Saudi Arabia has formally launched the process for a closer political integration of the six Gulf monarchies as a hedge against the perceived threat from Iran and to counter any challenge posed by the possible intrusion of the “Arab Spring” into this energy rich zone.
After a day-long meeting in Riyadh on Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal announced that the attempt at political consolidation among the six countries belonging to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — was still on course. “I am hoping that the six countries will unite in the next meeting,” Prince Saud observed optimistically.
Analysts point out that Saudi Arabia has been the chief advocate of the federation, to stand up as a bulwark against the tide for change that has been sweeping across West Asia and North Africa. The Saudis have identified Iran as the chief challenge to regional stability, and have along with Qatar tried to undermine the Tehran supported regime in Syria. The perceived interference of Iran last year became the backdrop of the movement of Saudi troops, as head of a GCC force, into Bahrain to crush an uprising that seemed to threaten the ruling monarchy there.
Unsurprisingly, tiny Bahrain has shown the maximum enthusiasm for a unity pact with the Saudis. King Hamad of Bahrain went on record to say the proposed Gulf union was a “response to changes and challenges that face us on international and regional fronts”.
However, a much-anticipated announcement of a unity deal between Riyadh and Manama failed to materialise on Monday. Prince Saud, the Saudi royal explained that there was “no step to have a special relation between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia at this stage, although both countries would welcome a closer association”. He added: “There is no problem between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that would prevent closer co-operation.”
However, some regional observers are of the view that internal resistance from the Bahraini opposition and warnings from Iran may have discouraged a formal declaration of unity in Riyadh. Sheikh Ali Salman, the Bahraini leader of the opposition al-Wefaq, has warned that a political union is possible only if it is put to a referendum in all the GCC States. In Tehran, Iranian lawmakers blasted the Riyadh-Manama plan as counterproductive. “Bahraini and Saudi rulers must understand that this unwise decision will only strengthen the Bahraini people's resolve against the forces of occupation,” they said.
They warned that “the crisis in Bahrain will be transferred to Saudi Arabia and will push the region towards insecurity”.
The other GCC members, UAE, Oman, whose leaders did not attend the Riyadh meeting, along with Qatar and Kuwait appear lukewarm to the proposal of the Gulf federation at this stage.