Beirut: Like several of its alliance partners within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia displayed significant allergies to the preponderance of Iranian muscle, which were frequently displayed through various military exercises in Gulf waters, and that further solidified King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz’s resolve to defend the Arabian Peninsula.
Though GCC states were unable to speak with a single voice on identifying and agreeing on the premier external security threat to the region, which routinely belittled Arab Gulf regimes as nothing more than Western lackeys and unanimously referred to the GCC as the PGCC [Persian GCC], an epithet that spoke volumes, King Abdullah has now urged the bloc to move from cooperation to full unity. What were the reasons behind this epochal goal?
To be sure, rulers who gathered in Riyadh for their December 2011 Summit were surprised by the call to form a stronger union, which clearly highlighted a renewed “will to power” that was best articulated by the Saudi monarch’s carefully weighed phrase to move the GCC from a mere regional alliance into a “union within a single entity.” Since such a goal explicitly focused on both regional as well as internal security concerns that affected each member-state, everyone realised that the move required significantly beefed up political as well as military capabilities. Notwithstanding their admiration of the Saudi, the other five heads-of-state understood their asymmetrical relationships, as most were dependent on Riyadh though each possessed different capabilities and took on different commitments. While correctly identified by the London Economist when the GCC was created in 1981 as the “Five + One” organisation, the imbalance granted Saudi Arabia considerable influence over the five smaller states, even if successive monarchs in all six countries opted for painstakingly slow reforms.
Riyadh attempted, albeit with relative success, to impose its own views on internal, regional and international threats. At the time, the goal was to create a more homogenous organisation, though over time a good deal of resistance arose towards that objective. Naturally, and notwithstanding unified public pronouncements, the five smaller GCC member states rejected the prevalence of Saudi Arabia within the organisation, perceiving Riyadh as a hegemon. It was important to underline that while fear of the Saudi preponderance was not only to resist security integration, but also to build firewalls against stricter socio-political norms that distinguished several countries from Saudi Arabia. Ironically, and while all GCC states were bound by their Charter to work towards the goal of further integration culminating in the eventual achievement of political unity, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE opted to go their own separate ways. Even Oman and Bahrain preferred to develop their distinct political institutions, and it remained to be determined how Jordan or Morocco would integrate if the two monarchies joined the GCC in time.
Under the circumstances, what does Riyadh really want, and can it persuade alliance partners to follow its lead?
For starters, as foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal, declared a few weeks ago after he handed out the Saudi draft plan for the union to GCC foreign ministers, “I am hoping that the six countries will unite in the next meeting.” Time was thus of the essence given dramatic regional developments from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Whether the rush highlighted the kingdom’s “continuing scramble — with diplomacy, money and even arms — to preserve or rebuild what it can of the old regional order in the wake of the Arab uprisings,” was mere speculation. Without denying that Riyadh feared a contagion of the popular revolts that are literally changing the Arab world, there can be no doubts that what motivated the Saudi government was Iran’s regional assertiveness and, at least to date, the GCC states’ inabilities to prevent systematic interferences.
An equally plausible reason for Riyadh’s determination was to strengthen its hand vis-a-vis putative sectarian divisions that promoted Sunni-Shiite clashes. Tehran accused Riyadh of supporting Sunni opposition groups in Syria, which came on top of the GCC military intervention last spring on behalf of the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, although Iranian backing of various Shiite parties in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere illustrated parallel practices.
Against the plethora of threats and in the aftermath of the 2003 war for Iraq, Riyadh assumed a degree of seriousness and wished to further empower the GCC, which was noticeably absent at its onset. Even if GCC rulers planned for a tighter alliance long before the late 2010/early 2011 Arab uprisings, they now confronted a set of new realities that persuaded them to act. Simply stated, GCC rulers could no longer afford to sit on the fence, and it seems that King Abdullah has mustered the courage to exercise his “will-to-power” to lead increasingly awakened societies in a new direction. He concluded that the GCC, as a regional security alliance, must further share the defence burden instead of simply relying on others. A genuine union, he posited, would empower the alliance and avoid political irrelevance.