The Future of the Gulf Cooperation Council

Decades of rivalry and antagonism have taken a toll on the alliance.

By: Hilal Khashan

Just six weeks after the beginning of the 1980 Iraq-Iran War, Arab countries gathered for a summit in Amman, Jordan. It was there that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain proposed creating a union of Arab Gulf states that would defend their interests and bring stability to the region. Six months later, the Gulf Cooperation Council, consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, was formed.

The GCC’s mission statement stressed the indivisible sovereignty of its member states and a nonalignment posture. 

It was billed as the prelude to military, security and economic integration, including a currency union, a central bank and a long-term economic development strategy. 

Though the members shared a turbulent history, the lack of regional security, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and fears that the Red Army might march toward the oil-rich Gulf compelled Arab rulers to seek protection together. 

They were also troubled by Iraq’s war against Iran, knowing that both countries harbored ambitions to dominate the Gulf. Acute security concerns therefore provided the impetus for the establishment of the GCC. When these threats subsided, however, so did the Arab states’ motivation for cooperation. Irreconcilable differences and mutual suspicions derailed the GCC, and new alliances have rendered it redundant.

Persistent Disagreement

Apart from joining the U.S. coalition against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, GCC member states have never been able to agree on much. With the exception of Bahrain, which is dependent on Saudi financial support, the member states have always resented the tutelage and oversight of Saudi Arabia, the alliance’s unofficial leader. 

In turn, the Saudis have always resented Oman’s independent foreign policy and relations with Iran, as well as Qatar’s warm relations with Turkey.

Indeed, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have a strained relationship to say the least. But it wasn’t always that way. Between 1972 and 1995, while Qatar was under the leadership of Khalifa bin Hamad, the two countries were in lockstep. But that changed when his son, Hamad bin Khalifa, overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 1995 and began pursuing an independent foreign policy. 

In 1996, he launched Al-Jazeera, a news network that has been the source of frequent tension between Qatar and many Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

During U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, he admonished Qatar for funding terrorism and urged the country to stop sheltering members of radical Islamic movements. Emboldened by Trump’s criticism, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, backed by Egypt and Bahrain, imposed a blockade on Qatar three weeks later that continues until today.

Insecurity Continues

Despite their massive defense budgets, the military capability of Arab Gulf states – both individually and collectively – is severely lacking. In 1984, the GCC established the Peninsula Shield Force to defend its members against foreign military threats. The 5,000-strong force was positioned in northeastern Saudi Arabia near the Iraq-Kuwait border, but it never developed into a real fighting force. Its only deployment was in 2011 to Bahrain, where it crushed a peaceful uprising; it has never been used against a foreign military.

In fact, several foreign countries have a military presence in the Arab Gulf – chief among them the United States. The U.S. Fifth Fleet has been headquartered in Bahrain since 1944. 

The U.S. operates the strategic Al Udeid air base and the as-Saliylah storage base in Qatar. In the UAE, the U.S. uses Jebel Ali as a key port of call, has troops stationed in al-Dhafra air base, and maintains a small naval base in Fujairah. 

There are three U.S. Air Force pre-positioning sites in Oman. Since the end of Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. has operated two air bases and three army bases in Kuwait. 

The Air Force is currently deployed to five air bases in Saudi Arabia, though Washington withdrew troops from the country in 2003 after the end of the Iraq war, only to redeploy them in 2019 following the attacks on two Saudi oil installations blamed on Iran. 

U.S. Military Bases in Gulf Cooperation Council Countries

In addition, Turkey sent 5,000 troops to Qatar in response to the Saudi-led blockade and has built two military bases in the country. France also operates a naval base in Abu Dhabi. More than 70,000 Pakistanis serve in the Saudi armed forces as private contractors, and thousands of Sudanese troops fight on Saudi Arabia’s behalf in Yemen.

For Arab Gulf countries, security concerns now also stem from their fellow GCC member states. The UAE has deep concerns about the rise of Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamists in the Gulf. Kuwait’s Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Constitutional Movement has 16 representatives in the country’s 50-member parliament and plays a prominent role in civil society. 

In 2013, a diplomatic crisis erupted between Qatar and the UAE after Al-Jazeera aired a program featuring members of the Emirates’ banned pro-Brotherhood al-Islah association. 

Emir Hamad believed that the best way to safeguard Qatar’s independence from the Saudis was to foster alliances with the Arab region’s Islamists, whom he believed were on their way to seizing power in several countries. He allowed influential Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qardawi to base his International Union of Muslim Scholars in Doha in 2004. 

Two years later, the cleric established the Academy of Change as part of the Renaissance Project to train Islamist activists to serve as agents of political change in the region. Emir Hamad hoped to use the surging support for Islamists to provide the tiny, sparsely populated state with strategic depth. (In 2013, he abdicated the throne to his son, Tamim bin Hamad, on the urging of Washington, which was acting on requests from the Saudis and Emiratis.)

Failed Integration

The GCC has failed to foster cooperation on several other fronts as well. It made many attempts to resolve its member states’ territorial disputes but to no avail. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia failed to end the long-standing maritime border dispute between Qatar and Bahrain. To the Saudis’ disappointment, the International Court of Justice succeeded in doing so in 2001. 

Saudi Arabia had its own dispute with Kuwait over a stretch of land on the Persian Gulf that was declared a neutral zone in the 1922 Uqair Protocol. The two countries could not agree on using the Wafra and Khafji oil fields, and in 2014 production was suspended for five years until they could reach a settlement.

Gulf Cooperation Council Territorial Disputes

Relations between Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia became especially strained after the Saudis seized a 25-kilometer coastal corridor between Qatar and the UAE. In 1976, the Saudis vetoed the construction of a causeway between Abu Dhabi and Doha, claiming it infringed on Saudi territorial waters. 

In 2009, Saudi Arabia blocked thousands of trucks transporting goods from Jebel Ali Port because the new UAE identity cards included the coastal corridor in the country’s map. A year later, the two countries were on the verge of severing diplomatic ties after UAE gunboats opened fire on a Saudi ship that entered a contested maritime area.

Talks to establish a GCC central bank and monetary union collapsed because the UAE demanded that it be located in Abu Dhabi while the Saudis insisted on Riyadh. Intra-GCC trade is less than 20 percent of members’ total trade volume, mainly because GCC countries mostly produce the same goods and provide similar consumer services such as college education, health care, banking and leisure and tourism.

The group may also soon face a crisis of leadership. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to stay out of the budding Israel-UAE alliance. It doesn’t want to see Abu Dhabi take over as leader of the Arab Gulf countries, but the only way it can claim a prominent role in the emerging alliance is to become part of it. The election of Joe Biden as U.S. president, and the likely reopening of talks with Iran, will also push Saudi Arabia closer to Israel, the region’s military powerhouse and technology hub.

Decades of rivalry and antagonism have taken a toll on the unlikely alliance of historically fractious tribal systems. A coalition that rose out of fear of external threats has virtually collapsed under the weight of member states’ fear of one another.

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