The six rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states met in Kuwait for the 34th annual GCC Summit on December 10–11. The three issues that dominated the agenda were all security-related: prospects for forming a Gulf Union, plans for closer defense integration, and the regional response to the interim nuclear deal agreed between Iran and the P5+1—the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany—in Geneva on November 24. The summit took place days after another annual event, the Manama Dialogue on security in Bahrain on December 7–8, where discussion of the same three issues cast a shadow over the subsequent gathering in Kuwait.
Internal security cooperation has been the driving force behind integrative efforts since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011. Saudi leaders proposed in May 2011 to broaden the union by offering a form of membership to fellow monarchies Jordan and Morocco, and in December 2011 to deepen the existing links among GCC states into a confederation. However, both proposals appeared to be made without adequate discussion with other GCC members, and were not taken up. More substantive progress was made on the nuts and bolts of practical security cooperation. Gulf interior ministers reached a comprehensive security agreement at a meeting in Riyadh in November 2012, which replaced an existing pact from 1994. Further measures were in November 2013 when interior ministers met again in Bahrain, with agreement to set up a unified police force (GCC-POL) to reinforce and expand regional coordination among security services.
During the run-up to the Kuwait summit, expectations among officials were once again raised that the GCC would be ‘upgraded’ to an EU-style union. Four of the six member states—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar—were believed to be supportive of further integration with Kuwait and Qatar having overcome initial reservations to accept the idea. However, Oman and the UAE maintained their ambivalent stance about the prospect of closer union on the grounds that it would be overly Saudi-dominated. In the event, the summit was overshadowed by a spat that occurred beforehand at the annual Manama Dialogue in Bahrain. At the end of a speech by Saudi Arabia’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Oman’s Foreign Minister, Youssef bin Alawi, unexpectedly said that his country would “simply withdraw” from the new body if it went ahead. In response, GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif Al-Zayani stated that Oman’s opposition would not prevent the other five GCC states from moving ahead.
The dispute between Omani and Saudi officials dominated subsequent media coverage of the summit and punctured the talk of union that had been building up over previous weeks. When the Summit did convene in Kuwait City, it was noticeable that the Emir of Kuwait, the host, referred only to the need for greater “consultation and exchange of views” so as to reach “unity of positions.” Once the meeting concluded, Zayani stated that no decision had been reached on a Gulf union but that discussions on political and economic integration would continue.
It is unsurprising that the pre-summit rhetoric was not followed up by concrete measures in practice. Since its creation in 1981, the GCC has struggled to make headway on big-ticket issues such as monetary union and a single currency, the full implementation of a common market, or the degree and pace of closer political integration. The body lacks a supranational decision-making institution for the sharing of sovereignty akin to the European Commission, and remains vulnerable to the sudden actions of individual member-states or rulers. Moreover, member states have frequently struggled to reach consensus on the major regional and foreign policy issues facing them, whether they be Iraq, Yemen and Iran, or on moving from bilateral defense and security arrangements to a truly multilateral format.
Rather than showcasing any new-found sense of purpose within the GCC, the Manama Dialogue instead shed light on the divergence of views at the two ends of the regional spectrum. In spite of the setback, other avenues exist for deepening a common sense of purpose among the Gulf states. Demanding a GCC seat at the Iran negotiations as part of a ‘P5+2’ diplomatic track would allay GCC officials’ concern at their exclusion from any potential settlement, which will invariably impact regional security. Syria also offers an opportunity for Gulf leaders to participate in a multilateral search for a comprehensive political settlement that recognizes the leading regional role of GCC states. Finally, Qatar’s new leadership has smoothed over the regional tensions caused by its predecessors’ approach to the political transitions in Arab Spring states, which proved to be an outlier within the GCC.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.