Fear of Persia: Saudis call for a Gulf Arab Union
C. Raja Mohan
16 May 2012
As Delhi focuses on managing Washington's pressure to reduce oil imports from Iran and avoid the imposition of unilateral U.S. economic sanctions on India, it could easily miss the unfolding power play in the Gulf between Tehran and Riyadh.
At a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council on Monday in Riyadh, the member states - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates -- discussed a proposal for a 'union' among themselves.
Tehran was quick to condemn the proposal as a 'Saudi plot' to unite the Gulf Arabs against Iran.
Last December, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia called on the member states of the GCC to quickly move beyond the current framework of 'regional cooperation' to building a 'regional union'.
The GCC was established in 1981 in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran that brought the current regime to power in Tehran.
Fearing the export of revolution from the Islamic Republic in Iran, the Arab Gulf states sought to promote regional economic, political and military cooperation.
King Abdullah now has more reasons to worry about Iran. These include Iran's rising power, its increasing influence in the Shia majority Iraq, and its support to Shia dissidents in the Arab Gulf.
As a popular uprising rocked Bahrain last year, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of promoting the unrest and the GCC ordered troops into the tiny kingdom and assist the monarchy to put down the revolt.
All the GCC countries are ruled by Sunni monarchs and have significant Shia minorities (except in Bahrain where the Shia are the majority).
That Iran might destabilize the Arab kingdoms by playing the Shia card is a nightmare for the Saudis and the idea of a tighter Gulf integration is the proposed answer.
While the Saudi logic is clear, not all its neighbours are ready to embrace the concept. The Saudis will, naturally dominate any union.
Some Arab analysts are talking about the likelihood of a 'confederation' rather than a full union.
According to media reports, Oman, which has a long and independent history of its own is reportedly cool to the idea of a union and did not send its king to attend the summit in Riyadh.
The UAE too was not represented at the highest level. Kuwait and Qatar have apparently called for a greater clarity on the nature of the union to be built.
Bahrain appears to be eager for an early and solid union. But Saudi Arabia appears to have decided to push for a wider arrangement rather than rush into a bilateral integration with Bahrain. The annual GCC summit in December now is expected to debate the final proposals for a union.
Meanwhile, the opposition activists in Shia majority Bahrain have rejected any union with Sunni Saudi Arabia. Iran was equally vocal in warning against the plan.
Tehran, which in the past had asserted territorial claims over Bahrain, is unlikely to sit back and quietly watch a Saudi 'takeover'.
As it copes with the confrontation between Washington and Tehran, Delhi must begin to pay a lot more attention to the equally consequential conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
Courtesy: The Indian Express, May 16, 2012