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The Persian Gulf Union: Motivations and Consequences

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Hassan Ahmadian, PhD Candidate
Department of Regional Studies, University of Tehran

The latest summit meeting of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] wrapped up after participants posed for a group photo. Unlike past photos, the new photo featured the Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz in addition to heads of the other six member states of the (P)GCC. Although this may have been quite accidental, there are signs to show that it, in fact, represents the current state of affairs in the (P)GCC. Subsequent to popular revolutions in Arab countries during the past year, Saudi Arabia has so far come up with two proposals to change the structure of the council. Firstly, it called on Morocco and Jordan to accede to the council and, secondly, it has called for the establishment of a union of member states of the (P)GCC. But why Riyadh offers such proposals at this juncture?

Most analysts believe in and have emphasized on the obvious influence of the recent popular uprisings on Saudi Arabia’s offers, but has there been any widespread and continuing popular uprising in all these countries except in Bahrain? Definitely not. The wave of the Middle East’s popular uprisings has already broken on the gates of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council. Therefore, although Saudi Arabia’s proposals were first offered in the heat of those developments and under their influence, Riyadh’s insistence on pursuing them after the uprisings have been grounded is quite suspicious.

There is no doubt that the uprising of Bahraini people has been a main reason which has galvanized Saudis into action, but the motive behind Saudi Arabia’s move is usually pictured in a reverse manner. Most analysts have pointed to the fact that Saudi Arabia has great concerns about possible spillover of Bahrain’s popular uprising to its own territory as well as to other sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf and have mentioned this as the main motivation behind its proposals. This analysis, however, does not seem to be correct. In reality, Riyadh is making good use of Al Khalifa’s fear of its people’s uprising and is trying to use this opportunity to annex Bahrain to its soil. There are, of course, other motives as well. In addition to opportunism of Riyadh, there are three more motivations to be taken into account here.

The first motive or goal is to form a political bloc of regional monarchial regimes in order to prevent further change in their countries. Riyadh actually believes that drastic changes in any of these countries will lead to further spread of popular uprisings to all regional states. The next issue is to create a legal framework for the suppression of Bahraini opposition. Obviously, sending the Peninsula Shield Force into Bahrain in accordance with the statute of the (P)GCC, which has not been backed up by three council members that see it incompatible with the statute of the council, cannot be considered anything but occupation.

Accusing Saudi Arabia of occupation and suppression of its own people as well as the people of its small neighbor, in addition to interference in Syria under the pretext of supporting its people, has proven duplicity of Riyadh beyond any doubt and has had a great adverse effect on regional and international prestige of Saudi Arabia. By proposing a Persian Gulf union whose goal is to devour Bahrain, Riyadh is trying to make the most of this opportunity and legalize the occupation of Bahrain. The third motive behind Saudi Arabia’s proposals is to counteract Iran’s regional power. Although Riyadh is trying to show that its plan aims to foil Iran’s threats, it is not clear which threats they are talking about and it is quite interesting that despite all the hype about Iran’s threats, they have not been able to produce a single shred of evidence to back up their claims. Although everybody knows that such claims are quite baseless, the member states of the council are trying to focus global attention on Iran – and this time by establishing a union to oppose Iran threats – in order to distract their citizens from popular uprisings in the Middle East.

To include all these motives in a single framework, we can assume that they are all aimed at preparing (P)GCC member states to face the second wave of popular uprisings in their countries. The second wave of uprisings will undoubtedly engulf the member states of the council because you cannot defend democracy and human rights in Syria and Libya, but domestically, suppress your own people. The awareness resulting from the Middle East’s political developments in 2011 and 2012 will reach the Persian Gulf states in its natural course. Therefore, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council is trying to form a union in order to weather the second wave of the uprisings.

It is evident that the dominant view which has come up with the idea of establishing such a union is a security-based view that easily ignores the main breeding grounds of insecurity such as poverty, discrimination and lack of freedom. Instead, it only tries to muffle people’s struggles and prevent their external manifestations. Therefore, such a plan will not be able to solve problems for which it has been devised.

Of course, establishment of such a union, even on a small scale (just between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) has been well-nigh impossible, at least up to this time, despite the existence of necessary political will in political leaders of both countries. As put by the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, existing indices have not been in favor of the plan, though its future possibility cannot be totally ruled out. If passed and put into force, such a plan can have many consequences. It can intensify the existing conflicts between Shias and Sunnis in the short run. Saudi Arabia and its allies have invested a lot in spreading such conflicts in order to reduce Iran’s regional influence. The Saudi plan is, in fact, aimed at suppressing Bahraini Shias and reducing them to a minority within the borders of (P)GCC, or at least, in Saudi-Bahrain union. As a result, any effort to this effect will further intensify tension through the region. Another consequence will be escalation of tension with Iran with the final goal of suppressing Shias throughout the region. Member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, which have so far failed to produce any proof to back up their claims about Iran’s interference in Bahrain or other member countries of (P)GCC, will most probably create new challenges – at least at propaganda level – against Iran in order to exploit Tehran’s possible reaction to justify suppression of Shias in their countries.

In addition to the above two consequences, which can be imagined as short-term consequences, there are also two long-term outcomes to this plan. Firstly, a gap has been created among Arab countries of the Middle East due to popular uprisings as a result of which democratic Arab states and those that are in transition to democracy are pitched against traditional and monarchial rules in the Arab world. Therefore, as the situation in revolutionary countries gradually calms down, tensions between these two fronts are sure to escalate in medium and long terms.

Secondly, in case of the establishment of a union in the Persian Gulf, a broad-based front will be formed on the opposite side of internal developments of these countries as well as regional developments. The outcome will be similar to post-Napoleon Europe when efforts were made to restore the traditional order in Europe. The result, however, was ephemeral and did not last very long. Under these conditions, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council will turn into an institution whose main goal is to curb popular changes in these countries. On the other hand, the Peninsula Shield Force, which had been originally established to face foreign threats and has not been effective in this regard up to the present time, will gradually turn into a police force to deal with domestic threats faced by member states of the council. Rumors about possible formation of a 360,000-strong army by the (P)GCC are a sign of structural changes in the Peninsula Shield Force. Saudi Arabia, as the main axis of the council and the “big brother,” is going to gradually spread its sovereignty over smaller states in the Persian Gulf. In this sense, the memorial photo of Prince Nayef should be taken as portent of grave changes that await other member stages and may end in a new era in Saudi Arabia’s relations with these countries.

Key Words: Persian Gulf Union, Motivations and Consequences, (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, Popular Uprisings, Peninsula Shield Force, Saudi-Bahrain Union, Ahmadian

More By Hassan Ahmadian:

*Palestinian Agreement and Netanyahu’s Contradictions: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Palestinian_Agreement_and_Netanyahu%E2%80%99s_Contradictions.htm

*Evolution of Saudi Strategy: Change for Change: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Evolution_of_Saudi_Strategy_Change_for_Change.htm

*Yemen’s Transition from Saleh: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Yemen’s_Transition_from_Saleh.htm

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