In February of last year, Ahmed al-Saadoun, Kuwait’s speaker of the parliament at the time dismissed the idea of a Gulf Union. In an interview with Al-Arabiya, he stated that Kuwait, with its open political system, could not withstand a union with the more authoritarian Gulf states. However, since then Kuwait has undergone yet another chapter of political turmoil accompanied with harsh government reaction to public criticism of the state. Due to these developments, the government in Kuwait may be looking more favorably at the prospects of a Gulf union. The signing of a Gulf Security Agreement at the Bahrain GCC Summit in December may signal that, in the face of growing domestic upheaval, Kuwait is willing to restrict its public sphere, enter a union with other GCC states and coordinate more on security.
The GCC Security Agreement was first proposed in 1994. At the time Kuwait resisted it because it considered some of its articles to be in conflict with its constitution. The agreement was shelved for almost two decades and an amended version was reintroduced at the end of last year. Though Kuwait’s government reassured the public that the amended version is no longer in conflict with the constitution, the swift signing of the agreement along with the secrecy surrounding its provisions stirred a heated debate in Kuwait, with some warning that the country is falling in line with the rest of the Gulf on issues of internal security and domestic politics.
Kuwait’s constitutional principles
The goal of the treaty is to preserve the security and stability of its member states through information sharing and collective action. The original agreement gave more leeway for security coordination between the various Gulf states on issues of extradition of suspects with specific articles allowing security forces from different states to cross borders to pursue suspects within certain limits. Currently, the Foreign Affairs Committee at Kuwait’s parliament is discussing the amended agreement and it has already expressed its concerns that some articles continue to violate Kuwait’s constitutional principles. The National Assembly, which is currently dominated by pro-government deputies due to an opposition boycott, will finally have to decide on its ratification. If such an agreement does indeed pass, Kuwait’s political system will bear the burden of heavy security coordination with the GCC.
In light of regional developments, security coordination will likely become the cornerstone of a prospective Gulf Union. Today, GCC states are perhaps less concerned about issues of political and economic cooperation as domestic unrest proves to be the main challenge facing them. With limited success on issues of unified currency and with stark differences among these states’ political systems, achieving regional stability and surviving the implications of the Arab spring have become the main drivers behind the recent calls for a more unified GCC entity. Earlier this month, Bahrain’s Prime Minister HRH Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, contended that a Gulf Union will contain domestic and foreign threats while guaranteeing the stability of the six Gulf states.
This new prism through which a Gulf Union is perceived will mean that for the Kuwaiti state to benefit from stronger security cooperation among the union’s member states, it would have to compromise on its political liberalism and constitutional exceptionalism in the Gulf. This may already be taking place. Just in the past year, several former parliamentarians and activists were arrested and tried over charges of “offending the emir.” Furthermore, Kuwaiti authorities have recently stopped Gulf activists from entering Kuwait, marking a departure from Kuwait’s hosting of political dissenters in the past. Some have also referred to the temporary arrest of a Kuwaiti citizen in Bahrain as an example of the dangerous political ramifications of signing a collective security agreement.
Collective security actions
Under this Gulf Union, Kuwait’s vibrant political sphere will also become more susceptible to collective security actions by GCC member states if internal unrest proves to be too threatening. When the protest movement in Bahrain was deemed too destabalising in March 2011, Gulf states decided to send GCC Peninsula Shield Troops to the small Gulf state in order to show support for its government. This set a precedent that may be enshrined in the Gulf Union framework and may meet resistance in Kuwait. In fact, Article 10 of the GCC Security Agreement stipulates security integration and cooperation and mandates GCC states’ support of each other in case of security unrest and disasters.
Arguably, stronger security coordination between GCC states will prove to be beneficial in the face of external threats. In the past this took place in a limited capacity such as when the GCC Peninsula Shield participated in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. However, under a Gulf Union, GCC states will have to further coordinate their efforts to counter threats from abroad through information sharing, sharing of airspace, and establishing collective action plans. Additionally, incidents of disasters and emergencies can be better dealt with under a more coordinated Gulf entity.
It is undeniable that Gulf states do indeed share a wide range of commonalities. With their common history, shared language and traditions, there is an argument to be made for the various GCC states to come together under a more unified entity and for the its people to even desire such a union. Even as former parliamentarian al-Saadoun criticized a Gulf Union that fails to recognize the different levels of GCC states’ political freedoms, he still contended that these states have no other option than to grow closer together. However, it is the form in which a Gulf Union will emerge that will be the main determinant of whether this union will push the six states forward or hold them back.
Wafa Alsayed, is a Research Analyst at IISS-Middle East with the Middle East and Gulf Programme. She focuses on security and political developments in the GCC.
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