MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

June 3, 2015
The talk leading up to President Obama’s summit with the leaders of the six Arab nations comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council focused on the supposed “snub” by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, who opted not to attend after initially signaling that he would. The fact that only two heads of state attended (Kuwait and Qatar) was considered a show of displeasure at the divergence in threat perceptions between the GCC and the United States. The prevailing sentiment was that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states were upset at the US reluctance to offer the regional grouping an ironclad security guarantee that would allay their concerns about Iran’s “meddling” in the region and the growing danger from militant Islamist groups such as the so called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).

Bridging the disconnect between the United States and the Gulf states was the main reason the Obama administration hosted the summit in the first place. The communique issued at the end of the meeting laid out a framework for enhanced security and military cooperation. However, implementing this plan will likely face obstacles over which the United States has little control: differences among the GCC members themselves. The divergence—some of which is strategic, if not philosophical—runs across a wide spectrum of issues. While it has not prevented cooperation between the member states, it has hampered efforts at political, military, and economic integration. Although intra-GCC relations have improved lately, the United States and Saudi Arabia will have to make a concerted effort to prevent the group from abandoning its decades-old plans to strengthen political, economic, and security “coordination, cooperation, and integration” among the member states. The organization has a long way to go, given its ultimate objective of creating a regional powerhouse akin to the European Union featuring some of the collective security principles on which NATO was founded.

Casual observers often refer to the “Arab Gulf monarchies” interchangeably, treating them as a monolithic entity with vast hydrocarbon resources, close relations with the United States, and a sparse population. While that characterization is not unfounded—the GCC charter acknowledges that the member states share “special relations, common characteristics and similar systems founded on the creed of Islam”—the six countries have always had significant differences in terms of their histories, demographics, strategic depth, and the scope of their contact with the West.

For starters, not all members are rich in oil. Oman and Bahrain have largely depleted their resources, leaving the two nations dependent on financial assistance from the rest of the GCC, especially Saudi Arabia. In addition to its tiny size and limited natural resources, Bahrain also stands out among the GCC states because of its majority Shia population. Oman, with its Abadi majority population and long history of friendly relations with Iran, has long adopted a foreign policy that eschews strongly aligning with or against other countries. This tendency not to bandwagon with Saudi Arabia was on display when the Omani Foreign Minister publicly expressed his country’s objection to a Saudi plan for a GCC “union” in Manama in December 2013. Oman also refused to take part in the Saudi-led military operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen—the only member of the GCC not to join the coalition. While Iran remains the predominant security threat to most GCC members, Oman secretly hosted US-Iranian talks, which led to the current nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries.

Some of those who have watched the GCC closely since its creation in 1981—in large measure as a response to the Iranian revolution—have argued that its members’ hydrocarbon-fueled economies made them natural economic competitors, as opposed to partners. That assessment seems to be corroborated by consistently low levels of intra-GCC trade, compared to other economic blocks like the EU. Although the GCC implemented a customs union earlier this year, the process was launched in 2003. A single currency has faced also resistance from both Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Others have argued that while their lack of strategic depth (Saudi Arabia and Oman being the exception) and their sparse population has furnished the GCC with ample reasons to strengthen their military and security cooperation, the countries seem reluctant to take concrete steps towards integrating their military forces out of fear of loss of sovereignty. Although they do conduct joint military exercises and share intelligence, they also have different weapons systems, creating an interoperability problem that will be difficult for the United States to overcome. Even with generous US military assistance, Gulf countries would still find streamlining their defense capabilities too cost prohibitive. Some, like Saudi Arabia, might also find it too limiting, preferring not to have to rely on a single partner.

The rift between Saudi Arabia and the much smaller Qatar—that made 2014, in the estimate of an advisor to the government of the UAE, “The worst year in the history of the GCC”—exemplifies the ongoing competition between Gulf countries. The rivalry could be traced back to a 1995 coup in Qatar, intermittent border clashes, and the establishment of Al Jazeera, which occasionally hosts some of Saudi Arabia’s staunchest critics. The tension between the two neighbors came to ahead in 2014 over Qatar’s continued support of political Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE and Saudi Arabia officially classified as a terrorist organization. While Saudi Arabia was the first to champion the military ouster of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Qatar backed Morsi to the end. The row culminated in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE recalling their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014.

This divergence has also led to a serious row between Qatar and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which reached its nadir in February when Qatar expressed reservations about the Egyptian airstrikes against the ISIS branch in Libya. Egypt responded by accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. The aftermath of this public war of words became emblematic of the state of discord among the GCC, as the official website of the organization carried two seemingly contradictory statements in response. The first criticized Egypt and defended Qatar, but a second issued the same day expressed strong support for Egypt.

The GCC, largely a Saudi initiative, meant to bring together the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula to act collectively in the face of instability coming from three countries occupying the same neighborhood: Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. While the GCC countries continue to maintain strong relations with the United States, the Saudis under King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud have strengthened their relations with other Arab and Muslim majority countries in the hope of forming a united front against their biggest perceived threat: Iran. Saudi’s new assertive foreign policy to block Iranian hegemony has entailed constant consultation with the other GCC leaders. It remains to be seen whether the threat from Iran, which helped forge this regional grouping, will also be the source of its dissolution. If the United States succeeds in vanquishing ISIS and keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, it will go a long way towards easing the strain that threatens to derail—if not indefinitely shelf—the GCC unification project.

Fahad Nazer is a political analyst with JTG, Inc. and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC.