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Is the GCC a Toothless Organization?

The [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is comprised of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. According to the GCC’s Charter, what unites these countries are their “special relations, common characteristics and similar systems founded on the creed of Islam.” “Their desire is to effect coordination, cooperation and integration between them in all fields” to “serve the sublime objectives of the Arab Nation.” They seek “closer relations and stronger bonds” to “reinforce and serve Arab and Islamic causes.”

The decision to establish the GCC in 1981 was not a product of a moment, but a historical reality that had existed before, the Charter reads. Hence, the GCC is “a continuation, evolution and institutionalization of old prevailing realities,” and “a practical answer to the challenges of security and economic development in the area. It is also a fulfillment of the aspirations of its citizens towards some sort of Arab regional unity.”

The concept of the so-called “Arab World” or “Arab Nation” exists only in the abstract and not in reality. First of all, there are non-Muslim Arabs in the world and even in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf that are automatically excluded from the Charter.

Moreover, Islam is not a monolithic religion. “The creed of Islam” and “Islamic causes” are subjective terms that can be understood differently by Shiites and Sunni, as well as different factions within each branch of the faith. A question arises here as to what constitutes an “Islamic” cause: waging a jihad against the Syrian government or waging a jihad against the rebels?

Furthermore, there are intra-state and inter-state differences amongst the GCC countries that prevent the formation of a unified Arab identity and make the GCC less than an effective political player.

Intra-state problems within the region are caused by ethnic, religious and tribal differences. While a sense of nationhood and nationality developed as a result of a struggle for autonomy in many parts of the world, the Persian Gulf Arab monarchies did not undergo the same process. They are the result of the end of a colonial era.

Marwan Muasher asserts that Arab leaders used ethnic and religious differences “to create rifts and exploit them to extend their reign.” In other words, some of those states developed their identity in terms of what they were not and what they did not want to be. For instance, Saudi Arabia would like to project an image of the guardianship of Sunni Muslims, while it oppresses its Shiite minority.

Tribal identity is also a salient aspect of who the people are and to whom they owe their allegiance in Arab countries. Therefore, within each Arab state, there are ethnic, religious and tribal cleavages.

In a globalized world, it is quite common to have multiple identities. However, some of the GCC states use one layer of identity to discriminate against a segment of their society. Kuwait, for instance, has refused citizenship to non-Muslims since 1980.

As long as the GCC states do not properly address their internal problems and accept their diversity, they cannot project power and become a serious contender in the region as a unified geopolitical force.

There are also inter-state rivalries among them as they have demonstrated to have different needs and diverging strategic interests. The so-called Arab Spring, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, the coup d’état that removed the government of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, and the Syrian civil war — all are examples of events that exposed frictions in the GCC.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — the world’s largest producer of crude oil and custodian of the two holiest mosques of Islam — has traditionally played the dominant role in the GCC, but it has faced explicit challenges by other members in the past few years. Saudi Arabia is the representative of the status quo and does its best to suppress the winds of change in the region and within its borders. The Saudi’s favorite lexicon is “stability” and it’s willing to expend their resources to maintain it.

The Saudis backed President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and were irritated with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood after he was ousted by popular protests. The Brotherhood’s call for a republican form of Islamism or what some call “electoral Islamism” was perceived as a threat to the Saudi’s absolute monarchical system.

Unable to contain the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt for sometime, the Saudis were terrified by the Shiite protests in Bahrain in 2011 against “systematic discrimination against [Shiites] in jobs and services” (the majority of Bahrainis are Shiite but the ruling Alkhalifa family is Sunni). The Saudis and Emiratis forces helped the government of Bahrain to crack down on Shiite protesters.

It is noteworthy that other GCC countries did not participate in the crackdown in Bahrain. Manama has remained completely dependent on Riyadh for its security and understandably supported the Saudi’s in foreign policy issues.

On Mar. 5, 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. Doha was accused of interfering in internal affairs of other GCC countries by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and giving a free ground for activists and dissidents in the Persian Gulf and beyond. Kuwait and Oman refused to recall their ambassadors.

Unlike the Saudis and Emiratis, the Kuwaitis have been trying to co-opt the Islamic Constitutional Movement (HADAS), a Brotherhood branch. Three members of the movement currently serve in the National Assembly of Kuwait. Furthermore, Kuwait enjoys good working relations with Iran and Iraq, whose Shiite governments have not had amicable relations with Riyadh in the past few years.

Oman, on the other hand, has pursued an independent and non-interventionist foreign policy. Oman played a pivotal role in facilitating secret dialogues between the United States and Iran that led to the Geneva interim agreement between the Five Permanent Members of the Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran. The Saudis were completely left out of the process and their displeasure with the deal and a potential rapprochement between Washington and Tehran have been widely reported and analyzed.

Oman also rejected the Saudi call to move the GCC toward unity even though a movement “towards some sort of Arab regional unity” already exists in the GCC’s Charter. Some observers argue that Oman refused to endorse the Saudi proposal because it could “antagonize” Tehran. However, there is definitely much more at stake for Muscat than just an unwillingness to irritate Tehran.

Oman’s mediatory role between Iran and the U.S., and Iran and the Arab countries, particularly the GCC, gives the country leverage by making it an essential player in the region. This enables Oman to punch far above its perceived geopolitical weight.

Qatar, on the other hand, has posed the most serious challenge to the Saudis and their ambition to remain the dominant player in the GCC. Qatar is a major exporter of natural gas. Revenues from natural gas have helped the country to pursue an independent political and economic agenda that is sometimes at odds with those of Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is rich in oil not gas, so it cannot out-supply or undersell its gas to undermine Qatar or force it to reconsider its policies.

Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots such as Hamas, that also gets backing from Tehran. Qatar has also been less concerned about the so-called “Iranian threat” and, subsequently, has had much better relations with Tehran.

Qatar’s most strategic economic asset is its natural gas reserves out of the offshore North Dome field/South Pars. Qatar shares the field in the Persian Gulf with Iran. Given Doha’s size and population, it cannot be a regional hegemon,but it has pursued a policy of playing Iran and Saudi Arabia against each other that serve its interests.

Even the UAE does not always support the Saudi policies. In fact, the UAE politically and diplomatically balances between Iranians and the Saudis. Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia also support different factions in the Syrian civil war that sometimes turn their guns against one another.

As preceding examples show, the GCC has been unable to present a unified front in dealing with regional issues and some GCC members have serious domestic problems that cannot be ignored or suppressed indefinitely. However, the GCC has recently invited Morocco and Jordan to join it with the goal of establishing a military alliance.

Egypt has not been formally invited, as different GCC states have different approaches to General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power and the ensuing violence. Riyadh is however pushing for Cairo’s inclusion.

Some observers believe that the decision to form a military alliance is either a signal to Iran, or will be a tool to contain Iran’s regional ambitions. Iran’s all-out support for the Syrian regime and its alleged support for Shiite factions throughout the region, in addition to territorial disputes with the UAE over the three Islands of Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs, make Tehran a strategic rival and arguably a threat to some members of the GCC.

It is believed that with the U.S. planning to pivot to Asia and the possibility of a comprehensive agreement between P5+1 and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, Iran can possibly play a more active role in the region.

Even if the envisioned military alliance delivers a message to Tehran, there are a number of issues to consider. First of all, the GCC does not have a unified stance on Iran. Only Saudis and Bahrainis are concerned about the “Iranian threat.” Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar have good working and economic relations with Tehran while Oman, in addition to having economic relations, is Iran’s confidant in the Arab world.

Secondly, while the formation of a quasi Arab NATO will never be welcomed by Iran, the alliance’s deterrent effect on Tehran would be minimal. The GCC plus Morocco and Jordan cannot contain Iran without the United States. In fact, many Iranian leaders have invariably considered the United States, not the Saudis or the GCC, to be their rival in the Persian Gulf. The answer for the security concerns of the countries in the Persian Gulf is a truly regional security organization that includes Iran and Iraq as well.

Finally, and most importantly, history has shown that the Saudis and Iranians would eventually reconcile their major differences but continue to compete with one another in the region and beyond. It is very unlikely that the “cold” war between Iran and Saudi Arabia will turn “hot.”

Kenneth Katzman, Middle East specialist, with the Congressional Research Service, argues that the tendency of Persian Gulf Arab countries is towards balance of power and accommodation. He submits that “the Persian Gulf monarchy states of the Gulf Cooperation Council” do not have the political, economic and military strength to contain Iran and “they traditionally looked for ways to accommodate their neighbors.” If a competitor were stronger than them, they would accommodate it. If it were weaker, they would still accommodate it. Thus, this policy is not a matter of weakness, but of sheer pragmatism.

The GCC needs a real purpose if it is to remain a viable organization and a better mechanism to bring about consensus amongst its members. Animosity towards Tehran cannot last long as member states would want to reap the benefits of forging trade and commercial ties with Iran.

Moreover, inter-state and intra-state problems can hinder the GCC’s effectiveness as a unified geopolitical force. As long as the GCC does not properly address those issues, it will remain an organization that issues political declarations that do not require any action on the part of its members. Until it overcomes these problems, its political and strategic effectiveness could be called into question.



Alireza Ahmadian

Alireza Ahmadian is an Iranian Canadian political analyst and writer whose work has appeared on forums such as openDemocracy, the Foreign Policy Association Blog, and BBC Persian Blog's Nazeran Migooyand [Observers say...]. He has also appeared on BBC World News and BBC Persian TV to discuss world affairs.

Ahmadian’s main interests are foreign policy, diplomacy and social justice issues, especially those related to Iran, and U.S. and Canada's foreign policy in the Middle East.

Ahmadian has a Master of Arts from the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London, England’s renowned School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and is currently a research student in Global Studies. He previously studied History at the University of British Columbia and speaks fluent Persian, English and intermediate Arabic.

You can follow him on Twitter: @ahmadianalireza