Gulf union or merger? Assessing calls for a Saudi and Bahrain-led Gulf Union

The push for a Gulf Union is not the first step in a regional alliance, but the beginning of a merger between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to fend off the chance that Shi’a political mobilisation will destroy vital Saudi interests.

Michael Stephens
12 May 2012

The two kingdoms of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain look increasingly likely to take the first tentative steps toward cementing a new union which, they hope, will be the first moves towards initiating a region-wide ‘Gulf Union’ incorporating all six member states of the GCC.

Already approved by GCC leaders in their 32nd Summit in Riyadh last December, the blueprint will be submitted to a GCC Consultative Summit, scheduled to be held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 14 May, the hope being that a more concrete proposal for a GCC union will be laid out for all to see.

Given the somewhat questionable reputation of the GCC as a cohesive political and military entity, one could be forgiven for treating assertive Saudi and Bahraini rhetoric with a heavy dose of scepticism. This is especially so in the case of Bahrain, where hardline Sunni-aligned papers have fiercely promoted the Union as a ‘dream’ they have longed for. 

In a recent article in The National, energy analyst Robin Mills has noted that Bahrain’s reliance on Saudi Arabia’s Abu Safah oil field for 70% of its government revenues has rendered the Saudi-Bahrain relationship a ‘one way axis’, in which Saudi holds all the trump cards, with Bahrain reduced merely to providing a playpen for Saudi hedonists.

For those pushing for a Union this raises the inevitable question as to whether any closer integration would merely be a de jure recognition of Bahrain’s subordination to Saudi, so that its sovereignty is fundamentally eroded enough to turn it into a Saudi Arabian Hong Kong, with little to show for its independence save a flag, and some fleeting institutions which maintain cosmetic differences with the mainland.

Recently, pro-union Bahrainis have argued that those who raise the sovereignty issue are simply introducing a red herring into the discourse of security. Surely it is precisely to protect sovereignty that such a union would be welcomed, for a union with the Gulf States must be preferable to the inevitable domination of Iran, if such a union did not come to pass?

This argument verges on the nonsensical.  Iranian attempts to destroy Bahraini sovereignty extend to a few firebrand politicians and ayatollahs in Iran urging protestors on to topple the government: nothing more. Bahrain’s population is too diverse to be overtaken from the inside by Iranian-inspired Shi’a theocratic movements, which at best find support in but a sliver of Bahrain’s Shi’a population.

Furthermore, Bahrain faces little existential threat in the form of military action by Iran to subsume it. The United States Fifth Fleet lies at anchor not two miles from central Manama, and it is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Indeed while American forces are present in the Gulf the Iranian threat is mostly confined to heated rhetoric.

Other Gulf states, although distrustful of Iran and fearful of it, tend to eschew Bahrain’s alarmist rhetoric in favour of a quieter, more nuanced approach, backed of course by the security of America and the knowledge that the status quo at the present time does not favour the Islamic Republic.

A recent spat between the UAE and Iran over the Tunbs and Abu Musa Islands pointed to some deep wounds that exist between those two nations, but again the UAE, by virtue of its huge trading links to Iran cannot afford to be careless and aggressive in its rhetoric in the way that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain occasionally are.

In the absence of good will from other Gulf states, the Bahraini Gulf unionists have had to move forward on a slightly different tack. Commentators such as Amani Khalifa Al Absi, a well-known pro-government  columnist for Al Watan newspaper, sees Bahrain as ‘leading the way’ for other Gulf States to follow.  The drive for a Gulf Union seems, in the eyes of some Bahrainis at least, to be a two stage process: one in which first, Bahrain attaches itself closer to Saudi, followed soon after by the other Gulf states who have been stirred by Bahrain’s example into the right course of action.

This is an odd and cumbersome way to go about encouraging a region- wide alliance, and one that exudes an almost irrational urge by Bahraini unionists to get the project started before the other Gulf States have a chance to slow the process or water it down significantly so as not to impinge upon their own sovereign interests.

There seems to be one main driving force behind the calls for a Union: fear of Iran, and the potential for that state to exploit the Arab Spring for its own ends to eventually remake the region in its own image. Presumably by extension this means through political mobilisation of Arab Shi’a to create discord and chaos in their resident states.

Bahrain and Saudi’s attempts to stand united against the hegemon (in this case Iran) should cause any neo-realist to be nodding their head in glee. The classic balance of power scenario, in which states cluster together to offset the power of a greater foe is one of the characteristics of the Waltzian international system. The Gulf Union it would seem makes perfect sense to those who seek to build parity vis-à-vis Iran, and as a result enhance deterrence and power projection capability across the Persian Gulf.

But the analysis of the realist towards alliance formation seems insufficient in the turbulent world of Gulf politics. The rush by Bahrain’s policy elite to move closer to Saudi is not a show of strength, but of weakness, and a fear that America will vacate the region leaving them dangerously exposed to Iranian machinations. A state with genuine deterrent capacity does not act in such a way, and indeed Saudi Arabia, through its desire to incorporate the other Gulf States into a military union, runs the risk of also looking fearful.

This is due to the obvious elephant in the room, which is Saudi military capacity and concomitant defence expenditure - which leads us to the following question; why does a country which spent over $45bn on defence in 2010, and a further $36 billion on an arms package of 72 F15 S/A’s and 36 Apache AH 64D Block III gunships seek so urgently to bring the smaller gulf states into a closer military alliance?

The answer surely cannot be strategic mismatching. Saudi’s capabilities on air, land and even sea vastly outweigh those of its Persian rival. And although it will take two or three more years for the $36bn procurements to come online, it will take even longer for a Gulf Union to become a cohesive operational military force, if that is a feasible goal at all.

The reason it seems lies a little deeper than simply aligning forces to meet the Iranian threat. The most urgent question is to negate Shi’a political mobilisation from becoming a threat to Saudi energy security. A union with Bahrain would effectively subsume the Shi’a question, rendering moot the need for a longterm solution which gives too much ground to Shi’a interests.

Secondly, this huddling is driven by a fundamental mistrust of American intentions in the Persian Gulf. An increasing train of thought in the Gulf, to which Bahraini unionists enthusiastically subscribe, states that America is willing to enter a grand bargain with Iran to serve its long-term interests in the region. In such a future, Bahrain would simply be cast aside as inconsequential collateral in pursuit of the overarching US goal 

This thinking has also taken root in parts of the elite in Saudi Arabia, especially since America abandoned its long term ally in Hosni Mubarak in 2011, much to the horror of Saudi Arabia’s leadership. Indeed, arguably it was America’s decision to dump Mubarak which led as a direct consequence to the GCC Peninsula Shield Force entering Bahrain on March 14, 2011; and which now drives Saudi Arabia to push for a closer integrated Gulf Union, starting of course with Bahrain.

While the reaction of the other Gulf States is likely to be sceptical towards such a Union, it remains to be seen exactly how far King Abdullah can persuade his fraternal rulers to go. Therefore, it makes sense to see the push for a Gulf Union not as the first step in a regional alliance, but as the beginning of a merger between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to fend off the chance that Shi’a political mobilisation will destroy vital Saudi interests.

Some in Bahrain are happy to embrace this path.But it is unlikely that it will herald positive changes in the Kingdom. Any merger between the nations will be likely to inflame the delicate sectarian balance in the tiny Kingdom yet further, a situation which requires genuine political reform, and not military and economic mergers.

Robin Mills ‘Pioneering Bahrain finds itself reliant on Saudi largesse’, The National, 1 May 2012

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