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Gulf states frozen in the headlights

Beset by intra-GCC tension, Gulf states are dithering in the face of the Iran crisis

The fear engendered in Saudi Arabia by the September attacks on its oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais is shared by the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Vital installations within their own borders are now as potentially vulnerable as those in Saudi Arabia. But the GCC is not in sufficiently robust shape to face up to the threats collectively. 

The GCC, in its 1981 founding charter, made no reference to defence cooperation. But three years later, Gulf leaders approved the creation of a joint military unit, the Peninsula Shield Force. One of its duties is to respond to military aggression against a GCC state. But there has been no suggestion since the September attacks that the force should be mobilised to defend Saudi Arabia or attack Iran. 

“Theoretically at least,” says Christopher Davidson, a Middle East specialist at the UK’s Durham University, “the recent attacks should have prompted much closer GCC coordination, especially with regard to air defence systems and developing a unified response to Iran's alleged involvement. In practice, however, the deep divisions within the GCC members seem to preclude such steps.” 

The Saudi belief that Iran had a hand in the September attacks has done nothing to minimise a recently-appeared division in the GCC—namely the one between former close allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To Saudi consternation, the UAE is seeking to ease tension with Iran, holding direct talks on security in the Strait of Hormuz. There are also emerging differences over Yemen, with the UAE having withdrawn most of its forces, leaving the fight against the Iranian-backed Houthis to Saudi Arabia alone. 

The two former allies are at loggerheads too on the future shape of Yemen. In Davidson’s view, “the UAE's backing of Yemeni southern separatists and its emphasis on securing commercial assets—notably Aden's port facilities—above all else has clearly undermined Saudi Arabia's much grander objective of consolidating a national Yemeni government favourable to Saudi interests and securing its long and porous southern border”. 

All this leaves the GCC leaders with a dilemma. Not only can they not agree on a joint response to the Iran crisis, but they also know they cannot expect President Donald Trump, increasingly beset by domestic political pressures, to go into battle on their behalf. 

Iran’s suggestion

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, in a speech to the UN General Assembly at the end of September, urged states around the Gulf to set aside their differences and “strengthen consolidation” in a way that would obviate the need for foreign military involvement. He called for the creation of a “coalition for hope”, bringing together “all the countries affected by the developments in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz”. 

The instinct of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is to reject outright this suggestion. Other GCC states will at the very least be wary of the idea. But the longer the crisis goes on, they might finally conclude, in the absence of any other practical idea, that the Iranian approach is the only option—if they are to have a say in how the crisis is resolved. 

An editorial in the London-based daily online newspaper Rai al-Youm makes this point, wondering whether “the Gulf States will once again sit and wait until the US secretly negotiates with Iran and signs a deal behind their backs and on its own terms, as happened with the nuclear agreement in 2015”. 

For now, even with this major crisis on its hands, the GCC remains paralysed by internal friction.

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