GCC Failure: An Opportunity for Democracy in the Gulf

The United States has a unique opportunity to help the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) transition toward democracy.


GCC members Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

CDHR’s Analysis: Plagued by terminal mistrust of each other, by historic tribal feuds and by a multitude of modern looming internal and external threats, the unconstitutional ruling dynasties of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council/GCC (Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates/UAE) failed to agree on a regional strategy or domestic unity of purpose during their 35th summit gathering in Qatar in December 2014.

The intended objectives of the summit were to reconcile their unprecedented bitter public wrangles over policies toward different combatant Arab groups and Iran and to finalize a collective military strike force they started discussing in earlier years. However, the summit dissolved in customary deceptive public pleasantries while the summiteers remained divided.

The consecutive failures that have besieged the 35 GCC summits are due to the deeply rooted mistrust and devotion to self-interest and self-preservation among the feuding autocratic Gulf ruling dynasties. Based on these intrinsic dynamics, the GCC has been destined to fail since its inception. This inevitability is due to two major factors: one, the founding of the GCC was not based on the will of the mostly disenfranchised populations of the Gulf Arab states and two, the ruling dynasties of the smaller Gulf states don’t trust the Saudi oligarchs.

The GCC was formed under pressure from the Saudi ruling family for the purposes of maintaining control over their smaller Gulf neighbors politically and strategically and of using them as bargaining chips as opposed to defending them from external enemies. The rulers of the smaller states reluctantly agreed to the Saudi demands of creating a loose pact, but with open eyes and relentless maneuvers to circumvent official commitment to a binding union, presumably under Saudi control.

When the GCC was formed in 1981, the weaker Gulf rulers were more susceptible to Saudi pressure, due to Saudi regional and global influence. During the 1980s and the 90s the Saudis played major roles in regional conflicts such the Iraq/Iran war (1980-89) and the war against the Russians in Afghanistan. The defenseless Gulf rulers at that time considered the Saudis as a potential buffer against unfriendly regional powers and a conduit to Western powers in case of domestic tumult or external aggression such as Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

In order to convince the weaker Gulf rulers of its indispensability, the Saudi regime aggrandized its role in supporting Iraq against Iran, in the eviction of Saddam’s troops from Kuwait and support for the Mujahideen (later became al-Qaeda) to hunt the Russians in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. In reality, the Saudis’ overriding objectives were to maintain their supremacy over the smaller Gulf states and to use them as a buffer zone, especially against potential aggression from Iran and Iraq, two countries the Saudis consider enemies.

However, the Saudi regime was under increased threats from the al-Qaeda terrorist organization in the 1980s and 90s. Enraged by the presence of large numbers of American troops in Saudi Arabia during the Kuwait campaign, al-Qaeda operatives began not only to threaten the Saudi government, but they launched bloody attacks against US military personnel in Saudi Arabia. These attacks and increased pressure on the Saudi regime by al-Qaeda (whose mastermind and many of his recruits, followers and supporters were Saudis) created a hostile environment which convinced the US to relocate its military bases from Saudi Arabia to the territories and waters of the smaller Gulf states, specifically to Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, in the 1990s.

The relocation of US military bases to the smaller Gulf states came at a cost to the Saudis, an outcome they did not anticipate nor could have done anything about. The smaller states not only welcomed the US to build new bases and expand on old ones, but some of them paid for the costs of building enormous and well-equipped military facilities like the gigantic al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

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In addition to Qatar, bases were built in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, which gave the US unlimited access to land and water, a strategic military advantage unequal to any other foreign power including former colonizers of the smaller Gulf states. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the smaller emirates and kingdoms of the GCC are safer for the US military personnel and their properties. They are also, by far, more conducive for modern living. This is due to less religious fanaticism and terrorism in the smaller Gulf states.

The relocation and strengthening of strategic US military bases in the Gulf and the substantial investments made by the US and the rulers of the smaller Gulf states provide these rulers with a sense of domestic security and protection from foreign threats, not only from Iran, which the GCC was ostensibly created to repulse, but from the Saudi rulers whose agenda is to dominate the Gulf region. This results in unprecedented closer military, economic and educational ties (major US universities have campuses in the smaller Gulf states) between the US and these Gulf states.

Given these realities on the ground, the rulers of the smaller Gulf states can breathe a sigh of relief. They can afford not only to resist the Saudi pressure to form a Gulf states’ “union” instead of its current unbinding cooperative status, but can pursue regional policies the Saudi regime considers threatening to its self-claimed Sunni Muslim leadership and national security.

Despite their common nomadic heritage, mindset and similar methods of ruling, the oligarchs of the Gulf Arab states resent each other and “A number of Gulf states view Saudi Arabia as the gorilla in the room. Much as they have a lot in common with them, they don’t want to be dominated by the Saudis,” according to former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Jordan.

Given their detestation of the Saudi/Wahhabi rulers and their population, the smaller states are in a position to break away from Saudi domination. Their tremendous wealth, strategic location, small populations, close ties with and protection by the US and European powers offer a rare opportunity for these states to transition toward democracy. Washington’s strong presence in the Gulf region and the trust the Gulf rulers and their societies confer on America, its way of life, its abilities and willingness to protect them, present the US with a unique opening to make transition toward democracy a reality.

This is doable if the US makes it blatantly clear to anti-democratic Iran and Saudi Arabia in advance that any interference by them in this transition, directly or through proxies, will result in immediate and costly retaliation. Prior stern warning and retaliatory action by the US, if provoked, will prevent a repetition of Saudi/Iranian sponsored death and destruction as occurred in Iraq. The success of this doable project will benefit all of the Middle Eastern people, including the Saudis and Iranians.

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Ali Alyami, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountabilityRead other articles by Ali.