End of the GCC?

The new Saudi formula for Gulf ‘integration’ seems aimed at excluding dissident Oman and reaching out to non-Gulf monarchies Morocco and Jordan.
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By Abdel Bari Atwan

Senior officials in the Gulf are not in the habit of making off-the cuff comments to the media or publicly voicing personal opinions. Certainly not when it comes to matters of high strategy or sensitive political differences between the member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This is frowned upon and considered unacceptable. When it happens, it is almost invariably because official circles, deliberately and in a calculated manner, want their thinking on the issues in question to be leaked  

This is evidently the case with the remarks made at the weekend by Bahraini minister Ghanem al-Bouaini to the Saudi-owned newspaper al-Hayat. He announced that the upcoming annual GCC summit in Manama would discuss the establishment of a Gulf Union (GU), as proposed by Saudi Arabia in late 1991. He said this would be a more ‘advanced’ variant of the GCC that was set up three and a half decades ago, and would usher in a phase of economic and political ‘integration‘ between the member-states rather than mere ‘cooperation’. He went on to affirm that the project could go ahead without the involvement of Oman.

In other words, the Manama summit is on course to lay down the foundation stone of this GU as an alternative to the GCC, and its membership will be confined to Saudi Arabia and the four other Gulf states – the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait –that joined its military coalition which is currently waging war in Yemen, with Oman excluded.

Oman publicly voiced its opposition to the proposed Union a few months after it was first proposed, in response to claims by Saudi spokesmen that all six GCC member-states were on board for the project. The country’s foreign minister, Yousef  Bin-Alwai, said at the time that it would not oppose the formation of the new body but would not itself be joining.

But there is more than meets the eye to the way the idea is now being revived five years after it was first suggested. 

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Oman are not in good shape. They took a sharp downturn when the Saudis awoke to the fact that Muscat had for six months hosted secret negotiations behind its back between Iran and the US – which eventually culminated in the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers.  The rift deepened when Oman opted to keep out of the war in Yemen and declined to take part in the ‘Decisive Storm’ operation that fired its opening shots.

For the past two decades or more, the Omanis have been pursuing an independent foreign policy course to the GCC while signalling their unhappiness about Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed domination of the group.  They chose to adopt a neutral stance over the conflict in Syria and to keep their embassy in Damascus open when the other Gulf states all severed relations. Bin-Alawi paid an official visit to Syrian to meet his counterpart Walid al-Muallem and President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states were spending billions of dollars on funding the armed opposition to overthrow him and his regime. Oman has also made a point of preserving good relations with Iran. It refused to close its embassy in Tehran or recall its ambassador in line with the other GCC states after the Saudi embassy was stormed by demonstrators in protest at the execution of the leading Saudi Shii cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Such behaviour clearly did not meet with the approval of the Saudi authorities. They were enraged. The state-sponsored Saudi electronic army was unleashed to subject Oman to a tirade of criticism on social media, accusing it among other things of smuggling weapons to the Houthis and their allies — Saudi Arabia’s foes in Yemen — including Iranian-made ballistic missiles (the charges were officially denied).

The Omanis, for their part, resent being expected to kowtow to the Saudis. They see theirs as a country of substance which differs fundamentally from the sheikhdoms of the Gulf, hub of a former empire with an ancient heritage whose political and cultural influence extended to East Africa, the Subcontinent and as far as Malaysia and Indonesia. Their merchants and envoys, along with their counterparts from neighbouring  Hadramout in Yemen, played a major role in introducing Islam to those parts. Their spirit of independence has been deepened by developments in recent years. Hence their rejection of a Gulf Union which would dilute the national identities and sovereignty of member-states, and their insistence on a formula of cooperation rather than integration between the GCC countries.

It is not known what the other GCC states really think about the GU idea. Only Bahrain, which is financially and politically dependent on Saudi Arabia, enthuses about it and publicly promotes it. Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar are a different matter. When the idea was proposed, they all either welcomed it in principle or kept quiet about it, without actually opposing it in order not to upset the Saudis. But if and when practical steps start being taken to put it into practice, their stances are bound to change. These countries all jealously guard their sovereignty in domestic affairs – hence the GCC’s failure to make much practical headway since its inception – and are loathe to become even more beholden to Saudi Arabia in foreign policy, especially after its bungled interventions in Syria and Yemen.

Nobody has explained details of what the proposed GU is supposed to entail, nor even begun addressing the many complexities that would be involved in setting up an EU-like structure in the Gulf.

All that can be concluded for now is that Saudi Arabia is minded to disengage from the Sultanate of Oman while drawing closer to the more reliable non-Gulf Arab monarchies of Morocco and Jordan.

If this were to happen, the Omanis may well be quietly relieved.