Gulf countries agree to continue looking at possible union


Gulf Arab leaders agreed to continue discussions on a closer political, economic and military union on Monday as part of strategy proposed by Saudi Arabia to primarily develop closer ties with the unrest-hit Bahrain and provide economic development support for the Kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan.

“Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have approved the call for a commission to continue studying in order to present final results (to a coming summit),” Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference after a summit meeting. “The issue will take time... The aim is for all countries to join, not just two or three.”

He also said no steps would be taken on a closer relationship between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Gulf Arab states are already tied together militarily, politically and economically under a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). But the union currently under discussion is meant to empower one country to come to the aid of another if it feels threatened, as happened in Bahrain.

Analysts say that by joining up with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia would gain more control over its tiny neighbor’s security and send a message of Arab unity to Iran.

Bahrain’s state minister for information, Samira Rajab, earlier said that the idea of a union could start with two or three members.

When GCC leaders last convened in December, Saudi King Abdullah urged member nations to move “beyond the stage of cooperation and into the stage of unity in a single entity.”

“The threats of all kinds necessitate a serious move by the GCC countries to cross from the cooperation phase to a unity that is acceptable for all,” Saudi Foreign Minister al-Faisal also said last month.

This might prompt the establishment of two much-discussed Gulf commissions to coordinate foreign and defense policy - although a Gulf government official said these would likely be purely consultative and might not be announced until the next full summit in December.

Emirati analyst Abdulkhaliq Abdullah said that the six GCC members were “not all enthusiastic about a union,” as they struggle to shape an economic integration which has proved elusive ever since the GCC was founded.

Saudi analyst Anwar Eshqi, who heads the Jeddah-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, said the Saudi enthusiasm for a Gulf union was due to “pressure from Iran,” which is accused of meddling in Gulf affairs.

The Gulf Cooperation Council was formed in 1981 when the Sunni-dominated monarchies aimed to bolster security after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and its war with Iraq.

The tension between Shiite Iran and Saudi Arabia escalated last year after Saudi troops rolled into Bahrain to help quell protests.

Tensions mounted further with the deadly clampdown on the uprising in Syria, whose President Bashar al-Assad is a staunch ally of Tehran, while Riyadh and other Arab states in the Gulf have called for the fall of his regime.

Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq since the withdrawal of U.S. troops as well as its territorial dispute with the United Arab Emirates have also contributed to fuelling cross-Gulf animosity.

Riyadh argues that evolving the GCC into a union has economic potential.

Such a union would turn the oil-rich GCC into a “solid economic bloc,” said the Saudi foreign minister, as the combined economic output of the group hit $1,400 billion in 2011.

But the GCC continues to face hurdles preventing the group from reaching goals set at its launch.

Only four members - Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - have signed a monetary council agreement, and analysts said Gulf states still have a long way to go in their bid to launch a single currency initially slated for 2010.

A customs union launched at the start of 2003 for a three-year transition period has been put off until 2015, as issues of revenues, dumping and protectionism repeatedly delay its full implementation.