By C. Raja Mohan
Dec 11 2013
As the international community debates the intricacies of the interim nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington, Iran’s Arab neighbours are gearing up to deal with its geopolitical consequences in the region. The summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Kuwait this week will try and hammer out a united response among the six member states, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Many Sunni regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, are deeply concerned that the atomic accord will empower Iran, embolden it to support Shia communities across the Gulf and destabilise Arab monarchies. Some are angry with the United States for not taking their interests into account when negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran.
For its part, Tehran has reached out to the Gulf nations after signing the nuclear agreement with the US late last month to reassure them that Tehran has no intention of dominating the Gulf. Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, traveled to four GCC nations — Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — earlier this month. But not everyone in the Gulf is impressed with Iran’s charm offensive. Speaking at an annual security forum in Bahrain called the Manama Dialogue, a top Saudi diplomat declared that the Gulf nations “should no longer depend on others to ensure their security”. “Blind dependence on a foreign power (read America) is no longer acceptable. The GCC countries should decide their own future,” he insisted, and called on the six GCC nations to “unite under one political entity in order to face internal and external challenges”.
This is not the first time that the Saudis have called for a political union of the GCC. In 2011, amidst growing perception of the Iranian threat, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made the bold call for Arab political unity in the Gulf. The disenchantment with America and the fear of Iran have only accentuated since.
Arab unity has never been easy to construct, and the incipient US-Iran thaw has begun to divide Gulf monarchies. Reacting quickly to the Saudi call for a Gulf union, the foreign minister of Oman, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, made it clear that his country is not interested. “We will not prevent a Gulf union. If it happens, we will not be a part of it”. “We will simply withdraw” from the GCC, he added.
Although Oman’s blunt response was unusual, its opposition to an anti-Iran Gulf union has not surprised the observers of the region. It is now well known that Sultan Qaboos of Oman played a key role in facilitating the secret dialogue between Washington and Tehran. Oman, which has always sought to maintain an independent foreign policy, does not share the Saudi perception of an existential threat from Iran. Top Saudi leaders, however, said the effort towards the political unity of the GCC will continue irrespective of Oman’s opposition. They are confident that at least four GCC members — Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are ready to move towards the union. The UAE is yet to clarify its formal position.
The Saudi proposal for a Gulf union, a decision on which is likely to be deferred at the Kuwait summit, underlines the pivotal moment at hand on our Arabian frontier. That India is concerned with the turn of events in the region is reflected in the fact that the Indian external affairs minister participated, for the first time, in the Manama Dialogue, organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Recounting India’s deep and wide range of interests in the Gulf, Salman Khurshid pointed to the expanding defence and security cooperation with the countries of the region. Speaking on the margins of the Manama Dialogue, Khurshid emphasised that India has no intention to replace the US as the “security guarantor” of the region. He, however, added that Delhi is ready to help build defence capacities in the region through training and other activities.
Few Arab states in the Gulf see India as an alternative to America; they are happy to work with Delhi on a limited agenda of defence cooperation. The problem, however, is not Delhi’s lack of strategic ambition. It is the seeming inability of the defence ministry to pursue any purposeful military diplomacy in the Gulf at a critical juncture in the region’s geopolitical evolution.
C. Raja Mohan is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.