Will the GCC go from alliance to union?

Sunday 17/07/2016
Author Joseph Kechichian

LONDON - The six Arab states that founded the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had ambitious aspira­tions for their alliance. They envisioned a partnership that would address and guarantee security concerns and strengthen socio-economic ties among the neighbouring Gulf countries.

According to one expert on the region, more than 35 years since the GCC’s inception, that dream is closer than ever to being realised.

In From Alliance to Union, Joseph Kechichian provides an insightful and comprehensive look into the GCC members’ military institutions and capabilities; a daunting undertaking in a region notorious for secrecy and the difficulty of obtaining reliable data.

The book, three years in the making, involved Kechichian relying on an extensive network of contacts cultivated over three decades in the Gulf, resulting in unprecedented access and keen insight.

Regarding the timing and the motivations behind his latest study, Kechichian said he saw the beginnings of a paradigm shift about eight years ago.

“Something dramatic changed in the Gulf. There was final realisation at the very top levels of the most senior officials in the GCC that, in fact, the alliance they had created needed to be strengthened, needed to be transformed into a union,” Kechichian said.

Among the points highlighted in From Alliance to Union is Iran’s aggression towards the Arab world, which, according to the author, shelved any reticence decision-makers had and sparked a belief in the need for self-reliance.

Another important factor, Kechichian said, was the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. An eye-opener for the region that sparked the belief that even though Western powers, led by the United States, are reliable allies, it was paramount for Gulf Arab countries to rely on themselves.

“We can have alliances with foreign powers when that serves our interests but we must assume the burden of responsibility and power if we want to protect our house,” Kechichian said.

Capping matters is the GCC’s ability to finally achieve this. For three decades Gulf Arab states have invested in military affairs, starting from scratch, resulting in establishing the needed infrastructure, military bases, equipment and trained soldiers.

“It takes a generation for all these ingredients to fit into the correct spots and after three decades there was a nucleus that was now available,” Kechichian said.

The book explores GCC civil-military relations, drawing comparisons with the European Union. “In the EU you had the duopoly. Germany and France created the kind of dual leadership that moved the EU ahead,” Kechichian said.

He went on to say that, in the GCC’s case, the assumption has always been that this was an organisation of “five plus one”, with Saudi Arabia being the one and smaller Gulf countries being the others.

“My argument is that in order for the GCC to really be successful, you also need a duopoly between Saudi Arabia and Oman,” Kechichian said. “The two largest countries in the GCC that need to really form the core of the organisation around which the other four gel. Perhaps, down the line, others will join as well, whether it is Yemen or Jordan.”

With regards to Oman, the book highlights two main variables: It has the size and leadership qualities required to lead and it acts as a balancing agent vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Here the comparison between Germany and France is apt.

“You have two major powers that can push the car together, instead of one pushing and the other pulling,” the author said.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, Oman and Saudi Arabia have differing views with regards to Iran.

“The Omanis say that we want to have very correct relations with Iran, ‘we don’t want to burn bridges because we are neighbours and we have to co-exist’, while other GCC states are saying, ‘Yes, we also want these things but we don’t want Iran to interfere in our internal affairs,’” Kechichian said, adding that an opportunity exists for the GCC to use Oman’s political position with Iran to benefit Arab countries.

“At the end of the day, Sultan Qaboos and the Omanis know very well that they are first and foremost Arabs, they are in the Arabian peninsula and they have Arab interests at heart,” Kechichian said, emphasising differences with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries are temporary phenomena.

Kechichian offered both a historical account and a modern reference to one of the most speculated on and misreported aspects of the GCC — a detailed breakdown of its military.

In From Alliance to Union, each chapter looks at an individual GCC country, its armed forces, military institutions and academies and the military campaigns in which they have fought. The book details training issues, strategic concerns and challenges of each GCC member, as well as how the 2011 “Arab spring” uprisings affected each country.

“We’ve been habituated into believing that Arab Gulf monarchies have always kept their militaries at a safe distance for fear that perhaps they would do a military coup, like there used to be in Egypt and Iraq,” Kechichian said.

However, Kechichian said he was surprised at the emphasis on preparing a new generation of capable young officers in countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in particular, where there is an unmistakable reliance on indigenous manpower to assume their share of responsibilities.

“The academies that we have here in the Gulf may not be on the same level as West Point or Sandhurst in England but who knows what they will produce in the next generation or two.” he said.