Saudi Arabia said the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council needs to agree a common approach before it can achieve greater unity, as the world’s biggest oil bloc confronts rising tensions with Iran and regional turmoil.
“All members need to agree to unity, not just Bahrain and Saudi Arabia,” the kingdom’s foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, said after a summit meeting yesterday in Riyadh. The GCC is in “full cooperation” to form a union, he said, adding that greater unity among the bloc’s members will be achieved only following a “common understanding.”
The group has accused Shiite Muslim-led Iran of seeking to foment unrest among the Shiite communities in the region, including Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia and other members sent troops to help put down an uprising last year. Iran denies interference. The popular movements that swept away leaders in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Libya in the past 17 months have been a catalyst for the GCC to close ranks and hasten change.
“A decision for the union, whether it is defense or economic, will take time,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said by phone. “There are a lot of inherent problems between the GCC states. They weren’t unified up until the political unrest last year and Iran becoming more of a threat in the region from their perspective.”
The group met in the Saudi capital yesterday to discuss December proposals by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to strengthen the alliance into a unified entity, as well as policies toward Syria and the group’s growing tensions with Iran. Bahrain’s Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa said two days ago that regional circumstances make unity “an imperative.”
The push for unity is driven by Saudi Arabia’s desire to “organize Gulf foreign, defense and financial policies,” Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political science at King Saud University in Riyadh, said by phone. “The region is entering a new phase, and the GCC has to adjust.”
The United Arab Emirates this month recalled its ambassador from Tehran after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the Persian Gulf island of Abu Musa, which both countries claim. Iran, controlled by a Shiite clerical leadership since 1979, has accused Bahrain’s Sunni leaders of discriminating against the Shiite majority in the island nation.
Prince Saud’s comments were preceded by a statement from 190 Iranian lawmakers criticizing the alliance plans. They described any effort by Saudi Arabia to form a union with Bahrain as “unwise,” the state-run Mehr news agency said yesterday. Iranian religious scholar Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani said unity between the two countries was “doomed to fail” and that Bahrain belonged to its people, the Islamic Republic News Service said.
“Iran has nothing to do with what happens between the two countries, even if it develops into a unity,” Prince Saud said yesterday. “The Iranian threat is not accepted.”
Only the people of Bahrain can talk about independence and no one has the right “to speak on behalf of the Bahraini people about any kind of confederation with any country,” Bahrain’s largest Shiite political group, Al-Wefaq, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
“When the European countries decided to move to a union, they went through discussions and everybody voted for or against the union,” Ali Salman, the group’s secretary-general, said in the statement. “While here, the union is forcefully imposed.”
The alliance, established in 1981, has been slow to integrate its economies, delaying plans on a customs union until at least 2015. A decision to locate a proposed regional central bank in Saudi Arabia prompted the U.A.E., the second-biggest Arab economy, to pull out of a planned currency union. Other obstacles to regional integration include a ban on banks opening more than one branch in another member country.
“The economic benefits of GCC integration haven’t materialized,” Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank, said by phone yesterday. “To get those benefits they don’t need official statements, they need to focus on implementation. Greater unity would bring greater trade and greater investments.”
The GCC said in May 2011 that it may admit the Arab monarchies of Jordan and Morocco to the group, a bulwark against pro-democracy movements sweeping across the region. In March last year, the GCC agreed to provide Oman and Bahrain with $10 billion each over a 10-year period to help offset the costs of unrest.