Leaders from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States have just concluded another hesitant summit, as they argued over Iran, Syria, and several perennial subjects that preoccupied them since the regional alliance was created in 1981. At the time of its inception, the London-Economist dubbed the organization the “5+1” group, whose primary goal was to coordinate Bahraini, Emirati, Kuwaiti, Omani, and Qatari policies with those of Saudi Arabia. Then as now, the chief concern was Iran, starting with the spillover effects of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the repercussions of the Iran-Iraq war, and Tehran’s unending hegemonic aspirations to dominate Gulf security matters. Naturally, and to resist undeniable Iranian goals, GCC governments sought and received Western assistance. It was the more recent evolution of major Western powers’ realpolitik towards Iran, especially over the latter’s inevitable nuclear march, which disappointed Riyadh and several of its GCC partners and that led to sharp differences of opinion.

Notwithstanding rhetorical declarations, no GCC state opposed the Western-Iranian rapprochement, even if all preferred it was not done at their expense. Moreover, and against significant threats that developed during the past few decades, the December 2011 call made by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz to graduate the alliance from its mere cooperation phase to fuller integration was nothing if not a normal evolutionary measure. In truth, the Saudi monarch’s call for union was not meant to eliminate the other five independent countries, and amalgamate them into the United States of the Arabian Peninsula even if some mistakenly assumed that a single entity would emerge. Rather, it was a plea to strengthen the GCC regional vision, since only such an outlook would create the mechanisms that allowed for an evolution from a state of confusion and an end to unnecessary duplications and counter-measures.

Every member welcomed King Abdullah’s call in 2011 while the proposal was vetted for its devilish details. A few days ago, the Saudi state minister for foreign affairs, Nizar Bin Obaid Madani, pressed for the union plank as an urgent matter, stressing that regional developments highlighted various risks imposed on all. He emphasised that the “current stage required the GCC states to rectify the identity of the Council so as to be based on a consensus of views with an emphasis on the common GCC destiny and the collective interests” of its members.

This oblique declaration drew a strong rebuke from the Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, Yousuf Bin Alawi, who added that Muscat understood “the current situation of the GCC, believed that when the GCC was founded, the agreement was to preserve security and stability in this region, and appreciated the support extended by the international community” to uphold the independence of the six countries. Alawi used calculated words to stress that GCC governments disagreed on key pillars, especially in the economic area, rejected the very idea of union and, in case some members pressed for it, emphasised that the Sultanate would “deal” with such a reality. Some news reports implied that Alawi used more explicit terms, including an Omani readiness to “simply withdraw” from the GCC that, naturally, was both uncharacteristic and highly controversial.

For his part, Prince Turki Al Faisal, the chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, emphasised that union was inevitable and that Oman could “join now or at a later stage.” Independent observers concluded that several GCC countries would set up a core union with the option for others to join later.

For now, Bahraini officials led by Prime Minister Prince Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, concluded that union was “an urgent necessity and an unavoidable strategic option to confront threats and risks that lurked around the GCC,” while Kuwaiti representatives insisted that union would require approval by the country’s parliament, perhaps even through a popular referendum. In the words of the former Kuwaiti speaker of parliament and opposition strongman Ahmad Al Saadoun: “We can’t just reach any kind of union… There can be no union between countries where the nature of the regimes is so different. You can’t talk about a union between Kuwait… and those states whose prisons have thousands of prisoners of conscience… We are fooling ourselves if we think a union can be achieved without the governments forgoing some powers to their people.”

Despite extreme positions, it was critical to note that after decades of negotiations over borders and other differences, GCC states managed to settle most contentions, even if the status of the UAE-Iran border was still unsettled. Riyadh stood by Abu Dhabi over the three UAE islands of Abu Mousa, the Greater Tunb and the Lesser Tunb, calling on Tehran to end its occupation. Equally serious reservations existed over the acknowledged Iranian interferences in internal Bahraini affairs, along with the periodic threats to both Qatar and Kuwait over the North Dome Gas field and various maritime traffic rights in the Gulf. Only Oman secured a tight border accord with Iran, though it enjoyed a significant advantage since all navigation through the strategic Straits of Hormuz went through Omani territorial waters and, in was important to reiterate, under British and American protection.

As an alliance that pretended — at times — to be a collective security organisation, the GCC was destined to push for genuine union that resembled the European Union rather than Nato. Yet, what it currently lacked was a strong duopoly — akin to the formidable France-Germany tandem in Europe — that anchored member-states around a well-defined vision as well as unambiguous agendas. Both Saudi Arabia and Oman were destined to play such roles on account of their geographic and military capabilities while neither could advance without the other. If the GCC was a mere 5+1 entity in 1981, the time was right for an evolution, which would result in either a 4+2 set in its current form, or a 7+2 body should Yemen, Jordan and Morocco join. Leaving the GCC was not a real option for Muscat while eliminating the smaller countries was not a Saudi strategy. In fact, because genuine cooperation was never as necessary as today, given ongoing Iranian challenges and what appears to be a major Western reappraisal of previous commitments, few ought to be surprised when GCC States step-up and mimic the European Union with the emergence of their own duopoly.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is working on a new study, titled A Will to Power Among Arab Gulf Monarchies: the GCC Military Alliance in 2020.