Raghida Dergham Headshot

Security Concerns and Political Reform in the GCC

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The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have grown increasingly self-confident after working together and overcoming disagreements amongst them. Yet, they are also increasingly concerned by the storm of change that has suddenly come to the Arab World. They are aware of the fact that the oasis that is the Arab Gulf is in need of political, social and economic reform and that there is no escaping change. Nonetheless, they trust neither Iran's regional ambitions nor what the Arab Spring will bring to their neighborhood, and they are raising the level of their security preparedness as an immediate strategic priority. They are also raising the level of their political preparedness so that they may have a role to play in drafting the new regional map, at times by taking the initiative and at others by reshaping regional and international relations.

The initiatives the GCC has taken on the issues of Libya and Yemen are yet to produce definite results, but they have taken group stances on both issues- albeit with varying degrees sometimes- and at others by concealing their disagreements. Today, there are indications that the ordeal will not last long regarding Syria as the events on the field are forcing the six Gulf countries in the GCC to end their hesitation and make a decision.

But regional relations are not the only ones going through important changes that will have a long-term impact. While the relationship between the GCC countries and the United States will remain strategic in nature, it will not be "business as usual". The nature of the United States' relationship with Iran and Israel, as well as with the wellspring of Arab change, is a top priority for the GCC countries who are engaged nowadays in a difficult process of simultaneously reaffirming their identity and the need to redefine its features. The issue is not a fleeting transitory one. Rather, it is a fateful matter for monarchic regimes in the Arab region that insist on preserving their identity while seeking to implement reform.

The pace of change and reform in the Gulf region is the object of debate and of complaint, but there are no indications that the storms of radical change are heading towards the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The need for reform is extremely clear as is the need for some of the six countries to stop resorting exclusively to security-based solutions and to work, instead, on formulating a new strategy as the Arab Spring is emerging and the "Iranian Summer" is declining having brought scorching winds to the Middle East.

Gulf cities bear testimony to the amazing achievements of these governments- Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha among the most famous and most open alongside cities that were built entirely for the purpose of education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. There is a special feeling one feels towards the birth of a city in the heart of the desert - a city of knowledge, progress, science and openness that provides job opportunities and shines with promises of prosperity. There is a certain amount of pride that contributes psychologically and practically to the feeling of stability. Further, those cities have opened their doors to Arab talents and have become their home. There is thus gratitude and a feeling of pride that accompanies the birth of these incredible Gulf cities.

Of course, there is a copious amount criticism, most notably regarding the reduced margin for competition in business and investment when competitors from the ruling family in some Gulf countries are enter the frey. There is also bemusement regarding the poverty rate in some of those countries. And of course, there is criticism, even among the six Gulf countries, against certain outdated social customs. Explaining these with the pretext of the necessity for a slow pace of reform has become unacceptable in the age of the Arab Spring - most importantly when it comes to the status of women. Yet none of this has led to demanding regime change mainly because of the unusual nature of the relationship between the people of the Gulf and their rulers.

Some GCC countries will have to enact domestic reform faster than others, Bahrain being at the forefront. The situation in Bahrain calls for a profound political rethinking after the GCC reaffirmed that the security of Bahrain was an integral part of the security of the Gulf by deploying the Peninsula Shield there. Both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah behaved in a manner that was harmful to the Shiites of Bahrain, and this in itself represents an opportunity for rethinking positions for both the government and the opposition in Bahrain. It is imperative to open a new chapter of serious political dialogue, one which will require concessions in terms of the privileges enjoyed by the ruling family albeit with guarantees that political participation will not turn into a foothold for a coup or for implementing sectarian or Iranian agendas.

Saving Bahrain through the Peninsula Shield or through financial assistance will not be always sustainable rescue. Bold measures are required for such sustainability and it would be best for the GCC countries to adopt a strategy that would weaken Iran's ability to play the card of Arab Shiites. Yes, there is fear in the Gulf that the bitter taste of Iranian influence in Iraq gets replicated. Yet even in Iraq, many Arab Shiites have proven that their Arab identity takes priority and that they still adhere to it. Indeed, in Iraq, the Arab Gulf countries made the mistake of not making this distinction and building on this reality- and that is a mistake that must be averted everywhere else. Today, weakening the Arab Shiite card held by Iran must become a lucid strategy because it is much better than invoking Iran's goals and political plans as an excuse to avoid taking necessary measures of reform.

Reordering the Gulf's domestic affairs is an obvious priority, and the Iranian element always seems present on the mind of GCC governments - for real reasons. Iran has stopped neither trying to export its revolution nor to undermine stability in the Gulf countries. It has been behaving arrogantly in Iraq and felt that it held important cards through its relations with the Syrian regime and the passage Syria provides to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The developments in Syria are highly relevant in terms of the role played by Iran in the Arab region and in terms of what used to be referred to in Damascus as "the Iranian card" in the Gulf. It is true that threats were voiced by the Syrian President's cousin, Rami Makhlouf who said in an interview to the New York Times that "If there is no stability [in Syria], there's no way there will be stability in Israel", asserting that "I didn't say war, (...) What I'm saying is (...) don't put a lot of pressure on the president, don't push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do". But he also said when speaking of the "Salafists" he accuses of seeking to seize power in Syria: "We have a lot of fighters" and "nobody knows" what will happen not just inside of Syria, but also outside of it in terms of "catastrophes" and "turmoil in the whole region" if pressures were to increase on the Syrian regime.

Many Gulf Arabs understood such threats as directed at the Gulf arena, and not just at Israel, with the candid expression "we have a lot of fighters". On the one hand, there have been increasing fears from revenge being exacted if the GCC countries were to take stern stances against President Bashar Al-Assad's regime. And on the other hand, fears have increased that Assad's regime will not be convinced to relinquish power, except either through a civil war for which the Syrian people would pay the price, or through a war against Israel which the regime would benefit from, as would Iran, and for which Lebanon would pay the price by having Hezbollah enter as party to it, accidentally or purposely through a decision from Syria.

Yet there are those who have thought of the developments on the Syrian scene from a strategic perspective with regard to the relationship between the Arab Gulf and Iran, in terms of the benefits of striking out Syria from the equation with Iran. In other words, the disappearance of the Assad regime would cancel out the mutual use made by Damascus and Tehran of each other within the framework of the Arab Gulf. This would also mean blocking the route of Iranian supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon, weakening Iranian influence there, and perhaps taking away the Palestinian card which the Iranian regime makes use of for the purpose of outbidding the Arabs.

The regional isolation of the regime in Damascus has increased over the recent period in terms of relations with countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar did its best to convince the Syrian President that it was imperative to anticipate events before it was too late, but the advice was returned in the form of threats. The media conveyed a climate of heightened confrontation between Bashar Al-Assad and Qatar's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem, who was very close to the leaders of the regime in Damascus not long ago.

This week, MPs in Kuwait's Parliament demanded the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador and the severing of diplomatic relations with Damascus because of the "massacre" being perpetrated in Syria against the opposition and because of Syria preventing Kuwaiti humanitarian aid from entering Daraa.

The ranks of the GCC may not band together in demanding the intervention of the Security Council in Syria, as they did when they took the initiative to demand UN intervention in Libya. Nevertheless, there are indications that those countries are not enthusiastic about providing the regime in Damascus with the cover of protection. It seems that the responsibility has been laid on the shoulders of the international community with regard to this issue. And so if the Barack Obama administration delays action, then it will be the one responsible for such delay.

The countries of the GCC took the initiative on the issues of Libya and Yemen, but they do not want to be the shield behind which the international community would hide behind, nor the address that would automatically be turned to in order to launch such initiatives. They are determined but do not intend to take risks in every issue and in every matter. Meanwhile, Israel is concerned about the Syrian regime "being forced" to divert attention away from itself and towards an Israeli offensive on Arab soil and is urging Washington not to escalate pressure on Damascus.

The administration in Washington has not yet made its policy clear for many of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, neither regarding Iran, nor the Arabs, or Israel. There is coordination between the GCC and the U.S. it but there is also suspicion over its goals.

There is talk- unclear whether it falls under suspicion or coordination- about the United States "encouraging" procrastination in allowing the GCC initiative to succeed in Yemen, an initiative based on providing guarantees to President Ali Abdullah Saleh in exchange for his leaving power. This is for reasons that may fall under taking measures and making preparations to fill a vacuum that could be frightening if exploited by Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Change in the Arab region requires new ideas in the thinking of the US administration so as for the "Arab Wellspring" of reform, democracy and freedom keeps on giving. And this will require bold American policies towards Iran, towards Israel and towards the Arabs, including seriously driving friends towards radical reform before the storms head their way.

Recently, the 10th session of the Arab Media Forum in Dubai was themed "Arab Media: Riding out the Storms of Change" included frank discussions of the geography of change, and not just of its storms.

The security concern is clear in GCC countries, as shown by the security measures that have been taken, such as those adopted by the United Arab Emirates through the Blackwater group. Yet the six countries are well aware of the fact that their future in shaping the regional map and their place on such a map require them to produce a serious strategy for political reform, and not to rely exclusively on a strategy of security. They are reinventing themselves and are doing so as a group that has a special weight both regionally and internationally.