At the Gulf Summit held in Manama late last year, four leaders from the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) failed to attend. Their absence stood in silent rebuke to the message the Saudi king had chosen to deliver to those in attendance, in which he demanded they reflect deeply upon the path the GCC was headed and called for sober reflection upon what had been achieved over the past 31 years. In the king’s words, the council “had failed to meet the hopes and aspirations pinned upon it.”
For this reason he stressed the importance of taking steps that require “a transition from the stage of cooperation to a stage of union in a single entity.” It is well known that that the Saudi king surprised the attendees at the GCC conference held in Riyadh just over one year ago in December 2011 when he made his famous call for the political unification of the Gulf.
At the time, none of those assembled were particularly enthusiastic about the idea, and most countries in the region harbored fears that accepting the invitation would be tantamount to submitting to a Saudi bid for regional hegemony. And so the idea was buried and the initiative was remanded to a committee of experts for study. The Saudi king repeated his call in his speech given at the Manama summit, and once again it failed to elicit an enthusiastic response from anyone save the king of Bahrain, who views unification with the GCC (or, at least, with Saudi Arabia) as a way for his regime to escape its current predicament.
The remarks by senior Saudi and Bahraini officials last month at the most recent GCC conference reflect both governments’ desire to speed up efforts at forming a ‘Gulf Union’. Both the Saudi and the Bahraini monarchs contributed to heightening expectations of what might come out of the summit. Yet in the end the conference’s concluding statement failed to include anything out of the ordinary.
On the contrary, it simply reiterated the rhetoric of past GCC conferences: that this was an exceptional summit convened in turbulent conditions and required strategic decisions. The official media focused on two clauses in particular: one which pertained to the signing an amended Gulf Security Agreement and another calling for the establishment of a unified military leadership.
GCC possesses no united security doctrine
Gulf officials needed 18 years of debate simply to accept the amendments that Kuwait had set as conditions for its acceptance of the security agreement signed in 1994. Much of this delay was attributable to popular apprehension in Kuwait that the Security Agreement would act as a gateway to Saudi interference in their internal affairs. The Kuwaiti government, at the urgings of successive parliaments, insisted that the agreement not contain any clauses requiring the extradition of citizens wanted in other countries, or permitting security forces to cross the border to pursue or detain fugitives. Moreover, the agreement will not enter the implementation phase until the Kuwaiti parliament ratifies it.
Despite the outcry raised by the announcement of the security agreement, it does not represent a fundamental departure from the tradition of close relations that has characterized the various security services of the Gulf countries. But it provides them with additional tools to coordinate in the realm of internal security, especially regarding rising challenges faced by all the member states of the GCC, albeit to varying degrees of severity. Political and security officials must therefore come to an agreement concerning a unified security doctrine that would specify the common dangers confronting them.
The glare of the media spotlight does little to render the task easier. For example, the UAE is waging a security and propaganda campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, even as that movement forms one of the mainstays of the regional strategy being pursued by Qatar and even as two ministers in the Bahraini government are themselves members of the Brotherhood. At a time when both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are staging crackdowns against the Shiite populations, Shiite MPs sitting in the Kuwaiti parliament constitute a key pillar in the Kuwaiti government’s ongoing struggle with its opponents.
Unified military leadership
One of the most important motives for the foundation of the GCC in 1981 was the defense of the region’s ruling families. Less than a year later, the formation of the “Peninsula Shield Force” was announced. It was intended to serve as the nucleus of a joint military force, yet none of the ruling families in the Gulf was interested in, or capable of, confronting the obstacles hindering military coordination between states that, though wealthy in natural resources, lack the demographic depth necessary for developing conventional military power.
Moreover, they suffer from the absence of unconventional defense strategies, political will and popular legitimacy. It is true that the Iraqi attack on Kuwait created a temporary circumstance favorable to the spread of calls for increasing military coordination between the countries of the GCC in order to prevent a similar situation from repeating itself. At the same time, some called for the formation of a unified Gulf army to take the place of the largely symbolic “Peninsula Shield” joint force. Yet, despite the announcement in December 2000 that a joint Gulf defence force had been agreed upon, and despite the agreement some nine years later on a ‘GCC Defense Strategy,’ nothing much came of it.
Historical schisms between the ruling families of the Gulf contributed to perpetuating the crisis of a mutual lack of trust. This lack of trust has so far thwarted all attempts at forming a unified military council including the transformation of the Peninsula Shield Forces from symbolic units to the nucleus of a unified military force. On the contrary, the Peninsula Shield forces that entered Bahrain in March 2011 to help suppress the popular protest movement were composed entirely of Saudi units, troops, and officers. Kuwait and Oman abstained from participating at all in the intervention to avoid facilitating a precedent for a Saudi Brezhnev doctrine.
For over three decades, the GCC has been unable to coordinate its efforts in the military realm, let alone establish a central military leadership possessed of a unified military doctrine. This is not to say that military cooperation is nonexistent, but that it occurs exclusively when the GCC militaries fall under American military command, as happened during the war to liberate Kuwait.
Washington opposed to gulf military cooperation
Despite the urgency of members’ security concerns, and the role they played in the founding of the GCC in the first place, none of its member states attempted to turn it into a viable alternative for the existing bilateral relations between each country and the U.S. (which, since the fall of the Shah of Iran, has come to constitute the dominant military power in the Gulf). Here, it is insufficient to highlight the mutual suspicions harbored by each of the ruling families against the others, nor to note that the paramount desire of each is to protect their particular interests. The U.S. does not believe that it needs to deal with the GCC as a regional entity so long as it fails to vigorously pursue the implementation of its regional policies. It has therefore insisted upon negotiating free trade agreements with each Gulf state separately; we can see it doing the same in the security and military realms as well.
Escalating military expenditures
One seeking the secret to the vitality of this “lack of coordination” between the member states of the GCC, and the role of the outside world in perpetuating them, may gain insight by reviewing the details of military expenditure. According to figures of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, total military spending of GCC member states exceeded $79 billion — more than the military budgets of great powers like Russia, Britain or France and more than the six largest military budgets of the Middle East (those of Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, and Iran) combined!
Most of the spending by GCC member states is devoted to covering the costs of importing military equipment from the U.S., Britain and France as well as training and maintenance services. However these military imports are undertaken without any rigorous study of the security needs of the countries involved, or of the region as a whole. Neither are they coordinated with the other states of the GCC, or preceded by study of their joint security needs. Instead, this money is spent through piecemeal deals between each individual GCC member and the particular arms manufacturer. Due to the prevailing climate of mutual suspicion, none of the Gulf states know the precise details of what equipment or hardware the others have imported.
In addition to this “lack of coordination” there are difficulties posed by rampant corruption and the temptations of vast commissions in arms deals (that in some cases exceed hundreds of millions of dollars). Both factors have turned vast stores of arms in the Gulf into dumping grounds for weapons and equipment no longer fit for service due to their advanced age, or incapable of being effectively employed due to the scarcity of personnel trained in their use. The multiplicity of weapons systems, the incompatibility of their sources, reflects the inability of the Gulf countries’ military forces to coordinate with one another. Exacerbating this challenge is the dependence of the armed forces in at least three Gulf countries upon soldiers recruited from abroad, particularly from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
More than 31 years since the foundation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, its six member states still do not know what its role ought to be, or what limits ought to circumscribe its behavior. It will not suffice for the leaders of the Council to answer those questions by repeating old answers about ‘security agreements’ that have been on offer for over twenty years — or to recycle talk of a ‘unified military leadership’ that has been on offer for over thirty. And, of course, it will not be enough for the Saudi King to repeat his flight from the present and claim that “unity is the solution.”
The above article was translated from As-Safir al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.