Saudi-Bahraini Gulf union opposed by Iran, GCC states

Yasser Seddiq, Thursday 31 May 2012

Proposed union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain seems a little far-fetched as it is strongly opposed by other Gulf Cooperation Council members and the island's Iranian-backed Shia majority

Saudi King Abdullah and Bahraini counterpart Hamad
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (L) walks into the meeting hall with his Bahraini counterpart Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on 14 May 2012 in Riyadh. (Photo: SPA)

King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa of Bahrain said Wednesday that Saudi Arabia and the gulf kingdom are "one country that will never be segmented." 

His comments come after Bahrain and Saudi Arabia attempted to merge as a political entity in early May, against the will of other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman, in order to face regional challenges.

Riyadh's main issue is Iran and so is pushing for the union in order to reinforce military defence in the area as well as to strengthen foreign policy ties between the neighbouring countries.

On the eve of the 14 May meeting of the 14th Gulf Cooperation Council Advisory Summit in Riyadh, Saudi and Bahraini officials had said that the proposed union would be announced at the summit. However, this never happened, reflecting the concerns of GCC state members. Qatar, in particular, sees such a move as encouraging greater Saudi influence in the region.

Nevertheless, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal maintains that the two kingdoms were on their way to integrating and added that the leaders of GCC had postponed declaring the shift from the "cooperation stage" to the "union stage" in order to confirm the details of the merge.

Despite the statements made by Al-Faisal, it seems that there are profound splits among the GCC countries on the idea of the union.

A few of the GCC members blocked the idea, as it would give further sway to Saudi Arabia, the biggest member of the gulf coalition.

Smaller GCC countries are afraid of losing political and economical influence to Saudi Arabia whose population is five times bigger than Oman; the second biggest country in the GCC by population. In addition there are fears that they will lose out in important gas and oil sectors.

After the summit, a source close to the Qatari government told Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper that, "Qatar sees the move as a Saudi manoeuvre to undermine the bilateral relations between the countries of the GCC and to impose its agenda upon it."

Meanwhile, the Guardian reported that Saudi-led plans to widen regional integration among the Arab Gulf states to challenge Iran are questionable, after Riyadh failed to secure the proposed union between Saudi Arabia and its neighbour Bahrain.

The British newspaper said hopes were high on the eve of the Advisory Summit, but the decision was delayed until the next GCC summit in December.

Head of the Arab Gulf unit at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies Dr Motaz Salama spoke to Ahram Online about the proposed union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, saying it is was a natural development as union is the key goal of the GCC.

"Building on statements from leaders and officials in the Gulf area, it seems very difficult for the proposed alliance between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to see the light in the near future, it is not impossible but it will take time," Dr Salama said.

The call for such a union, Salama explained, came in unhealthy circumstances because the Arab Spring is reshaping the Middle East.

"The 'Arab Storm' as one gulf official called the Arab Spring, will hit the rich-oil states one day. The GCC member states should open channels of dialogue with their people and must include discussions about long-term political reforms not temporarily solutions to sophisticated problems," he added.

Saudis believe Iran encouraged the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in order to dominate the region and used it as a launch pad to "swallow" the Arabs. They also accuse Tehran of inciting Shia-led protests in Bahrain and triggering turmoil among the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia.

The Bahraini protests, which broke out on 14 February, 2011 were inspired by the popular uprising in Tunisia and the January 25 Revolution in Egypt, were led by the Shiite majority calling for political and economic reforms.

Troops of the Peninsular Shield Force, which included more than 1000 Saudi soldiers, entered Bahrain to quell the protests, demonstrating the strength and significance of Saudi Arabic in the Gulf area.

Iran strongly condemned the action and asked Saudi Arabia not to interfere in the internal issues of Bahrain.

The Persian state has since made many provocative statements concerning the situation in Bahrain. One of the most controversial was when Iranian MPs claimed that Bahrain was the "14th governorate” of Iran and that Bahrainis wanted to “return to the motherland."

In response, Bahrain's foreign minister stated that “this meddling and this Iranian stance is not directed against Bahrain, but against everybody” in the Gulf bloc.

It is not just the GCC which oppose the Bahrain-Saudi union. Bahrain's Shia opposition group Al-Wefaq strongly contest the proposed alliance and demand the proposal be put to a referendum.

Thousands of Iranians marched through their capital on Friday, 18 May in protest at the union, which was described by the imam during a Friday prayer in the University of Tehran as a "conspiracy of American Zionism."

In the meantime, some observers see that the failure of the political union as being only a "tactical retreat" dictated by the domestic and regional interests overlapping in the Bahrain crisis. Others described it as "one step backward, two steps forward" move by the GCC.

Speaking to following the summit, UAE academic Muammar bin Saif Alesayi said the delay merely gave leaders in the region time to discuss the "details of the details," as previous unions had suffered from careless planning.  He went on to say that the GCC would be looking for consensus during the finalisation of the particulars, as the overall goal is to enlist all countries in the proposed union, not just two or three of them.

In short, the tiny kingdom of Bahrain has two options:  to go for a union with Saudi Arabia or to be annexed to Iran. This in turn means the future of Bahrain is subject to the regional conflict that is supported internationally by the United States on the side of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Russia and China on the side of Tehran.



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