Once again the Arabian Gulf is the scene of a brewing cold war between the two sides of this strategic waterway, the lifeline of the industrial economies of both the East and the West. The cold war pits Iran against the six countries that comprise the GCC.
It seems the nations and peoples of this region, who have had more than their fair share of wars, crises and tensions, are doomed to live in a tough neighbourhood. One crisis breeds another, and a war begets another. The region has been bruised and scarred by three major wars over three decades. The irredentist regional players — Iraq under Saddam Hussain and Iran — sought hegemonic designs. They flexed their muscles and menaced their smaller neighbours, who got their act together and formed a loose alliance to boost their power to stave off the two predatory larger neighbours. But the GCC as a regional alliance had limitations as a collective security organisation. The invasion and occupation of Kuwait, the failure of the GCC to deter Saddam —and today's emboldened Iran — and GCC's outsourcing of its security two decades after the liberation of Kuwait speak volumes about the strategic flaws of this most successful and prosperous organisation in the Arab World.
In international relations, a system that lacks an indigenous balance of power will be susceptible to instability and manipulation by the large power(s) in that region. That security dilemma is exacerbated if the large regional powers are controlled by authoritarian regimes that would embark on misadventures with unintended and disastrous consequences without being held accountable.
Saddam's two disastrous decisions were to launch a war against Iran and invade and occupy Kuwait, refusing to withdraw. And he was later "elected" in 2002 by 100 per cent margin! Iran's ayatollahs did the same, fighting a senseless and bloody war for years against Iraq after their forces were able to push back Iraqi forces to the Iraqi side of the border.
Today, following the US withdrawal from Iraq there are strategic ties with the GCC states that could push for new security architecture in the Gulf region. Iran is stirring up mischief once again in a new game of brinkmanship, precipitated by provocative Iranian adventures and bolder-than-expected moves by the GCC states — individually in the case of the UAE and from the GCC as a group. The spoiler is Iran with its grandiose and overarching designs, mischievous behaviour and provocative moves. The current situation in the Arabian Gulf resembles a huge chess board. The duel between the two sides has been going on for some time. The Arab Spring and Iran's role in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and the fomenting of instability and planting sleeping and spying cells in Kuwait, are alarming signs of its intentions in the region.
Iran has employed double standards in the Arab uprisings — siding with the protesters in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen but with its allied regime in Syria that is butchering its own people. The GCC states have boycotted the Syrian regime and taken the side of the Syrian people. They bankrupted Iran's dogma of siding with oppressed Muslims everywhere, and disillusioned its millions of die-hard supporters. Finally Iran has lost the propaganda war and along with it, its soft power. The mask has come off. Furthermore, Iran's shenanigans brought the rivalry between the GCC states and Iran to a head.
Iran has lately shown more pragmatism and rationality in dealing with the international community in its last meeting with P5+1 in Istanbul and has been more accommodating in the preparation for the second round of talks scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad, Iran's strategic ally. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki visited Tehran recently. There has been talk of formalising a strategic alliance between the two largely Shiite countries to face off the Sunni Arabs in the GCC states and, may be down the road, Sunni Turkey.
While Iran is being more accommodative towards the West, it is more belligerent, confrontational and provocative towards the GCC states, and the UAE in particular. A provocative and unprecedented visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the UAE's Abu Mousa island, which is under Iranian occupation, was condemned with the UAE recalling its ambassador. The GCC and Arab foreign ministers branded it a provocation, and infringement on the UAE's national territory. Iran upped the ante, sending naval troops and submitting a bill in Parliament proposing the formation of the "Persian Gulf Province" with Abu Mousa as its capital! The final chess move by Iran was the proposed strategic alliance with Iraq.
The GCC states were not to be outdone by Iran. They held an emergency foreign ministerial meeting in Doha, strongly denouncing Iran and sided unequivocally with UAE. The UAE held joint military exercises with France, and GCC is holding an unprecedented joint military exercise in Abu Dhabi dubbed "Islands' Loyalty," as a clarion message to Iran.
Strong rumours are making the rounds in the GCC capitals about the announcement in the next GCC summit of a proposed union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as part of King Abdullah's proposal last December during the GCC's annual summit about the need to move the organisation from its 31-year cooperation phase to that of a union. The proposed name is the "GCC Arabian Union".
If that comes to pass, it will be a quantum leap from the GCC's lethargic and dysfunctional role as a collective security organisation and could be the needed shot in the arm to upgrade and move the GCC forward — in order to deal with the host of challenges and threats.
More importantly, it is a strong move on the chess board against Iran. Through that, a new era of Gulf politics is dawning, wherein the GCC states have finally started to think big.
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