The Gulf Cooperation Council, an economic and defence arrangement among the six Gulf Arab monarchies, is twenty years old. Yet Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have only recently signed the first ever cross-border agreement in any utility sector by members of the GCC, which between them hold 43 percent of all oil-reserves and nearly 15 percent of world natural-gas reserves.
But recent developments in the region, including the settlement of border-disputes between Qatar and Bahrain on the one hand and Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the other, as well as the cross-border agreement between Qatar and the UAE, have led some to hope that the stage is set for warmer relations and closer cooperation to replace the old discord. The more optimistic expect the now almost moribund GCC to become a more effective regional body and its member-states to back the UAE more strongly against Iran over the disputed islands of Abu Musa and Tunb. Recent events in the Gulf and in the rest of the Arab world, however, militate against this optimism, although not against the importance of the new developments.
The six GCC member-states (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman) have been divided over their attitude to Iraq, with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia taking a hardline stand, despite the fact that Riyadh has at times cavilled at backing Kuwait’s demands for a stronger condemnation of Baghdad. Other members, such as Qatar and the UAE, have more recently agreed to lift UN sanctions against Iraq — only to agree subsequently to endorse the Bush administration’s proposal for “smart sanctions” against Baghdad.
Nor has consensus emerged over the UAE-Iran island dispute during their summit in Doha (Qatar) last December. While wholeheartedly endorsing the UAE’s claim as the only legitimate one, they failed to agree on how the dispute could best be settled. Doha, for example, argued for direct negotiations between Abu Dhabi and Tehran, but others preferred a more confrontational stance. The issue was again discussed at the recent foreign ministers’ meeting in Riyadh, but no announcement was made apart from a brief statement saying that the ministers strongly support the UAE’s call for the dispute to be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which earlier ruled on the longstanding dispute between Qatar and Bahrain. Iran immediately refused to submit the dispute to the ICJ.
Whether Abu Dhabi will receive much stronger GCC backing for its dispute with Tehran as a result of the final end to border-dispute among member-states, and of the landmark gas-deal between it and Qatar, which supports bilateral talks with Iran, it is too early to tell. But Abu-Dhabi appears to be believe that it might, judging from the way it has decided to widen the area of the dispute by claiming that Iran’s missile-programme is a threat to the region. Khalid Abdullah, the commander of the UAE air force, said at the end of a GCC defence conference in Abu Dhabi on March 21 that the missile-system Tehran is planning to buy (from Russia) poses a threat to UAE airspace and to international navigation in the Gulf. A document that he submitted to the conference also contends that Iran is constructing an offensive capability and that the GCC member-states have “no option but to build a counter defence capability.”
While assessing the impact of recent developments in the Gulf region, there is no point in underestimating the importance of the end of the border-disputes. The ICJ ruling has ended the longest border-dispute in the region, dividing the disputed islands equally between Bahrain and Qatar and as a result immediately resolving the tension between the two neighbours. Doha and Manama quickly convened a meeting between their heads of state. Their immediate acceptance of the ruling was not merely formal, as the parties of celebration still being held in both kingdoms indicate. The decision between the two to build a bridge connecting their capital cities is also a good sign.
The treaty signed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar on March 21 to end their dispute over their sea and land borders is also an important development. Certainly the foreign ministers of both countries (prince Saud al-Faisal and Shaikh Hamad ibn Jassim ibn Jabr al-Althani), who signed the accord, appear to believe so. Faisal said that the treaty had the effect of “abolishing all borders between the two”, and Shaikh Hamad described it as a milestone in relations between the two neighbours. Both agreed that bilateral relations would benefit them greatly, as would ties between all Gulf states.
But it must be said that Arab organisations (including the Arab League) often fail because of rivalries between member-states which have no border-disputes. More seriously, they founder on the ambition of one member-state — which considers itself a regional superpower — to lead the organisation and dictate its policy. Egypt, for instance, believes that it is entitled to host the Arab League and to provide its secretary-general. In the GCC, Saudi Arabia behaves so arrogantly towards other members that it is difficult to imagine that anything can change its long-held view that it can dictate the terms of any deal reached by the organisation.
Disputes also seem to arise between Gulf neighbours in the most unexpected ways. Recently, for example, Bahrain protested to Saudi Arabia about the large numbers of Saudis who drive along the causeway between the two neighbours in order to patronise the bars and nightclubs in Manama that cater for the American troops in Bahrain. The dispute is odd because it is Bahrain, not Saudi Arabia, that licenses and hosts the bars and nightclubs. The Qatari and Bahraini governments, which are planning to build a bridge connecting their capitals, might do well to pause and consider what the causeway between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is doing to relations between them.