The Gulf Cooperation Council vs. Iran

This is a cross post by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) first came to widespread attention during the early stages of the uprising in Bahrain, where, on March 14, it deployed thousands of “PeninsulaShield Force” troops — drawn principally from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates — to aid the Sunni monarchy in suppressing the largely Shi’a protestors.  This measure, still in force today, is rooted in the growing tensions between the Gulf states and Iran as part of the “Arab Spring,” with the former accusing the Islamic Republic of being behind the demonstrations in Bahrain and of fomenting unrest in the predominantly Shi’a areas of eastern Saudi Arabia.

Less widely noticed however, was the GCC’s decision on May 10, 2011 to announce at a meeting convened in Riyadh that it welcomed Jordan’s request to join the council, along with its invitation for Morocco to become a member.  This move came as a surprise to certain delegates at the summit.  Yet the choice to invite Morocco to the GCC, despite its distance from the Gulf region, should have been expected.

For those who have been closely following the development of what can be termed the “Middle Eastern Cold War” between the “resistance” bloc led by Iran and Turkey as opposed to the “status quo” bloc of Saudi Arabia and formerly Egypt until Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, Morocco has distinguished itself for publicly breaking off all ties with Iran in March 2009.  Morocco’s initiative was at the time supported by Bahrain, both of whom then claimed that Iran was trying to spread Shi’i Islam in the Maghreb.

But what are the more general motives behind the GCC’s decision?  Two reasons come to mind:

Forming a Sunni axis against Iran and the Shi’a: It is clear that the GCC is trying to bolster its military capabilities, anticipating a military conflict with Iran in the future.  The idea of creating a new coalition of Sunni Arab states can be explained by the status-quo bloc’s suffering of a heavy loss with the removal of Mubarak as president of Egypt.  With the Egyptian authorities allowing Iranian warships to transit through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt’s membership of the status-quo bloc is severely in doubt in the eyes of the GCC.

One can also account for the decision to incorporate both Jordan and Morocco into the GCC in terms of forming a new Sunni bloc against Iran, as well as the GCC’s retraction of an earlier invitation to the council for Iraq, which has a Shi’i-dominated government and took a stance in support of the protestors in Bahrain.  The latter policy particularly annoyed the GCC, and partly motivated the Arab League in April to cancel the planned Baghdad summit that should have been held in March.

Replacing the dysfunctional Arab League: It could well be that the GCC is trying to create a new inter-Arab political group to replace the Arab League and shift the onus of decision-making to the Gulf region.  Two traditional key players in the Arab League have been Egypt and Syria, even though the Baathist regime has aligned itself with the resistance bloc in the Middle Eastern Cold War.  A vacuum in the Arab League’s leadership has therefore been created by the ouster of Mubarak and the uncertain transition state in Egypt, together with the major protests and unrest in Syria that have taken Bashar al-Assad by surprise.  Thus, the Arab League, which has normally fostered some sort of unity among Arab countries and served as a body for joint initiatives (e.g. the “Arab Peace Initiative” in 2002 to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), is now almost completely dysfunctional.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and the GCC have looked beyond the Arab world to strengthen ties with other Sunni nations against Iran and what are perceived as Shi’i threats.  For example, in return for Saudi pledges to put Pakistan’s economy on the path to recovery, Pakistani securityfirms — similar to Blackwater — have recruited thousands of active and demobilized Pakistani troops to assist the monarchy in Bahrain.  Meanwhile, on May 13, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak declared in Riyadh that he would be prepared to send troops to Bahrain to aid the Peninsula Shield Force if necessary.

The emerging picture appears to be one of alliances formed on the basis of the traditional Sunni-Shi’a schism.  On the other side, Shi’i countries and movements such as Iraq and Hezb’allah respectively have affirmed their support for the uprising in Bahrain, while standing with Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite (a sect of Shi’i Islam)-dominated regime in the face of protests in Syria.  In contrast, the Kurdish authorities and Sunni Arab politicians in Iraq have openly declared their solidarity with the Syrian demonstrators.  Sectarianism thus appears to be very much alive in relations among Muslim countries at present.