Gulf Considers Political Union to Handle Iran and Arab Spring

May 1, 2012

Caroline Crouch
Interview with F. Gregory Gause

The six oil-rich sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf are now considering political federation to unify their foreign and defense policies. The move, originally proposed last December by Saudi King Abdullah, is a response to growing regional challenges over the past 18 months, including from Iran, Sunni-Shiite tensions in little Bahrain, and the Arab uprisings.

 
On April 28, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal said the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman—will discuss details of a “federation” at a May 14 summit in Riyadh.  The first step reportedly may be a federation between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
 
"Cooperation and coordination between the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council in its current format may not be enough to confront the existing and coming challenges, which require developing Gulf action into an acceptable federal format," the Saudi foreign minister said in a speech delivered on his behalf at a GCC youth event.
 
The GCC was created in 1981 in response to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. Its original goals were greater cooperation in defense, finance, trade and scientific research.  But deep divisions among the GCC sheikdoms have often undercut unity projects. In 2009, a proposal to create a common currency failed when the United Arab Emirates withdrew its support.  
 
F. Gregory Gause is chair of the University of Vermont’s political science department and author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf.  The following is an interview in which he analyzed the motives, impact and obstacles to a GCC federation:
 
 Why are the six sheikhdoms in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) talking about a political union or federation?  And why now?
 
 This is clearly a reaction to the events of the Arab Spring more generally and the upheaval in Bahrain specifically.  It can be seen in a general context of GCC fears about the growth of Iranian power in the wake of the Iraq War, but the real driver here is Bahrain specifically and the upheavals of 2011 generally.  We should note that all six are not talking with equal enthusiasm about the idea of union or federation.  This is very much a Saudi-driven idea and the Bahraini government is its most enthusiastic supporter.  The other states do not seem as committed.
 
How feasible is a political union, given the history of differences among the Gulf countries?  What are the obstacles? And what is the proposed timeframe—given that the GCC was formed in 1981 and still is not completely coordinated on defense capabilities?
 
It is very unlikely that the governments of Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE or Oman would give up any real sovereign power, even if they agreed to a federation.  The most likely "constitutional" change would be a coordinating foreign and defense policy committee, with an eye (by the Saudis) to replicating the European Union experiment of a "common foreign and defense policy" and a single representative (like Lady Ashton, but it would be a man) of that policy. 
But the EU has had its own problems here, and the GCC would too.  Each state has a bilateral relationship with its most important security partner, the United States, and that would not change.  Qatar's leaders are unlikely to give up their regional ambitions and submerge them in a Saudi-led effort for long.  Right now, all the GCC states are basically on the same page -- worried about Iran, supportive of regime change in Syria, looking for a soft landing in Yemen.  But that might not last forever. 
 
It is entirely possible that there will be some announcement about a federation or union plan at the next GCC meeting, but actual implementation would be far down the road.  The organization is having lots of trouble coordinating on a common currency.  It would have equal troubles implementing a real common foreign and defense policy.
 
What would a political union or federation look like? Is there a model elsewhere in the world? Is this potentially an equivalent of the European Union?  How might a Gulf union differ from other regional alliances, such as the Arab League and OPEC?
 
It would differ from the Arab League in that there would be fewer members and thus it would be easier to reach unanimity and take actions.  It would be different from OPEC in that it would tackle a range of issues, and not be concentrated on just one.  I think that the supporters of the notion really do have the EU in mind as a model of economic and political integration, but I doubt that the political circumstances are such that any of the smaller state governments except Bahrain would be willing to submerge their sovereign powers to Saudi Arabia, which is what, in effect, such a union would be.  Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE do not need Saudi money and do not need Saudi security forces.
 
What difference would a Gulf political federation make in either individual countries or the Gulf region? What would it change as far as regional dynamics with Iran?
 
I'm not sure there would be much change at all, except in Bahrain, where any hope for political reconciliation would go out the window.  There is already a common GCC policy on a number of issues with Iran, including the UAE islands, and a common perception that Iran is their biggest security issue.  There is already GCC cooperation on internal security issues, most notably manifested in the sending of troops to Bahrain to support the government by not just Saudi Arabia, but also (more symbolically) by Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. 
 
 There might be some better coordination on defense issues -- early warning systems, inter-operability on radars and the like, more joint military planning, more intelligence sharing.  But since the confrontation with Iran is more political and less military, these would not be centrally important in the current context.
 
How much of the Saudi proposal was spurred by fears of Iran? And how much was spurred by Sunni-Shiite sectarian differences, particularly the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
 
 For the Saudis, there is little difference right now between fear of Iran and Sunni-Shiite tensions.  The Saudis see the Iranians behind the Iraqi government and Bahrain protests.  The Saudi leadership sees Iran primarily in balance-of-power terms, not in sectarian terms.  As recently as 2005-06, Riyadh was willing to engage Iran much more directly. 
 
But the struggle for influence with Iran is played out in the domestic politics of weak states and divided societies -- Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen (to a lesser extent), now Syria -- where the Saudis usually find Sunni allies and the Iranians find Shiite allies (some exceptions, to be sure). So the sectarian struggle and balance-of-power politics are now conflated.  The Saudis believe they have the upper hand here, given the majority status of Sunnis in the Muslim world.  But such an emphasis on sectarian identity pushes Arab Shiite in Iraq, Bahrain and elsewhere toward Iran, if they are not allied with Iran already.