Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Blog

Following a meeting last week in Riyadh, diplomats from the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) delayed a decision regarding a Saudi proposal for increased integration of the group’s member states. Though the proposal has received support from Bahrain, where Saudi troops have helped to quash an uprising against the al-Khalifa monarchy, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seem less eager for tighter ties to the Saudi kingdom.

The so-called “Gulf Union” plan calls for measures to further integrate the political and economic policies of the Gulf monarchies. Though some in Saudi Arabia have proposed a union modeled on the European Union, with relaxations of visa rules and even an integrated currency, these proposals have virtually no support outside of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The important part of the proposed union is the tightening of political and military ties, which would help the Saudis both to deter perceived Iranian threats and to more easily suppress opposition movements in neighboring countries, which could spread to Saudi Arabia itself. Though the Iranian threat receives most of the public attention from Saudi leaders, many analysts believe the model of peaceful protest that swept the Arab world in 2010 and 2011 is a greater threat to the future of the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the Arab Spring has frequently resembled the foreign policy of the Arab Cold War (first theorized by the historian Malcolm Kerr), which lasted roughly from 1954 until the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970. Nasser’s Arab Nationalism was rightly seen as a deeply destabilizing threat to the Saudi monarchy, and a series of proxy battles were fought between the two sides in Yemen and Iraq. The Arab nationalism of the 1960s has been replaced with the Shiite triumphalism of Iran, though the Iranian threat is tiny compared to the far-ranging effects of Arab nationalism. Now, as then, the Saudi royal family is attempting to rally a core of conservative Sunni monarchies around it as a bulwark against the threat. Saudi attempts to recruit the kings of Morocco and Jordan to join the GCC show that the group defines allies by politics, not geography. Despite Saudi attempts to blame Iranian agents for inciting the protest movement in Bahrain, little evidence exists linking the two. But the myth is pervasive, not least because it allows Saudi officials to sell their repression of protests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-dominated Nejd as a defense against Iranian subversion in the Gulf.

The lukewarm reaction of GCC nations like Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait to the Saudi plan shows that the Iranian threat is becoming less imposing in the minds of smaller Gulf rulers as American and European Union sanctions stress Iran’s economy. American officials recently signaled limited support for the Saudi-Bahraini alliance, agreeing to partially restore an agreement to sell arms to Bahrain that was suspended during last year’s crackdown. Like their Saudi counterparts, American officials say the aid is intended to deter Iranian threats.

In the long run, however, American support for closer integration of the GCC under Saudi auspices may seem less prudent. Though a stronger GCC may be useful in deterring Iranian aggression, visible American support for Saudi aggrandizement will also make the Iranian leadership more suspicious of American motives and decrease the chances for a negotiated settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue. In addition, closer military and political integration with Saudi Arabia would likely be followed by the spread of the puritanical brand of Wahhabism that receives state sponsorship in Saudi Arabia. Though many GCC states are conservative and religious, few offer the level of state support for Islamists that the Saudis do. Saudi jihadists have been implicated in numerous terrorist attacks, especially the September 11th attacks, and Saudi financing to jihadist organizations continues to be a concern of American law enforcement officials. In short, American policy-makers should be cautious before endorsing Saudi efforts to expand the GCC. Such an expansion would spread Saudi influence and religion and stifle the legitimate democratic aspirations of the peoples of the peripheral GCC states, all in the name of providing deterrence against an Iranian threat that would be better managed through diplomacy.

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