Oman skeptical of GCC proposal
Notwithstanding the Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs’ most recent declaration that there was “no Gulf union,” and that such a scheme now only existed “among journalists”, the Sultanate’s perspective on Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz’s proposal to transform the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into a much stronger alliance reflected an existing schism within the alliance. In as much as the Saudi monarch moved on his union proposal because he was persuaded that an existential threat from Iran confronted GCC States, the affable Yousuf Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah’s forceful declaration revealed that Muscat did not share the view that such a threat existed.
Other GCC governments, including Kuwait and the UAE, expressed similar reservations though neither volunteered to voice them in public. Bahrain and Qatar supported the proposal, while Manama stressed its urgency. Still, Muscat’s categorical assessments meant that no unanimity existed, although that did not in and of itself, indicate that the project was in permanent abeyance. In fact, the very idea of union was imbedded in the GCC when the alliance was created in 1981.
What was critical today was the very identification of the source of threat—Iran—that, presumably, prompted GCC member-states to form the alliance in the first place. Omani officials concluded that their privileged ties with Iran and, before it, Persia, were sealed in centuries-old relations. It was worth recalling that Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed welcomed the military assistance extended by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi during the Dhuffar Civil War and Omanis were loath to forget this debt of gratitude. Although it lasted between 1964 and 1976, Iran first deployed a full brigade to the Sultanate, approximately 1,200 troops that were equipped with helicopter gunships, in 1973. After the Iranian brigade secured the Salalah-Thumrait road, Tehran raised its contribution to nearly 4,000 by 1974, to establish an interdiction column codenamed the âDamavand Line,’ which runs near the southern border with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Omanis never forget the contributions of these troops — along with 500 Iranian personnel killed in action—to help the young Sultan gain the upper hand against Dhuffari rebels.
In addition to this legacy, Muscat was also concerned that the project to form a Gulf union would further expand Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic hold over the entire Arabian Peninsula, with grave consequences for various freedoms, including important religious distinctions that Omanis professed. Ultra conservative Saudi Sunni clerics considered Ibadhi Islam, the official creed of Omanis that grew out of the early Kharijih Movement around 657 AD during the Caliphate of âAli Ibn Abi Talib, as Muslims idolaters. Although a reconciliation occurred in July 2008, when scholars recognised the Ibadhi creed fully at the âCommon Word’ Conference held in Jordan, old wounds lingered.
Such a rapprochement notwithstanding, it was worth repeating that Iran remained a power worthy of engagement in any regional security dialogue, and while Muscat favoured building up an effective GCC joint force, it was not ready to confront the Islamic Republic with military force. On the other hand, Bahrain adopted a diametrically opposed view, while Qatar wished to handle its bilateral ties with utmost care. Likewise, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE displayed significant allergies to the preponderance of Iranian muscle, which further solidified their close associations with leading Western States.
Under the circumstances, how GCC States coordinated their responses to Iranian interferences in individual GCC countries as well as the Arab World at large was a major contention, which must be considered the primary reason why the proposed Gulf Union failed to blossom so far. Beyond diplomatic coordination, critical socio-economic challenges prevented GCC cooperation, which was why the GCC Advisory Committee that met on May 5, 2012 in Jeddah, issued a communiqu© that stressed the requirement for more time to study the proposal.