Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council arrived in Saudi Arabia Monday for a meeting to discuss transforming their six nations into a union similar to the European Union
The idea of integrating the GCC nations into one entity — and replacing what exists now as simply a cooperative — was first floated by Saudi Arabia in December. Monday’s meeting in Riyadh will lay out the timetable for it.
The GCC comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
“The threats of all kinds require the hard works of the GCC countries to shift from a current formula of cooperation to a union formula acceptable to the six countries,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said last month.
He didn’t specify what threats he was referring to. But some analysts have said the GCC move could be an effort to counter the growing influence of Shiite Iran. The GCC was formed in 1981, soon after Iran instituted a Shiite theocracy and went to war with primarily Sunni Iraq.
Iran and Iraq have enjoyed closer ties in recent years, especially as Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority has solidified its power in the absence of former leader Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim.
After U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq last year, Tehran expanded military and security cooperation with Baghdad. Also, GCC member Bahrain blames Iran for fueling the anti-government unrest that continues to roil the country. Tehran has denied involvement.
Bahrain is a predominantly Shiite country, ruled by a Sunni royal family. Last year, at the height of the protests, Bahrain called in troops from member nations Saudi Arabia and the UAE and cracked down.
Iran is also engaged in a longtime dispute with the UAE over three Persian Gulf islands; Abu Mousa, and Greater and Lesser Tunb. The UAE says Iran has illegally occupied the islands. Iran views them as part of its territory.
“I think President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, when he visited the Abu Mousa island a couple weeks ago, in a way he highlighted the need for the union to counter the adventurism of the Iranian government,” said GCC Assistant Secretary General Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg.
In this climate comes the GCC move to form a union.
“Such strategic vision would include common approaches to defense, security, political and economic long-term interests,” Aluwaisheg said in an opinion piece Sunday in the Saudi English-language daily, Arab News.
Already, Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s main Shiite opposition party, has demanded that the Bahraini government put the idea to a popular vote before it agrees.
“The people of the states of the European Union voted on the union decision before the union was announced. The people of the Gulf should also have their say,” said Al-Wefaq Secretary General Shaikh Ali Salman.
“The GCC is much more popular among the people than the EU (is) among the people of Europe. It’s extremely popular,” he said. “No need to take a vote because it’s really a done deal. If anything, the GCC has always been criticized for being too slow.”