Gulf leaders and their representatives gathered in Bahrain for the thirty-third Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit on 24–25 December 2012. The meeting was relatively low key in comparison with the previous year’s meeting in Riyadh, which saw Saudi King Abdullah launch his plan for a closer Gulf union. After the failure of the mid-year Consultative Summit to reach consensus on the issue, expectations for the Bahrain meeting were understandably lower. Indeed, what was not on the agenda was almost as noteworthy as what was discussed; paradoxically, however, the decisions taken in Bahrain may prove more tangible and lasting precisely because they concern mundane and pragmatic issues of information-sharing and policy coordination, and eschew the high-profile yet divisive declarations of previous years.
With the summit venue rotating across the six GCC member-states, the timing of Bahrain’s turn to host the meeting was fortuitous. It enabled the Arab Gulf states to make a statement of geopolitical and regional support for the beleaguered island kingdom following nearly two years of persistent unrest. The Sakhir Declaration, issued at the end of the summit, reaffirmed that “any threat on one of the Council’s States is considered as a threat on all States.” In addition, GCC Secretary General Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani—himself a Bahraini—gave a further statement that “rejected and denounced continual Iranian interference in the GCC states’ internal affairs.”
With the Bahraini uprising largely contained, if not extinguished altogether, the Manama summit focused on measures to enhance pragmatic cooperation and internal consolidation. Most notable was an amended version of a new security agreement that was signed by GCC internal ministers in November. Details of the agreement endorsed at the full summit in Bahrain remain unclear—and for that reason, controversial. They likely cover closer coordination of internal security and surveillance, greater sharing of information across national boundaries, and unifying policies and plans for joint action. Already, the agreement has created political waves in Kuwait, where the head of the National Assembly’s Foreign Relations Committee complained that MPs had not been able to view the text, and in Qatar, where the editor-in-chief of the Peninsula newspaper asked, “Why was [the] Gulf security pact adopted quietly?”
The fact that progress was made on the security agreement is telling. For years, the GCC has struggled to make headway on big ticket issues such as monetary union and the move to a single currency, the full implementation of the common market, and the degree and pace of closer political integration. All of these issues were conspicuously absent from the agenda in Manama last week, highlighting a paradox identified in a recent comment article by Christian Koch, the director of the Gulf Research Centre Foundation in Geneva. He feels that “the strength and the ability of the GCC to survive as an institution is to be found in the weakness as a centralized, independent entity.” This, Koch argues, enabled individual members to benefit from the collective umbrella when necessary, while pursuing often-divergent political and foreign policies in practice. A case in point is the region’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which varies widely among the six member-states from close support in Qatar to increasing enmity in the United Arab Emirates.
With this in mind, the ostensibly under-the-radar progress on internal security offers a powerful reminder that the GCC is, first and foremost, a security organization that was formed in 1981 to defend the interests of its members against external threat. At that time, the predominant danger to Gulf interests lay in the fallout from the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the threat of overspill from the Iran–Iraq war. Today, it is the regional Arab Spring upheaval that is deemed the major threat to security and stability. The challenge facing policy-making both at the national and regional levels is that this blurs the lines between internal and foreign policy as never before. Having attempted to expand the GCC beyond its initial security focus—and earning a certain amount of integrative success along the way—the organization now appears to be returning to its original raison d’être as a collective bulwark against forces threatening to upset the regional status quo.