Can Saudi Arabia Pull Off Its Plan for an EU-Style Union of Arabian States?

By Bruce Riedel

Democracy movements and Shia protests are challenging the Sunni kingdom, which wants to unify with some of its neighbors.

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The Saudi Foreign Minister and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary-General address a news conference in Riyadh.(Reuters)

Saudi Arabia is pressing its fellow monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula to form a tighter political and economic union in response to the troubled seas of the Arab awakening, the revolutions that have swept the Arab world for the last year and a half.

Only one of the little monarchies seems open to the Saudi idea for a closer union: Bahrain has been occupied by the kingdom since last May and has little choice but to agree. Meanwhile, the other four--Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates--should expect the pressure from Riyadh to grow.

The Saudis called for formation of a closer union at an extraordinary summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh on May 14. No agreement was reached, and the six monarchs only agreed to further study the proposal. The Saudis did not publicly release the details of what they are suggesting to the club of royals. Only the Bahraini king seemed positive. His spokesman talked about a forming the GCC into something akin to the European Union.

Calls for closer unity among the Gulf states are not new. There has been talk of a common currency like the euro for some time, but the Saudis seem much more determined to achieve one now than ever before. The Arab revolutions have removed key Saudi allies like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak--but also long-time enemies like Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. For a very conservative and very old ruling family, this kind of change is disturbing. Even more alarming was the Shia democracy movement in Bahrain, which briefly threatened the stability of the island nation. (It is linked by a causeway to Saudi Arabia's Eastern province, an area that has witnessed more than a year of unrest among the kingdom's own Shia minority.)

Aside from the restive Shia minority, the kingdom has not experienced serious political turmoil so far. But this stability is largely due to enormous and expensive efforts by the royal family to buy off any potential discontent. King Abdullah and Crown Prince Nayef have spent tens of billions in the last year on increased salaries, pensions and other disbursements. They know that the kingdom is not immune from the desire for change that has swept North Africa and other Arab states. Some 80 percent of Saudis are under the age of thirty and are not as loyal to the House of Saud's monopoly on power as their elders. Thus as democracy succeeds in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, the ruling regime will face pressure to reform at home.

The Saudis believe they and their fellow monarchs must hang together or hang separately. If the Bahraini royal family accepts genuine political reform and democracy, pressure inside the kingdom will grow. The Saudis also recognize that there are limits to even their largesse and ability to buy off dissent. A more unified Arabian royal club would provide greater access to the fabulous wealth of Qatar and the UAE, which have only tiny native populations, to help buy off unrest in poorer and more populous states like Bahrain and Oman. For equally obvious reasons, Doha and Abu Dhabi don't want to play.

And then there is the broken humpty dumpty of the peninsula, Yemen, whose long-serving ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was finally eased out of power last year. The transition came under tremendous pressure from the Saudis to install Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi as president, all in an effort to end the unrest that swept the country for a year. Hadi has made modest progress in cooling tensions in Sanaa, but he faces open rebellion in the North and South. The Houthi rebels who have been pressing for autonomy, if not independence, in the northern province of Saadah for years effectively have taken control of that province and large parts of its two neighbors, creating a independent administration along the Yemeni-Saudi border. Riyadh fought a bloody border war with the Houthis two years ago and is not pleased to see them stronger than ever.

In southern Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula controls parts of several other governorates and even some neighborhoods in Aden, a large port city on the Arabian Sea. Trying to restore law and order is a huge and daunting challenge, and here again the Saudis would like to see the other Gulf states pay a larger part of the bill.

Gulf politics has always been consensual. The Saudis don't try to impose their will on the neighborhood but instead try to persuade the others to follow. Even last year's GCC intervention in Bahrain was at the invitation of the embattled Bahraini king and enjoyed the support of all six monarchs. So the Saudi push for a more perfect union is likely to take time and be resisted by the other monarchs. This effort is already underway; for now, the open question is how hard will the house of Saud push?

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/05/can-saudi-arabia-pull-off-its-plan-for-an-eu-style-union-of-arabian-states/257378/