On the eve of the GCC summit in Bahrain last week, a journalist for Elaph asked me for my opinion about the challenges facing the Gulf countries. I told him nothing was new. The same challenges we have faced for ages are recreating themselves in a similar or a different fashion. Since we keep using the same methods to deal with them, we keep getting the same results.
Let’s start with Iran. The Persian nation was an issue before and after the dawn of Islam. Its rulers have always sought to control the Gulf region. Their civilization preceded ours. When they had a sophisticated empire, we were mostly Bedouin.
Islam changed everything. To spread the word of Allah, we overcame their mighty armies and formidable castles. Most atheist Persians chose Islam over fire worshipping. But that hasn’t settled the issue of who has the right to rule the neighborhood.
The Arabs argued that since they were the carriers of Allah’s word, and the host of the holy places, they should be the leaders. The Persians felt that since they had a superior culture and merits, they should be in charge. To counter the centers of religious knowledge and culture in Makkah, Madinah and Cairo, they established their own in Qom, Mashhad and Shiraz.
In recent history, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, built a world-class army in a bid to be the policeman of the oil rich Gulf. Then came the Islamic revolution in 1979. Many thought the new regime would positively change Iran’s attitude.
In the beginning it seemed so. Ayatollah Khomeini proposed a new name - Islamic Gulf- to solve the question of whether it was the Persian or Arabian Gulf. Arabic was taught in public, as well as religious, schools. Shia worshippers were allowed to pray behind Sunni imams.
However, concerns about the revolution spreading in the region led the Gulf countries to support Saddam’s invasion of Iran. The ancient Arab-Persian mistrust and animosities were ignited by the bloody Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). Today, we stand again at the edge of the same cliff.
The Arab Spring is also not new. Revolution has changed the Arab world more than once in its long history. Arabs fought the Turks and then the colonial powers for independence. In independent Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, soldiers revolted against their royal regimes.
The new revolutionary rulers were not so friendly to our countries. Led by Nasser’s Egypt, they tried to destabilize our form of government and impose their own.
There are other dangers and challenges which are not new. The Baath parties in Syria and Iraq have always been troublemakers. The Arab-Israeli issue is over 60 years old. The infighting of Palestinians has continued for half a century. Lebanon, since independence, has been the arena where Arab and foreign competitors settle their accounts. The ferocious competition among its sects, with varied political and religious loyalties, put the country through a hellish two-decade-long civil war (1975-1990), and is threatening another.
Our southern neighbor, Yemen, has always been on fire. From Egyptian and Marxist inspired revolutions against the rule of imams to independence revolts, and from the wars of unification to the struggle for separation, and from the Houthi and Al-Qaeda armed conflicts to the Arab Spring, Yemen has always been in constant turmoil and pain.
Jordan is another renewed problem. Since its creation, the country’s rulers have been caught in the crossfire between Palestinians and Israelis, Iraqis and Syrians. The Gulf countries have always been sympathetic and supportive of the Hashemite royal family, except when the late King Hussein chose to lean toward Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait.
Internal challenges facing Gulf governments are old, as well. Sectarian and tribal, as well as liberal-conservative and democratic-traditional tensions have always been there, with or without foreign meddling.
All the above is not new. In one way or another, we have seen this movie before. What’s new is King Abdullah’s call for unification. Instead of dealing with these challenges individually or by depending on the cooperation of all GCC member states, we will be facing them as one entity.
The United States of the Gulf, or, if we accept Yemen’s membership, the United States of Arabia, will be stronger and more resourceful and formidable in meeting both old and new challenges and threats. Let’s pray that we live to see that day.
(Dr. Khaled Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. This article was published in the Saudi Gazette on Jan. 1, 2013. The writer can be reached at: Kbatarfi@gmail.com and followed on Twitter: @Kbatarfi)