The Arab world is fundamentally changing, and many Arab leaders are racing to adapt. Showing increased signs of nervousness, the leaders of the Gulf States have adopted the Saudi King’s recommendation to move the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) toward “unity.” The meeting of the rulers of the GCC member states that concluded last week also issued an unusually portentous declaration. The rulers expressed their fears of “attempts by foreign entities trying to export their internal crises through the effects of discord and division, and inciting sectarianism.” Therefore, they outlined a strategy “to fortify the home front” to counter these attempts through their “determination to achieve the highest degree of economic integration and development of defense cooperation and security.”
Let’s attempt to decipher these seemingly cryptic sentences.
The Saudis in particular, and the other Gulf States in general, are fearful of two main threats, real or perceived. The first threat is Iran, which challenges their long-held religious and ethnic tenets. The second threat is the Arab Awakening, which challenges them ideologically and politically. The two threats seem to be connected now, and they will only be more so in the future. The Gulf State strategy seems to be based on the assumption that the stability of all Gulf regimes can only be disturbed by outside forces.
The Saudi political rulers in particular have tied their destiny to a form of Islamic expression that reveres the “Salaf” and downplays the direct political role of Islamic scholars. The Kingdom’s stability hinges on preserving the Umayyad model of governance, and the conservative interpretation of Islam through the lens of Wahhabism. Modern Islamists’ interpretation of Islam could weaken the Saudi paradigm, which is built on consent, not dissent or contestation.
In addition to the rise of Sunni Islamists in the Arab Awakening, the Saudis continue to fear the Shiite model, which is perceived as religiously radical and ethnically anti-Arab. While the Arab Awakening has the potential to further erode Sunni support for the Saudi version of Islam, Shiite gains in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria could further divide the already ineffective Arab League. Sunni (Salafi) Islam and Arab nationalism have always been central to the Saudi vision of the Arab world. Today, these two pillars of Sunni pan-Arabism are challenged from within and from without forcing the Gulf rulers “to fortify the home front.”
The GCC Solution
The Gulf rulers are apparently convinced that their ability to succeed in the changing world while resisting those internal and external changes rest on the element of strength that they already possess: wealth. Consequently, they outlined a strategy that would allow them to “achieve the highest degree of economic integration and development of defense cooperation and security.” In other words, the Saudis now want more isolationism and institutional mechanisms to guarantee political and economic unity. The ruler’s decisions regarding two critical matters, the membership of Jordan and Morocco and the Syrian situation, reflected this new strategy.
The final statement referred to the Syrian situation as an issue that the Arab League must address. But it also connected Syria to Iran when it called on outsiders to stop interfering in the affairs of Arab states. The Gulf States rulers are clearly interested in breaking the Syria-Iran connection to make up for losing influence over Iraq to Iran. They also identify Egypt and Tunisia as losses, since they are now ruled by Islamists who frown upon the archaic Umayyad model or an Arab nationalism that excludes Berbers, Kurds, and other ethnic minorities. They are also interested in providing new instruments that will limit the Iranian influence on the Shiite political minorities in Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.
Most telling is the dissipating enthusiasm for adding new members to the six-nation cooperative. Immediately after the fall of the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the Gulf States issued an invitation to Morocco and Jordan to apply for membership in the GCC. Tuesday’s communiqué ignored the membership issue, recommending instead that the “GCC begin to establish a fund to support development projects,” providing each of the two kingdoms with $2.5 billion. Importantly, the statement did not envision full membership, but rather a “partnership” with the two countries.
The GCC investment in Jordan and Morocco is not an investment in stable governance. If they wanted to support democracy and stability, they would have invested in Tunisia and Egypt. Instead, they are investing in regimes that mimic their own Umayyad model of governance. The GCC rulers embraced a selective policy of condemning regimes, like the Syrian one, for abusing their citizens while throwing a safety line to other abusive Bahraini, Moroccan, and Jordanian regimes. Such a policy is shortsighted and unproductive. Western countries should be wary of such political engineering intended to preserve clannish rule, not representative governance.
Although no GCC member is run by a representative government, and despite their abysmal human rights records, the rulers of the Arab Gulf States continue to wield influence through Arab and Islamic institutions. These rulers seem to be confident that they can buy consent. So far they have.
Evidently, peoples are less likely to demand representation when there is no taxation. In emirates like UAE and Qatar, not only do citizens not pay taxes, but they also earn a per capita income of nearly $70,000–the fifth highest in the world. Understandably, these states are not facing the same economic conditions as the people in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, or Syria.
But the rulers of the Gulf States underestimate the formidable force of people’s longing for dignity. In a changed Arab world, the peoples of the Gulf States, too, will start to wonder why they are denied a voice in the management of the natural resources that allow them to live tax-free for now. Dignity is not only about money and economic security; it is about self-respect and autonomy, too.