Gulf union put off
Despite calls by Saudi King Abdullah last year for a union of Gulf states, the plan has now been postponed until December, writes Rasheed Abul-Samh
Perhaps it was because of the outcry among citizens of many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, worried that their unique social and political systems would be steamrollered by their giant neighbour Saudi Arabia, that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal announced Monday night in Riyadh, after a GCC summit meeting, that the planned union of GCC states had been put off until December.
"GCC states will continue discussions on a possible union of the six nations, but any such plan will take time. The aim is for all countries to join, not just two or three," said Prince Saud. "Iran should keep out of the kingdom's relations with Bahrain, even if the two states decide to form a union," he added, responding to Iranian MPs who had earlier condemned the reported plan for a union between Saudi Arabia and its tiny neighbour Bahrain.
Last year Saudi Arabia led a GCC force of 1,500 troops that went into Bahrain at the request of the ruling Al-Khalifa family to help put down a rebellion by the majority Shia population.
The GCC, which was formed in 1981 following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the onset of the Iran-Iraq war, is composed of the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
The GCC has succeeded in implementing a joint import customs tariff that all members follow, as well as measures that allow citizens of these states to live, work and set up businesses in each others' countries without the need for special visas or permissions.
Efforts towards a common currency foundered in 2009 after Oman dropped out of the plan in 2006 and the UAE also pulled out after a squabble with Saudi Arabia over where a GCC central bank would be headquartered. The UAE wanted it in their capital, Abu Dhabi, while the Saudis wanted it in Riyadh.
Expectations were high that some sort of union would be announced in Riyadh this week, especially after Saudi King Abdullah had announced the union plans last December, and after comments by Bahraini King Hamad this week that he welcomed the establishment of the union. But there has also been a steady stream of opposition from Bahrainis on Twitter and even from Saudis in the local media, afraid that the openness of several Gulf states would be squashed in a union with super-conservative Saudi Arabia.
"I will join the opposition against the Gulf union if it forces Kuwait, which is the only GCC country that enjoys free parliamentary elections, to cancel its parliamentary system... just to please Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman," wrote Abdel-Rahman Al-Rashid, Saudi head of the satellite TV news channel Al-Arabiya, in an opinion piece for Arab News daily.
In February, even Kuwait's speaker of parliament, Ahmed Al-Saadoun expressed his doubts on a Gulf union in comments to Al-Arabiya, saying: "It is very difficult for a country like Kuwait that grants freedom of speech, and where people are represented in parliament, to form a union with countries whose prisons are full of thousands who are guilty [only] of speaking their minds. We will be fooling ourselves if we think that any kind of union can be reached if governments do not offer compromises and start granting their people more rights."
It was the vagueness of the GCC union plans that led to much speculation and fear of what it would actually entail. Several analysts pointed out the need for clarity on what such a union would entail, underlining the need to keep individual social and political characteristics intact in each member country, in order to make the plan viable.
"The GCC governments haven't made it clear exactly what they mean by a union. Will it remain a collection of sovereign states like the existing GCC, or is there a genuine desire to create supra-national institutions that would override state sovereignty in some areas, as in the EU or currency unions like the West African franc?" asked Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, in interview.
Even the assistant secretary general of the GCC, Abdel-Aziz Al-Uwaisheg, admitted in an opinion article for Arab News that there needed to be clear goals for a union to be successful: "For it to be effective, the union has to have a clear statement of purpose as well as the right institutions to run such a project. Without infringing on member states' sovereignty, the union has to vest those institutions with enough mandate and authority to fulfil its member states' goals and meet the challenges, both old and new, that the region faces," he wrote.
Al-Rashid explained that these fears of sovereignty being squashed were mistaken, and that King Abdullah had in mind an alliance of Gulf states that would not be an all-out federation. "The proposal had clearly stated the new union would not interfere in the sovereignty of member countries. If we take the proposal positively, we can understand that it would not be aimed at imposing any other system or nullifying the character of a member country or side-lining any ethnic group," he wrote.
But why the sudden push for an even closer alliance of Gulf states? Several analysts believe that the perceived threat of Iran in the region, and fear of the effects of the Arab Spring uprisings reaching its shores, is what pushed Saudi Arabia to start pushing for the plan last December.
"Iran is a major driving factor. It was the Iranian Revolution that helped to encourage the Gulf states to form the GCC in the first place," said Kinninmont. "The wider changes in the Arab world are also a factor. They have already pushed the GCC countries to try to show more of a united front towards issues in Yemen, Libya and Syria."
But Madawi Al-Rashid, a professor of social anthropology at Kings College in London, and a frequent critic of Saudi Arabia, said that she believed that the real motivation behind the proposed union is that of dictators rallying together to protect themselves from demands for democracy from their own populations.
"The union is an ad hoc response to deep problems that the ruling families are not willing to resolve: Giving more power to their citizens, increasing political participation, and improving their human rights records," said Al-Rashid in interview.
"Externally the GCC States remain dependent on the US for security. They are also worried that the US will reach an agreement with Iran at their expense. This is the root of their anxiety. But I think that a union of authoritarian regimes is a temporary pact that will be counterproductive. It will simply increase the complexity of internal politics and mess up the real challenges facing the GCC now, mainly democratisation, unemployment and corruption, especially in Saudi Arabia."
With so many doubts and fears in the minds of GCC citizens, it remains to be seen how Saudi Arabia can pull off a union that manages to maintain the unique differences of each Gulf state, while at the same time bringing the benefits of unified economic and military policies in a region that is far from calm and friendly.