Despite Saudi Arabia’s push for it, a Gulf union was a ‘non-starter’ in the near future, Professor
F. Gregory Gause said this week at the IISS-US. In a speech entitled ‘Prospects for a Gulf Cooperation Council Union’, Gause was doubtful that all Gulf states shared the Saudi king’s vision of a closer Arab world. Even a smaller union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was unlikely, Gause, the chair of political science at the University of Vermont, suggested.
Gause noted that the proposal for a Gulf Union and the invitation to extend GCC membership to Morocco and Jordan were personal initiatives of Saudi’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who saw the Arab Spring as both a domestic threat and as a regional risk because of the potential for Iranian influence.
Saudi Arabia was interested in preserving its leading status in the region and the king saw himself as ‘the last dam against the spread of Iranian influence in the Arab world’. Other GCC member states were more concerned with the ensuing loss of sovereignty concomitant with greater integration. These states did not see Iran as a geopolitical threat and were more concerned with their domestic political conditions following the Arab Spring.
Gause said that a GCC union would have been better received in early 2011, right after the Arab Spring, as the GCC states tended to put aside differences in the face of an external threat. However, when threat perceptions were low, there was a greater emphasis on sovereignty and less incentive for cooperation. This proposal for a GCC union was a ‘hiccup’ that was not indicative of a fundamental change in GCC relations, Gause claimed.
Gause also said a union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would be highly controversial, facing opposition from Bahraini Shi’a and the Iranians.
It’s not yet clear what the appointment of Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud as crown prince of Saudi Arabia following the death of his brother, Naif, will mean for the country or the wider gulf region. Prince Salman has a reputation as something of a reformer but is also known to be hawkish on Iran.
The appointment has also shone a spotlight on the kingdom’s labyrinthine rules of succession. In December 2010, following the unusual public announcement that King Abdullah would be seeking medical treatment in the US, an IISS Strategic Comment explained the 2006 Succession Law, and looked at the issues facing the Saudi monarchy.
Despite democratic transformations in a few states, the problems that led to the Arab Spring largely remain unresolved, Dr Toby Dodge, IISS Consulting Senior Fellow for the Middle East, told an audience in Manama on 29 May 2012. In his talk, ‘Drivers of Instability: Reflections on the Arab Spring’, Dodge pointed to short- and medium-term factors such as rising food prices and demographic bulges, as well as the broader failed policies of Arab authoritarianism, as some of the causes of the Arab revolutions.
Yet unemployment remained high in the region more than one year after a street vendor in Tunisia set himself alight and a wave of protests began. Many of the youth who spearheaded the uprisings had not been integrated into post-revolutionary transitions.
Dodge said that several factors determined how each country fared during the uprisings. The outcome varied according to the state’s capacity to co-opt, repress or buy off protesters agitating for reform; the ruling elite’s cohesion; and the domestic opposition’s ability to sustain popular mobilisation.
By Dr Sanjaya Baru, Director for Geo-economics and Strategy
As Asia’s rising powers seek to sustain growth and ensure stability, energy security has moved to the forefront of Asian geopolitics. The recent visit by China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar was as much about ensuring energy security for China as it was about China playing a role in maintaining political stability in the Middle East. The visit came against the backdrop of the growing threat of United States-led oil-export sanctions against Iran and China’s need to secure alternative sources of oil and gas. But its unstated purpose was to bolster China’s rising profile in the Persian Gulf and the Muslim world.