The Gulf Cooperation Council Turns 31 – Part 4 – A Question of Union

Published: May 31, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

Today we present part four from the “Gulf Cooperation Council at 31: Implications of Trends and Indications for GCC and US Interests,” a symposium presented last week in Washington, DC, by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

In his presentation Mr. Joshua Yaphe, Arabian Peninsula analyst of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, examines questions around the current push within the GCC to establish a single, “EU like” entity following last December’s proposal by King Abdullah.  He looks at the conditions surrounding the creation of the GCC 31 years ago and compares them to the current situation facing the member states.

Additional reports from the symposium are at the links below with the remainder of the presentations appearing separately over the course of this week.


The Gulf Cooperation Council at 31: Implications of Trends and Indications for GCC and US Interests (Part 4 – Joshua Yaphe) – A Question of Union

Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
Washington, DC
May 24, 2012

Part 1 – Dr. John Duke Anthony – Introductions and Ms. Molly K. Williamson – Overview
Part 2 – Dr. Odeh Aburdene – Economics
Part 3 – Ms. Randa Fahmy Hudome – Energy


Joshua Yaphe, US State Department (Photo: NCUSAR)

[Mr. Joshua Yaphe] Thank you very much, Dr. Anthony. It’s an honor to be up here on stage with you and these wonderful speakers who did an excellent job so far. And I would agree with everything they’ve said.

At the GCC summit a little less than two weeks ago, as you may have read in the newspapers, there was an announcement that they may at some point explore the idea this year of a union. It’s not clear quite what that means. The idea that gets tossed around is some sort of a confederation that would involve greater integration than currently exists in the GCC.

A lot of newspapers and commentators expected that there would be an announcement of a sort of preliminary confederation of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and maybe exploration of greater integration down the road, but that’s not exactly what happened. What happened was Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, Prince Saud Al-Faisal made the announcement that they’ll continue to study the idea of a GCC union and perhaps at the next summit they will revisit the idea once they have had more time to consider this.

He made a number of other statements and what you had, though, in spite of this measured and tempered approach to such a concept, what you had was a very vocal reaction on the streets, the streets in Iran and certainly among some protestors in Bahrain and some Iraqi Shia politicians all certainly felt that this was a slight to the public in Bahrain. Although if you read the Bahraini newspapers you find there are multiple opinions that this is not entirely viewed upon negatively by the Bahraini people or certainly not the Bahraini government which supported this idea. So there are mixed opinions on different sides regarding that matter. But it was certainly a heated debate and a heated issue and there were enough differing viewpoints in the newspapers about what this means, where this leads to that it’s worth exploring. I think it’s worth mentioning and discussing even if nothing comes of it in the foreseeable future.

It prompted a couple of questions from colleagues of mine in the [State Department] building as to what were the conditions 31 years ago that created the GCC the first time around? What is similar and what is different today. So I thought it would be interesting to go back to some of the analysis and commentaries from 1980-1981 when this was first being discussed and what you find is a very nuanced version of events. As Molly [Williamson] said earlier Iran, and the Iran-Iraq war, was certainly a primary concern on everyone’s minds. Iran then as now posed a number of dangers and threats to the region and the war was certainly a problem for everyone in the Gulf.

But there were other things that came out of those first meetings as Dr. Anthony can surely attest to. He’s written eloquently about these first initial meetings and he was certainly on the scene for many of them, for all of them I believe. Probably one of the only people that can say that for sure.

So some of the concerns from sort of the secondhand reports that you get at the time are that South Yemen was a concern and the Straight of Hormuz.  Oman in particular, Sultan Qaboos, was worried about both of those issues. Sheikh Zayed after the summit where they announced the formation of GCC had a press conference where he unequivocally stated the UAE’s right to control Abu Musa and the Tunbs, the three disputed islands. But he called for a diplomatic solution not a military solution to the problem.

A lot of this will sound very familiar to today. I think you’ll recognize a lot of these same concerns in what we talk about now. We certainly had a lot of press, a lot of paper being spilled over the three disputed islands just a few months ago and the same perspective taken by the UAE which is certainly a wise and peaceful approach to the problem.

The GCC at its initial setup, they created a $6 billion investment fund which is little known today but there was a lot written about it at the time. But when you read the analyses from 1981, what they felt was, the suspicion was that this fund was really intended for GCC internal use and when I say that, what you read is analyses that talk about “this fund is a chance for Saudi Arabia and the other oil rich GCC states to provide a sort of assistance fund for Bahrain and Oman,” which again is similar to what we saw two years, a year and a half ago in the beginning of the uprisings, the proposal for a $20 billion fund for those two countries. That was floated about.

There was also, back in 1981, discussion of a monetary union. The idea of a Gulf “dinar” had been around since the mid ‘70s.  Kuwait was a big proponent of it at the time. But of course economists thought given the current economic climate, again 1980-1981, that that probably wouldn’t be occurring right at that moment, a monetary union. Again we talk about the same thing today, given the current economic climate that we have right now.

Perhaps most interesting is that the United States back then had proposed in 1980 the use of a “rapid deployment force” in the Gulf and the GCC states did not take an immediate opinion on that. What they said instead publicly was that they did not believe that foreign countries should have basing access on the Peninsula or in the region. They did not object to a military presence and they did not explicitly or publicly object to a U.S. military presence in the Gulf. They simply didn’t want troops or bases stationed on their soil. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions with parallels in recent years.

Some of these analyses discuss a fascinating thing which is that, so you had a revolution in Iran that toppled the Shah. And the countries that became the GCC states were certainly worried about revolutions spreading throughout the region, which was a very real concern back then. But even more than that, they blamed the United States for not supporting the Shah enough, and they felt that the United States could have saved the Shah and kept him in power if it had wanted to and tried to. So there was a lot of hurt feelings over the U.S. involvement or position regarding the Shah before he fell from power.

But I think the most interesting analysis comes from The Economist from right after the February summit in Taif, where the GCC signed a defense pact. This was the prelude to the announcement of the Gulf Cooperation Council. And in that The Economist draws the conclusion that this defense pact that led to the creation of the GCC, it’s a new strategy to maintain the stability of the regimes, to improve the income of Saudi, and this is considered a Saudi initiative, the living standards of average Saudis to prevent further political disturbances.

It was the idea of the elimination of the threat of any popular government taking over power in any of the states by means of close coordination between the security forces in those countries. And they matched it up with a number of initiatives that the Saudi government was taking at the time to provide low-income housing and to provide greater subsidies to its own people.

So those were the analyses of the time. I’m not offering my opinions of whether I agree or disagree with them now, that was what people thought. That’s what they considered. Those were the ideas being floated around. But again, today when we talk about GCC union we have the same problem where a lot of people don’t understand. They are unsure of why this is being discussed or floated or proposed. And to lead towards my conclusion, I know this is a lot of a lot to take in and a lot of talking so I’ll try and be kind to the audience here.

The opinions that you read today and the analyses about this proposal for GCC union, there are a lot of them. both negative and positive views. A number of the newspapers in the GCC have been running editorials that are quite positive and you also get a lot of dour assessment of this proposal. What you read in some of the more negative reviews, the more skeptical opinions, about this union which I thoroughly disagree with, but it’s important to at least acknowledge their presence, is that the idea of a union is nominally a gesture directed against Iran but in fact the idea comes from the fear that popular uprisings could spread into the Gulf. Again we saw that opinion in The Economist’s view from 1981.

Secondly, a lot of these more negative opinions say there’s no need for a union because if as the GCC says that the laws, institutions, the religious and social practices of each state will continue to be respected then why do you need anything more than what you have now in the GCC Secretariat?

And third, kind of browsing through the range of negative opinions that you read out there, you read that Saudi Arabia is advocating for this union, King Abdullah is, but the people, the publics of these societies haven’t bought into this concept and there’s been no efforts trying to get their accession. You can sum all this up by a joke that a friend of mine makes that, “Some people borrow money they don’t have, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.” And that’s what a lot of these negative opinions if you want to think of them sort of as what they’re kind of commenting on. I disagree with those things quite vociferously.

Iran certainly poses a threat to each of the GCC states and certainly there are concerns about Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal and the instability in Yemen and these states have those fears and those are fears that cannot be ignored. And union is about more than just military and security cooperation. There is a Peninsula Shield Force. Clearly the idea of proposing a union involves more than military defense and security issues.

Secondly, the GCC Secretariat would have to undergo a lot of changes in order to create a union, and that’s true and that will involve a lot of organizations, institutions that in theory could impinge upon the national sovereignty of these countries but I don’t think that necessarily has to be the case at all. And there’s no reason why these individual states have to abandon their consultative councils or the sort of progress they are all making towards greater participation, political participation. They all have made steps, albeit modest in some cases but significant in others, and there’s no reason why that has to be abandoned by GCC union.

And third, even if you did not have a GCC union even, if that never comes about, the Secretariat is going to have to develop more robust institutions, more standing committees, more of a permanent presence just to manage the high level of activism they’re already involved in and the high level of activity that Secretary General Zayani is accomplishing right now, very ably, I might add.

So just to finish off, I would note that I think the important thing is that, yes, King Abdullah supports this. King Abdullah supported sort of a more robust role for the Peninsula Shield Force a year and a half ago and again he supported a few months later the concept of inviting Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC and now he is supporting the idea of a union or a greater confederation of sorts, whatever that form will take. The commission that was assigned to study the union proposal hasn’t publicly issued a report.

So King Abdullah is searching for something.  He is searching for an answer to a question he has and I don’t know if he’s found his solution yet. We’ll see what happens. But if this doesn’t work, if a union isn’t the solution that he’s looking for, then what’s the next step? Where do you go from there? These are certainly three different approaches that have been floated and if it’s not the end, then what is? Secondly, what confidence-building measures can Saudi Arabia take and what concessions is it willing to make in order to get the buy-in from its neighbors and from its partners in this venture? And third, what can
Saudi Arabia or the GCC more broadly do to convince its citizens of the benefits of a union, of the tangible benefits of increasing their cooperation.

So that’s all I have to say, thank you very much.


Mr. Joshua Yaphe

Mr. Joshua Yaphe serves as the Arabian Peninsula analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State.  He is responsible for research and analysis of political, economic, military and cultural issues related to the Arabian Peninsula with a special emphasis on Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.  He also serves as the State Department’s liaison with the intelligence community on these countries, and contributes to the work of the Department by providing an institutional memory on these issues.

Before assuming this position in 2009, Mr. Yaphe served as the Strategic Planning Officer in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.  Ms. Yaphe has a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Cincinnati, and Master’s Degrees in a variety of subjects from the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and the George Washington University.

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