The Gulf Union that Never Was
RUSI Analysis, 18 May 2012
By David Roberts, Research Fellow / Director, RUSI Qatar
Some kind of a union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was believed to herald the beginning of a wider Gulf Union plan. But this idea failed before it even began. While there is a united front against Iran, smaller Gulf states do not want to lose their sovereignty and identity to a dominant Saudi Arabia.
By David Roberts, Deputy Director, RUSI Qatar
The leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council met on 14 May in Riyadh to discuss the formation of a new Gulf Union. This Union was to entail even closer relations between the states. In particular there were high expectations that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would form some kind of a deep Union, potentially as a pilot before the other states joined. Or so it was thought.
Instead, essentially nothing has emerged from this key meeting. This highlights that while the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) States have common histories and common problems today, there remains key, perennial, and divergent opinions as to the best way to assuage these concerns.
Saudi Arabia leading the way
Saudi Arabia is a conservative country in many ways. It is not flashy with its policies and while it does occasionally engage in fanfare it generally operates with reservation and careful reflection. Yet in the run up to the recent consultative meeting, Saudi authorities and a stream of editorials had been hyping the importance of this meeting and the expected outcomes. The loyal Sunni press in particular relentlessly banged the GCC unity drum, championing the 'inevitable' coming together of fraternal states against the spectre of Iran and its numerous perfidious policies.
Their logic flows that Bahrain, a fellow Sunni Kingdom, is - depending on who you read - either under attack from Iran or at least suffering from Iranian-inspired activities that have energised the majority Shia community in Bahrain. This led to a response from the Bahraini Government, which has, among other things, adversely affected the Bahraini economy. Saudi Arabia has stepped in to physically and economically secure Bahrain in recent months and a Union between the two states is the inevitable and sensible conclusion to protect Sunni interests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia from a further descent into Shia-inspired violence.
The level of expectation of some kind of outcome from this summit was high, given the hype surrounding the meeting and the breathless commentary. Yet any dispassionate analysis of a putative GCC Union reveals that such an outcome is highly unlikely.
Distrust of Saudi Leadership
For the ruling Al Khalifah family in Bahrain, the situation does not look good. The economy is suffering badly and highly reliant on continued Saudi support. This is compounded by the social fabric of the country being ripped asunder and polarised; law and order is a mess with riots, protestors being killed, and reprisals being taken against the police. All of these issues highlighted Bahrain's murky international image, coming again to the fore after the recent Formula 1 race.
Yet, despite these difficulties, to submit Bahrain to some kind of Union with Saudi Arabia would be a huge gamble by the Bahraini monarchy. Despite Saudi Arabia's unwavering support, for which most Sunni Bahrainis are deeply grateful, joining a country thirty-nine times bigger and with a population twenty-two times bigger is a different proposition. Depending upon the depth of the Union, such a measure could be considered to be surrendering Bahrain's sovereignty to Saudi Arabia. And such an outcome - realised or not - would please neither the majority of Sunnis nor Shia.
For most Government supporters there is just no need to join with Saudi Arabia: Bahrain already receives considerable support from Saudi Arabia. While those in Riyadh, according to some sources, have become impatient with the ongoing struggles in Bahrain, the chances of them removing military or financial support are remote. As for the Shia, there would likely be an immediate and vociferous reaction against such a notion with fears that it would mean the deep entrenchment of a staunchly anti-Shia position.
As for Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), neither have hugely positive relations with Saudi Arabia. For Qatar, after many difficult years, the rapport with Saudi has improved, but still the states disagree fundamentally on key topics, such as how to deal with Iran. While Abu Dhabi in particular supports Riyadh's line on key topics such as Iran there are outstanding issues. There are sporadic border disputes and the UAE pulled out of the GCC Common Currency when they learned that Riyadh would host the central bank. The fact that the UAE only sent their Deputy President, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to the recent summit shows a calculated snub and a reluctance to take such a Union seriously at present.
Oman, despite being somewhat reliant upon Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States for economic support, was the first country to pull out of the GCC Monetary Union in 2007 and is wary of any eroding of its sovereignty that a Union might entail. Kuwait is beset with its own political problems at present and, depending on the level of the Union, would likely be concerned that its political progressiveness be hampered by such a move dominated as it would naturally be by Saudi Arabia and its less than progressive political system.
Is the Idea Finished?
The GCC states are not against improving their joint relations or boosting economic cooperation. But the fact that this move was so strongly led by Saudi Arabia, the state that dwarfs all other GCC states combined, is concerning for the smaller states.
Fears that a Union might be a slippery slope to greater cohesion in which the individual states and their nascent identities and social practices would be subsumed in a Saudi-dominated context dominate. An egalitarian Commonwealth of Gulf States, as suggested by a Saudi expert on a recent research trip to Riyadh, might be a suitable way to square this difficult circle, but otherwise Saudi Arabia's apparent good intentions will be lost through a base fear of absorption and homogeneity.
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
Further Analysis: Middle East and North Africa, The Gulf Region, Iran