Even before what was supposed to be a momentous GCC summit held in Kuwait on December 10-11, 2013, the atmosphere was festive with the expectation of bringing to fruition the much mulled and hoped for ‘Gulf Union’ proposed almost two years ago by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz at the GCC summit in Riyadh in December 2011. King Abdullah, then proposed this sensing the urgent need to get the GCC states act together after over three decades of uneventful and stagnant cooperation, which has failed to galvanise the GCC states and transform it into a deterrence bloc by alleviating it to a “collective security organisation” that can deter and contain potential and real foes. The Arab Spring was part of that thinking then, but since then things have started to unravel. US allies seemed to be on the defensive. But the most important development has been the open schism and discontent exhibited in the open by US allies over its policy in the region mainly over Egypt, Syria and more critically Iran. Followed by the open disagreement over the Gulf Union which remains an aspiration and a goal deferred.
In a previous Op Ed in Gulf News a couple of weeks ago on the eve of the GCC summit in Kuwait titled, ‘GCC Summit in tectonic regional realignment’ I argued, “Today the tsunami and host of crises and challenges dwarf the old challenges and threats, which viewed, especially by the smaller states is leading to them getting their acts together for a collective security mechanism to face off and contain the pending threats and crises.”These shifting grounds, alliances and new realities on the ground, put more pressure on the GCC leaders meeting in Kuwait to think creatively outside the box and come up with creative solutions and alternatives to lessen their reliance on a sole protector and forge a more credible alliance to cope strategically with the new realities. The alternatives for the GCC states are limited, but upgrading the relationship from its stagnant cooperation status to the Gulf Union that King Abdullah touted two years ago is an overdue step, which has to be embraced and acted upon. Or the consequences will be dire.
But on the eve of the GCC summit in Kuwait, at the annual ‘Manama Dialogue’ organised by the Institute for International and Strategic Studies, the earth moved over two major developments. First, the US went out of its way to reassure its GCC allies of its iron clad commitment to its security- given by US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel who emphasised that “I am under no illusions, like all of you, about the daily threats facing this region, or the current anxieties that I know exist here in the Gulf.” Hagel made it clear to the audience at ‘Manama Dialogue’ that the nuclear agreement with Iran “doesn’t mean the security threat from Iran is over.” He laid out an ambitious plan on Dec. 7 in Manama that “will better integrate with GCC members to enhance missile defence capabilities in the region.” Ten days later President Barack Obama issued a directive selling weapons to the GCC states-mainly missile defence systems under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Arms Export Control Act, dealing strategically for the first time with the GCC states as a bloc, as opposed to selling weapons system to individual nations within the council. The GCC summit final communiqué responded in kind to the Saudi push for a more unified GCC, short of a Union as was evidently opposed by Oman. However, the GCC summit called for the establishment of “Unified Military Command for the GCC states.” But scepticism lingers over its formation and its effectiveness. But that was the best outcome for the GCC summit, which steered away from an open confrontation and resorted to the usual consensual stance. In essence the GCC summit which started with a bang ended with a whimper--with the call for establishing the unified GCC military command and defer the goal for Gulf Union for a future encounter.
But the bombshell that took the GCC summit in Kuwait by storm and probably amended its agenda was the surprise and shocking warning shot by Oman. The Omani Foreign Minister Yousaf Bin Alawi unequivocally and publicly threatened of not joining the Gulf Union, but also even withdrawing from the GCC if the Gulf Union is formed. It was a bold move from Oman which could embolden other GCC states to voice such sentiments. Therefore, the Gulf Union was never discussed at the summit in Kuwait, but was delayed for more review as a face-saving move to maintain the facade of consensus in the summit. Once again the Saudi plan for a more unified GCC hit a snag; this time from Oman, which on top of hosting covert high-level behind the scenes rounds of diplomatic meetings between the Americans and the Iranians even before President Rouhani was elected- vetoed Gulf Union! For some, Oman today seems to be more aligned with Iran than with its GCC brothers.
The openly divergent intra-GCC views were no longer over the US policy in the Middle East, but are now over the Gulf Union and the push by mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar to have a GCC seat at the negotiating table with the 5+1 group with Iran. But other GCC states do not seem to support the Saudis and the Qataris over direct negotiations with Iran. Naturally, Iran voiced rejection and opposed the GCC joining the 5+1 group.
The GCC after 34 years of its inception has not found the secret success formula to transform itself into a formidable collective security bloc that can contain and deter foes and opponents. We still act in a knee- jerk fashion and our policy continues to be reacting to the challenges rather than dealing in a visionary and strategic fashion. Today, the GCC states are showing signs of divergence and open schism. Rather than upgrade the Council into a close- knit union we keep postponing and deferring the Union and the critical and pivotal issues to future summits to avoid confrontation. This is not a recipe for success.
An overhaul and a fundamentally different approach is urgently needed before we loose more ground and to be better equipped to deal with the host of challenges and shifting alliances.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji