Role of the GCC
Leaders of the Gulf States felt an urgency to join forces after they were challenged by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and its possible spillover in the region. On 26 May 1981, in Abu Dhabi the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Charter was signed by the heads of state of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Although security and strategic issues were the driving force behind the initiative, the charter largely focuses on economic and cultural cooperation.
Three year after the signing of the charter a collective defence force – the Peninsula Shield Force – was established, but in the following years the GCC failed to rig it up. In 1991 Oman proposed to expand the number of personnel to 100,000, but this was turned down. The proposal came after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had demonstrated that the Peninsula Shield Force was in no way capable of defending its member states against foreign aggression. US support remained vital, notwithstanding the large sums of money that were (and are) spent on the military. While the GCC seeks to reduce its military dependence on the US, there is no consensus on alternative strategies.
The Arab Spring has encouraged the GCC – mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to play an active diplomatic and military role within the GCC countries and in the wider Arab world. Typical of the Gulf’s politics of patronage and buying citizens’ allegiance, it promised a package worth USD 20 billion dollars supporting developments in Bahrain and Oman, which witnessed serious protests in 2011. In March 2011 the Peninsula Shield Force was deployed in Bahrain (a Saudi initiative?) to crack down on anti-government protests, mainly organized by politically and economically deprived members of the Bahraini Shiite community. It succeeded in its immediate objective – securing the survival of the Sunni minority regime and thereby the status quo. However, the underlying problems were not addressed and any reform was avoided.
After months of bloody confrontations the GCC, in the autumn of 2011, brokered a deal in Yemen between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and pockets within the opposition. Saleh would resign in return for immunity from prosecution, which was extended to several hundred of his allies. Despite the President’s resignation, the Saleh clan still holds a major stake in power, however.
Further from home – in Libya – the approach was different. Here two prominent GCC-members, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, backed the NATO-led intervention, which ultimately toppled the Gaddafi regime. Both countries also openly aim at regime change in Syria.
In May 2011 Jordan and Morocco – both non-Gulf States – were invited to join the GCC. Sunni monarchs of the Gulf States are seeking an alliance with fellow Sunni-led monarchies elsewhere in the region, in order to form a pro-Western bloc to counter popular reform movements as well as the influence of Shiite Iran. Other, more obvious GCC partners are excluded from membership – for example Iraq, which is led mainly by Shiite dominated governments. Yemen has been lobbying for full membership, leading to some, low profile, ties with a number of GCC institutions.
A Difficult Phase
The GCC seems to pass a difficult phase in its existence. Smaller members like Kuwait, UAE and Qatar increasingly resent what they see as Saudi domination. Against this background, during the IISS Manama Dialogue in December 2013 (and prior to the 34th GCC Summit in Kuwait), Oman blocked a two year old proposal by Saudi King Abdullah to transform the GCC into a union. Omani minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah, said Oman would not be part of such a union. Another dangerous split within the GCC occurred in March 2014 when Saudi-Arabia, UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in a row about Qatari support for Muslim Brotherhood. These countries consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, and consider the Qatari support as a threat for the security and stability of the GCC.
Towards the end of 2014, some cracks in the hardened stance began to appear. On November 16, an emergency meeting held between Gulf leaders in the Saudi capital of Riyadh gave impetus to the ‘Riyadh Complementary Arrangement’ whereby the Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini governments resolved some details and agreed to send their ambassadors back to Qatar. Since then, the GCC seems alive and well, for the time being.