As Kuwait hosts the 34th GCC summit in its capital from tomorrow, the region is experiencing a major re-alignment and tectonic shift from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean. This could change not only the politics of this combustible region, but also usher in a new regional order.
GCC summits are known for their extravagant atmosphere, grandiosity and opulence. Kuwait has been, as I stated in my column in Gulf News a couple of weeks ago, attempting to rebrand itself as “the capital of international and regional summits and conferences and a model for donor nations” — a role it successfully played from the 1960s to the 1980s under the stewardship of the current Emir Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who has been the longest-serving foreign minister in world diplomacy.
It is a known fact that the GCC as an organisation was formed in 1981 in response to a host of challenges and upheavals in the region ranging from the Russian occupation of Afghanistan to the toppling of the Shah of Iran and the ascendance of the Islamic regime in Iran, which upset the regional order. That was followed by the bloody, eight-year Iran-Iraq war, in which GCC states were forced to side with Iraq to contain Iran.
But today’s host of crises and challenges dwarf the old challenges and threats.
The interim deal between Iran and the P5+1 — the US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany — was a monumental move that could lead to shifting alliances and change the current dynamics in the Arab Mashreq (East). If you juxtaposed that to the shifting sands and alliances in the region, the scene becomes clearer.
The Turkish newspaper Today Zaman captured it well: “The Saudis are angry at the US, whereas Iran is seeking ways to bury hostilities with Washington. Turkey is bashing Egypt’s interim government almost daily, while rich Gulf nations are sending money to keep Egypt on its feet. In Syria, Iran is doing whatever it takes to defend the regime in Damascus while Turkey is helping rebels oust its embattled president...”
To muddy the scene, there is the marginalisation of the role of major Mashreq countries, led by Egypt, Syria and Iraq. These tectonic shifts in alliances are redrawing the regional coalitions, fuelled also by the realignment in the international system. This is evident in the inward looking US which now has a smaller footprint in our region, an ascendant Russia and determined China to play a role commensurate with its weight in the world economy and a resurgent Al Qaida in the region ranging from Yemen to Syria and Iraq. In addition, there is growing sectarian schism between Sunnis and Shiites, driven by extremists on both sides.
With that as a backdrop, the six GCC states’ leaders or their deputies are preparing to meet in Kuwait from December 10-11, influenced and impacted by these bewildering changes and alignments that are gripping the whole region.
But the most urgent issue the GCC leaders have to deal with is the fallout of the interim nuclear deal between old enemies, the US with the major world powers on one hand, and beleaguered Iran, which was forced to swallow another bitter pill and stop enriching uranium over 5 per cent for the next six months as a confidence-building measure before sanctions on its oil and banking system are eased.
This will avert a showdown, which could have escalated into an armed conflict that could have exacted its toll on us all. However, there is lingering scepticism and fear among US allies in the GCC states, led by Saudi Arabia, about a “grand bargain” where Iran would trade in its nuclear programme for a free ride in a balancing act by the US as it attempts to draw down its forces from the region. This may help Iran play a role in the new security architecture in the region and continue its shenanigans and meddling in our neighbourhood.
What the interim nuclear deal revealed was the “secret diplomacy” orchestrated and hosted by Oman. It is ironic that there was no leak about this secret diplomacy. This has been going on for months and was not triggered by the victory of the moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the famous phone calls initiated by US President Barack Obama back in September. But it was used in a theatrical fashion to convince us that Iran has come to its senses and therefore a breakthrough was possible because of Rouhani’s moderation and rationality. We were duped!
There is a sinking feeling that all of these tectonic changes are being translated into the US downgrading its regional allies in the Gulf or at best America hedging by returning to the “Nixon Doctrine” and the twin pillars strategy. Splitting up Gulf security between the old GCC allies led by Saudi Arabia and the new ally-in-the-making: Iran.
Any way you look at it, notwithstanding the repeated assurances by US officials, including US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel at the Manama Dialogue last week, we are not reassured, and it does not bode well for the GCC states and their reliance on the US.
These shifting grounds, alliances and new realities put more pressure on the GCC leaders meeting in Kuwait to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions and alternatives to lessen their reliance on the sole protector and forge a more credible alliance to cope strategically with the new realities. The alternatives for GCC states are limited, but upgrading the relationship from its stagnant cooperation status to the Gulf Union that King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz touted two years ago is an overdue step. Or the consequences will be dire.
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