Does the slogan “our Gulf is one” reflect the geopolitical facts of the Arab Gulf region? This question is mainly asked when talking about the Gulf Cooperation Council as a unified political entity. The importance of the question has increased amid the political uncertainty brought about by the Arab Spring.
The Gulf does look unified when considering historical, cultural and social commonalities among its countries. One can even consider Yemen and some Iraqi areas as part of a cultural and historical unity linked to the Arabian Peninsula’s tribal system. However, cultural and dialectal links alone are not a strong basis for the establishment of political unity that expresses the same interests and aspirations.
This raises the question of whether the aforementioned slogan really expresses the facts pertaining to the geopolitics of the region and its political unity as represented by the GCC, which was established in 1981. The question is more important now that the member states are studying plans to transform into a union.
The problems facing the Gulf
There are three major problems that the region is currently facing. Firstly, there is the issue of water. The Arab Gulf countries are more linked to the Strait of Hormuz than they are to the Gulf as a body of water. Around 20 percent of global oil production passes through the Strait daily (90 percent of which is Gulf oil production).
Although Oman overlooks the Gulf, it is the only GCC country that overlooks the Arabian Sea, and therefore the Indian Ocean. This has created for Oman a special strategic dimension, in that it is unaffected by the Iranian threat to block the Strait.
This is why Oman has traditionally adopted a policy towards Tehran that is different from other Gulf countries. For Oman, the second-largest GCC country in terms of area and population, the Iranian threat has turned into an opportunity that can be seized.
Secondly, the GCC countries enjoy natural geographic barriers represented by the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, as well as the northern desert lands - except for Kuwait’s exposure to southern Iraq. This makes Iraq, as well as Yemen, two countries that the GCC must work with geopolitically. Furthermore, Jordan represents a buffer zone between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Saudi and Yemen
Saudi policy towards Yemen is based on geographic closeness. The Empty Quarter Desert separates areas of tension in Yemen from other GCC countries. This is why other Gulf states place Yemen as a lower priority than does Riyadh.
Thirdly, there is the issue of size. Five Gulf countries together constitute only around 18 percent of Saudi territory.
Therefore, the geographic balance is between Riyadh and Tehran. Iran is around 1.6 million square kilometers, while Saudi Arabia is around 2.2 million.
In addition, Iran’s population is around 73 million. That of the GCC is around 43 million, including foreign workers, who comprise around 30 percent of the populations of Saudi Arabia and Oman, some 85 percent of Qatar’s, and 70 percent of Kuwait’s and the United Arab Emirates’.
Although GCC armies are technically advanced, Iran has double the number of troops, at around half a million. Furthermore, Gulf countries, unlike Iran, suffer from an absence of renewable water resources. This weakens their capabilities to provide water, and thus food.
Their strategic reserves of water in case of emergency are only enough for a few days (five days in Kuwait, three in Saudi Arabia, and two in Qatar and the UAE). Except for Saudi Arabia and Oman - which have Red Sea and Arabian Sea shores, respectively - the rest of the GCC, which almost completely depends on the desalination of Gulf water, have their facilities falling under the direct threat of Iran.
These problems have affected the formula of relations and policies of the GCC countries.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on June 3, 2013.
Saud Kabali is a writer and political analyst from Saudi Arabia, with interest in geopolitical issues in the Middle East. He can be found on Twitter @saudkabli.