The Gulf Union: Building Castles Out of Fear

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Saudi men in traditional outfits wait for the arrival of Gulf leaders during a welcoming ceremony ahead of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit meeting in Riyadh. (Photo: AFP - Fayez Nureldine)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Friday, June 22, 2012

Throughout much of the 20th century, attempts at unity have been made by various Arab governments. Each attempt has failed or faltered for a number of reasons, both domestic and foreign.

Of late, there have been whispers of a Gulf Union. This latest endeavor was called for by Saudi Arabia during the final weeks of December in a proposal dubbed the Riyadh Declaration. Ever since Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud decided to form a “Gulf Union” at the opening of the 32nd GCC Summit in December, the reactions in the Gulf by governments and the public have not been entirely supportive.

On the governmental level, there was a great divide between the Gulf States during the latest GCC Summit held in mid-May. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates voiced reservations. Qatar and Bahrain embraced the idea. Oman bluntly rejected it. Because of a lack of consensus, it was decided that more time and study was needed regarding the Riyadh Declaration and it was quickly shelved to be discussed at some point in the future.

Below the governmental level, intellectuals, activists, and private individuals have similarly expressed their reservations about the plan.

Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al Arabiya, outlined his concerns over a Gulf Union in a column for the Riyadh-Based Arab News, a day after the latest Gulf Summit ended. Notably, al-Rashed was perturbed by the obscurity behind the proposal. It was not clear to him, or to anyone else other than the Saudi King, what this Gulf Union actually entailed.

He asked two key questions that were prevalent in the minds of many. First, would such a union affect the diverse political, social, and economic systems within the various Gulf States? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, why is a Gulf Union necessary?

These questions touch upon the essential dilemmas behind this proposal and reflect an underlying awareness of the fact that the proposal was made without much planning or thought.

Kuwait: Democracy First, Unity Later

In Kuwait, the reactions offer a glimpse of not only the problematic nature of the proposal, but also the growing question of the GCC’s future as an effective unifying force.

“We will be fooling ourselves if we think that any kind of [Gulf] union can be reached if governments do not offer compromises and start granting their people more rights,” said Kuwait’s parliament speaker Ahmed al-Saadoun to Al Arabiya during his first TV appearance at the end of February.

His comments were one of the first rebukes against the Riyadh Declaration. The outspoken parliament speaker reiterated this point again on his twitter account days after the 33rd GCC Summit was held.

Saadoun’s statements exemplify a common apprehension among the Kuwaiti public of the potential cost behind such a union. Kuwait, unlike the other Gulf States, does have a parliamentary system that the public take pride in, regardless of its capricious nature and the numerous scandals and conflicts that persistently arise within it.

“There is a fear of losing a Kuwaiti identity, even though we have connections with our neighbors in terms of language and religion. But is this Kuwaiti identity truly the same as the rest? This is the most important question,” Ali Khajah, a Kuwaiti columnist and a political activist told Al-Akhbar during a phone interview.

“The [Kuwaiti] constitution says we cannot compromise our democratic principles, [and] any moves towards this should and will be rejected,” he added.

In terms of the role of security in this proposed union, the political activist saw its current state as off-putting. This stemmed, according to him, from how the Gulf Peninsula Shield was employed in suppressing the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, which he feared could pave the way for other similar interventions elsewhere.

Kuwait’s position vis-à-vis Bahrain was a fine balancing act. The Bahraini al-Khalifa royal family has its roots in Kuwait and both countries have unique relationships with Saudi Arabia. The government and most of the mainstream media repeated much of the Bahrain royal narrative, but in a tamed tone. After all, there is a significant Shia minority in Kuwait, estimated at around 30 percent of the total population, and many Kuwaiti civil societies and activists sympathize with the Bahraini protesters. Due to this sensitivity, Kuwait sent its navy rather than ground troops when the Gulf Peninsula Shield intervened to support the al-Khalifa regime.

Despite these concerns, Khajah noted there is still hope of some type of unity that can be gradually built over time. However, echoing Saadoun, Khajah believed that democratic principles and significant political and social reforms needed to occur first in the neighboring countries before any progress can be made in unifying regionally.

“There currently are no indicators that they [other Gulf countries] will change. Either we lose our democratic principles, which no one will accept in Kuwait, or they progress and develop so we can be on an equal footing,” he said. “We can have a superficial unity along economic or trade sectors, but beyond that we are not at a stage for more.”

Issues of Fear, Security, and Public Discussions

“Why is the union necessary…[and] to whom is it necessary? That is a very important question,” said Shafiq al-Ghabra, a political science professor and analyst, to Al-Akhbar. “Gulf unity cannot happen unless it is part of a public debate and part of a vote of confidence or no confidence by the people of the region.”

For Ghabra, the inherent reason behind this call, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, was “one of fear.”

“They are pushing as a result of fear. Fear from Iran. Fear from an American vacuum in the region. Fear from what could happen later in Yemen [and] in Iraq. Fear of the Arab Spring. Fear of change. You cannot have unity as a result of fear, because this is how you end up destroying this unity later on,” he said.

Kuwait, the professor noted, is a society that is used to electing its officials and playing a role, albeit limited, in determining their policy.

“People want to unite to maximize their freedoms, their rights, [and] their economic benefits. [Currently] People do not care that much about unity after they have seen what happened to Arab unity. They care more about their rights, their privileges, theirs health, their education, and their future,” he said.

Again, like Khajah, Ghabra was concerned with the slippery slope that an unqualified regional security policy could lead to. If there were internal problems in Kuwait, would security be invoked in order to intervene in Kuwait? If Kuwaiti writers, intellectuals, novelists, independent thinkers and others are deemed a security threat for regional policymakers, will they be eliminated? These are the brewing worries that both Ghabra and Khajah were keen to focus on. It’s not a surprising sentiment within a country that tries to be independent while it remains surrounded by regional powerhouses.

“Kuwait is close to Saudi Arabia, and this dates back to the unique relations that go back to 1990 [the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait]. But at the same time, Kuwait is a small state that has always kept its ability to be independent from the powers surrounding it, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Therefore, as close as Kuwait is to Saudi Arabia it is as independent as it tries to be moderate in its relationship with Iraq and Iran and [how it functions] internally,” Ghabra argued.

“The majority of Kuwaitis will hold on to an independent Kuwait and are fearful of security arrangements and the lack of total trust behind the arrangement. There is a lack of trust in the region which comes from a lack of a clear transparent public debate, a lack of progressive planning over time, and having no actual movement for reform in much of the region, including Saudi Arabia.”

What’s Next?

It seems that the GCC will continue to function, in its limited capacity, spurting along creating pockets of cooperation and coordinated policies in major issues like Syria.

But, as Ghabra, Khajah, and many others have pointed out, for the Gulf region to go beyond and grow out of this hollow political shell that it finds itself in, there needs to be a mobilization towards opening up the debates and allowing people to be involved in the process and be made aware of the benefits and prices they will pay for such a regional union.

Unity demands a shared common interest and concern. So far, the public and the governments are driven by their own desires and interests. In most cases, the sentiments and needs of the public are not being heard.

Without a somber account of these elements, the GCC could be inadvertently stumbling into a major crisis in the near future – one that could potentially shatter this fragile alliance – as they try desperate to control and maintain the status quo. If that were to happens, the question of “is a union necessary” will be a very moot point.


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