an important event. Statements by senior officials suggested that the two countries might announce a union at the summit, with other member states to join the union later. In the end, however, this did not take place.
Instead, leaders and representatives of the six GCC member states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) followed the classic method that countries adopt when they want to create the illusion of progress where none has actually occurred: they formed a committee and agreed to keep talking.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Feisal told reporters after the Riyadh meeting that a commission of foreign ministers of GCC countries, which will examine the details of forming a Gulf union, has been formed. The committee will then present its findings to another gathering of GCC leaders, which will take place in December.
The failure to produce anything more concrete than this is an indication that Arab monarchies suffer from the same problems as Arab republics when it comes to attempts to unify.
Most importantly, mutual suspicion between political elites tends to militate against closer ties. In the case of the Gulf, even countries that share concerns about Iran tend to suspect Saudi motives and to see little reason for greater integration.
Saudi Arabia itself and Bahrain are the most exercised about the Iranian threat; in the case of Shia-majority Bahrain, this is because of the current Iran-supported uprising taking place in the country.
Kuwait has some less urgent concerns regarding the Iranians, because of the former’s large Shia minority.
Qatar, meanwhile, has close ties to Iran, though the two countries are on opposite sides over the Syrian revolution.
These countries are also wary of Saudi motives, and have a lukewarm attitude toward the proposed union.
The United Arab Emirates has an ongoing feud with Iran over three disputed islands in the Gulf – Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb. But the UAE too shows no great desire for a Gulf union.
Along with Oman, which is the least enthusiastic of all, the UAE was not even represented by its leader at the Riyadh summit.
Saudi Arabia is by far the largest and most powerful of the GCC member states. Any Gulf union would inevitably be dominated by Riyadh.
Other GCC members apart from Bahrain, meanwhile, appear quite content with the current level of integration as afforded by the GCC itself.
The Saudis want to establish a new decision-making body in Riyadh to coordinate military, economic and political activity by the member states.
For Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, the creation of such a body would mean conceding aspects of sovereignty for no real gain.
The tacit opposition of some member states to the Gulf union idea is likely to prevent it from becoming a reality in the near future. Greater Saudi- Bahraini cooperation in the face of the Iranian threat, however, is set to continue.
The Iranians are reacting to growing Saudi-Bahrain ties with heightened rhetoric. Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, said following the summit that if Bahrain would be united with any country, it would be Iran. A member of the parliament, Hussein Ali Shahriari, referred to Bahrain as Iran’s “14th province.”
Bahrain called in the Iranian charge d’affaires in Manama to express its disapproval of Larijani’s statement.
The pro-active Saudi steps in the face of Iranian ambitions in the Gulf and the broader Middle East are a very notable byproduct of the current regional turmoil. Saudi Arabia is simultaneously a Western-aligned state, an opponent of democracy and a champion of Sunni Islam (and Sunni Islamism). As the largest oil-producing Arab state in the area, it is also the main target of the Iranian attempt to replace the US as the guarantor of Gulf security – Tehran’s central foreign policy goal.
The Saudis were deeply dismayed at the US’s apparent abandonment of clients of long standing in Tunisia and Egypt last year. The lesson they have learned from this is that they will need to rely on themselves and like-minded regimes.
The incursion by the Peninsular Shield Force into Bahrain last March was the first practical product of this policy. Moves to draw Jordan and Morocco toward the GCC and, more substantively, to aid Sunni rebels in Syria are additional elements of the Saudi attempt to both turn back Iranian influence and preserve monarchical power in the region.
Unfortunately for the Saudis, it appears that their neighbors have a less single-minded or urgent perception of affairs.
For them, avoiding the Saudi embrace seems no less important than resisting the Iranian threat.
This article was also published in the Jerusalem Post.