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The GCC's Formation: The Official Version

Monday, 30 March 2015 11:59 GMT



On 26 May 1981, following a meeting between the heads of state of six Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) held in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was announced. The meeting came to be known as the founding summit because this was when the GCC Charter was signed. The Charter lays down the GCC’s basic objectives, which include promoting cooperation among the countries of the Gulf region, strengthening relations between them, and achieving coordination and integration across a range of diverse fields.

While security concerns might well have been lurking behind the scenes at that time, the official statements and explanations issued indicate that a diverse set of contextual factors prompted the GCC’s founding. According to some, the GCC was an expression of the shared values and common bonds between the Gulf nations, while others point out that the GCC was also a response to external developments and challenges that affected the region in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the more significant of these external factors include: the so-called Islamic revolution in Iran and the war between Iraq and Iran; the idea of regional security and the region’s entanglement in the Cold War; global transformations in economic relations that saw a shift of power away from the corporations and governments of the major oil-consuming countries to those of the major oil-producing countries; divisions within the Arab world following the signing of the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in March 1979; and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its repercussions for the Gulf region.

This chapter argues security has been one of the GCC’s top priorities since its inception, even though the first statement issued by the Supreme Council in May 1981 did not explicitly mention security at all. Nevertheless, the importance of security issues has not prevented the GCC from focusing strongly on economic, cultural and social cooperation in their endeavours to achieve regional unity. As it is, despite the GCC’s assertion that regional security will be ensured by the sons and daughters of the region, the member states clearly differentiated the security of the Gulf region from that of Iran, choosing to side with Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s. Of course, the security of the Gulf is integral to wider Arab national security, and not unrelated to it as Iran tried to argue at the time.


The countries bordering the Arabian Gulf’s Western shore are considered to be of pivotal importance by virtue of their strategic location and economic influence. This is borne out by the proportion of world trade that takes place in these states, and that fact that more than a third of the world’s proven oil reserves are located here. The latter fact alone makes the Gulf region enormously important in global economic development.

At the same time, the GCC’s member states represent a coherent political complex that is held together by common historical experiences and linked by geographical proximity and shared borders.(1) Given their importance and interrelatedness, the need arose for a collective platform to express their interests, to deal with regional and international events, and to respond appropriately to regional and global variables and developments.(2) Accordingly, the formation of the GCC was announced and the GCC Charter signed on 25 May 1981, promoting cooperation among member states, the development of relations between them in a range of different fields via mutually beneficial projects, and the standardising of systems to serve their interests and enhance their capacities to abide by their principles and values.(3)

Given the apparent difference between the stated motives behind the formation of the GCC, and the underlying motives dictated by prevailing regional and international conditions, this chapter is divided into three parts. The chapter begins with the motivating factors from an official GCC point of view. Next, there is a discussion on intraregional, regional, and international motivating factors. The third section first compares the stated and underlying motives in relation to key theories of international relations, and ends with general conclusions.

Conditioning factors: the official view

The initial proposals by the GCC’s founding members reveal that security was the dominant factor behind the organisation. Of three proposals submitted, security was the dominant theme in those from Saudi Arabia and Oman. The Saudi proposal called for the sourcing of weapons for the Gulf’s armed forces from a single supplier and for the widest possible coordination between the armed forces of each state (rather than the creation of a military alliance). While ruling out the option of entering into a military alliance with foreign powers, the Saudi proposal called for the deployment of a joint military force if it became necessary to defend the sovereignty of any member states, as well as for the preservation of internal order and independence. Among other things, the Omani proposal called for the creation of a joint naval force to defend and ensure freedom of passage through the Straits of Hormuz, which are often seen as being the region’s lifeline.

The third proposal was submitted by Kuwait and, despite its focus on the potential economic, cultural and political benefits of co-operation,(4) it also followed proposals put forward by the late emir of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa, who stressed the need to address regional threats directed at the Gulf states. Former Bahraini foreign minister, Sheikh Muhammad Bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa, had conveyed the proposal for a regional organisation comprising the Gulf states to the late King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, who gave the proposal his blessing. The proposal was then referred to the then-ruler of Kuwait, the late Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah who also gave the concept his blessing, subsequently asking scholars at the University of Kuwait to present a blueprint for the creation of the GCC.

Nevertheless, the preamble to the GCC Charter does not mention security. Instead, the factors behind the formation of the GCC are as follows:

“Being fully aware of the ties of special relations, common characteristics and similar systems founded on the creed of Islam which bind them; and desiring to effect coordination, cooperation and integration between them in all fields; and, having the conviction that coordination, cooperation, and integration between them serve the sublime objectives of the Arab Nation; and, having the conviction that coordination, cooperation, and integration between them serve the sublime objectives of the Arab Nation; and, in pursuit of the goal of strengthening cooperation and reinforcement of the links between them; and in an endeavour to complement efforts already begun in all essential areas that concern their peoples and realize their hopes for a better future on the path to unity of their States; and in conformity with the Charter of the League of Arab States which calls for the realization of closer relations and stronger bonds; and in order to channel their efforts to reinforce and serve Arab and Islamic causes…”.(5)

Within this framework, Article 4 of the Charter sets out the basic objectives of the GCC as:

• To effect coordination, integration and interconnection between member states in all fields in order to achieve unity between them.

• To deepen and strengthen relations, ties and areas of cooperation prevailing between their peoples in various fields.

• To formulate similar regulations in various fields including: economic and financial affairs; commerce, customs and communications; education and culture.

• To stimulate scientific and technological progress in the fields of industry, mining, agriculture, water and animal resources; to establish scientific research; to establish joint ventures and encourage cooperation by the private sector for the good of their peoples.(6)

Apart from these statements about the founding of the GCC, other official statements reveal a variety of factors behind its formation. As the late Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz pointed out, “The establishment of the GCC represents a positive response to a regional purpose and need dictated by the compulsions of the times, in addition to the element of consanguinity and points of convergence between the six countries”.(7)

This view was echoed by Bahiyyah al-Jashi, the Second Deputy to the President of Bahrain’s Consultative Council (Shura), who said:

“The formation of the GCC was a predestined matter because the region possesses a number of shared values and a common culture and religion besides similar political, economic and social characteristics and kinship bonds that bind Gulf families together in a network of relations through intermarriage and tribal customs”.(8)

The opinion expressed by Ambassador Abdullah Besharah, the first Secretary-General of the GCC, was that:

“The idea of the formation of the GCC originated from the indignation felt by the leaders in the Gulf region over the abnormal and immoral attitudes adopted by some powers to compel the Gulf governments to agree to the programme adopted by Baghdad against Egypt, in addition to the triumph of the revolution [against the Shah] in Iran and the accompanying revolutionary propaganda barrage directed against the governments of the Gulf, the outbreak of the Iran–Iraq war in September 1980, tensions between the Sultanate of Oman and South Yemen, and the transformations witnessed in the world arena in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its implications for the stability of Pakistan”.(9)

Regional and international pressures

This section outlines some of the local, regional and international considerations that were at work behind the formation of the GCC.

Local considerations

The so-called ‘Islamic revolution’ and internal transformation in Iran. In the second half of 1978, conditions in Iran deteriorated because of the popular revolt against the Shah. His regime eventually collapsed and the establishment of the so-called Islamic Republic was proclaimed in February 1979. This added a new layer of complexity to the geo-strategic situation in the Gulf and reinforced the impetus towards the formation of the GCC. At the same time, anxiety was increasing about the spread of Shia Islam in the Gulf region, which was of particular concern to Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.(10)

The Iran–Iraq War. The Iran–Iraq War began in September 1980 and continued until 1988. The war preceded the formal announcement of the GCC by eight months, and helped focus the attention of the six member states on formally establishing the GCC. The war had created enormous security concerns for the Gulf states, which found themselves facing the devastating consequences of a protracted war between two formidable regional powers, which was likely to bring major losses not only to the warring parties but to all the countries in the region.(11)

Social and economic homogeneity. To a large extent, the Gulf states have a similar economic base as well as similar political and social structures. Each country aspires to reduce its dependence on oil and diversify its income streams by establishing a viable and diversified industrial base. Many analysts have emphasised that the decision to form the GCC was not taken on the spur of the moment but was the institutional embodiment of a long-standing historical, social and cultural reality. The GCC member states are distinguished by the depth of their religious and cultural heritage as well as strong kinship ties. This affinity and unity is bolstered by the states being similarly geographically extended across a desert-like coastal environment. All these factors have forged close bonds between the people, facilitated their movements and interactions and united them in a common identity and shared values.(12)

Regional considerations

The weakening of the Arab League, and the relocation of its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis in the wake of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979, represented the collapse of the previous sense of collective security for the Arab nations. This created a security vacuum in the Arab world. The Gulf States, for their part, opted to form the GCC to help create a sense of solidarity and security for their own region, which was then facing enormous challenges.

Some analysts trace the origin of the GCC to this need for regional collective security. As soon as the GCC was formed in May 1981 the member states created a joint military defence force, which was the first of its kind in the region. This added an extra dimension to the idea of collective security as a result of escalating military tensions in the region and the outbreak of the Iran–Iraq war. That war subsequently left both parties exhausted and incapable of playing the role of ‘gendarme’ in the Gulf region, which in turn, led to structural changes in the regional order, compelling the other Gulf states to focus on securing regional peace and stability.(13)

International considerations

International considerations means the involvement of the Gulf region in the Cold War. In January 1980, US President Jimmy Carter made a speech in which he announced that the US would use military force if necessary to defend its interests in the Gulf. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s response to what became known as the Carter Doctrine had a direct impact on the security of the Gulf region. The Soviets reacted strongly, attempting to exploit their ties with Iraq and other Gulf states to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the United States. This added tension to the negotiations between the GCC states, tensions that were deepened by the ongoing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the fact that the region was being caught up in the Cold War.

A number of other factors were also key. The most important of these was the change in international economic relations as power shifted away from the corporations and governments of the major oil-consuming countries to those of the major oil-producing countries.

Other analysts have pointed out that the idea of a Gulf accord goes back to the mid-1930s when Britain encouraged certain emirates to consider forming a union. This is not surprising given the shared social and cultural values, customs and traditions among the communities of the region. In addition, all six countries have similar systems of rule, similar economic philosophies and share a dependence on Western capitalism.(14)

In summary, various external pressures contributed to the formation of the GCC, the most important of which were:

• The war in Afghanistan and the impact of Soviet occupation of that country, which signalled the Soviet Union’s intention to participate in and shape the affairs of the Gulf region. Moscow then developed a special relationship with Iraq and was cultivating contacts in Kuwait, causing some controversy between the countries of the Gulf. When US President Jimmy Carter announced the Carter Doctrine in January 1980, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev reacted strongly, and the region became embroiled in the Cold War.

• The Iranian revolution which began in February 1979, combined with the policies subsequently pursued by Iran, particularly its attempts to export its revolution to the Gulf region more broadly, to foment Sunni–Shia conflict, and to campaign for the overthrow of the Gulf monarchies, created major doubts and apprehensions on both sides of the Gulf.

• The Iraq-Iran War from 1981 to 1988 occurred as a result of long-standing disputes between Iraq and Iran over bilateral and Gulf issues. It began with Iraq’s demand for the revision of the 1975 agreement between the two countries over the use of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. This demand revived a number of ‘dormant’ bilateral disputes, and it was expected that revolutionary Iran would review all its interests, which could in turn shift the balance of power in the Gulf, including the stance of the largest state – Iraq. Undoubtedly the political, and later military, conflict between the two most powerful countries of the region placed the security of the other Gulf states in great danger. It became necessary for these other states to adopt a unified and balanced stance to reduce damage caused by the outbreak of war. The GCC states have since helped to defuse various crises, whether by creating a buffer zone, by adopting a policy of neutrality, or by attempting to mediate in disputes.

• Internal polarisation within the Arab world, which arose after the signing of the Egyptian–Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979. This action by Egypt called the entire concept of Arab national security into question and seriously undermined the Arab League. In this context, the Gulf states became wary of the regional security vacuum, and felt a pressing need for a forum for mutual consultation, in which they could weigh up their interests and consider their policy options.

All these circumstances exposed the Gulf to the vagaries of international bipolarity, inflicting losses on, and exacerbating the anxieties of, these states. The war in Afghanistan, despite being largely a Soviet–American war, was raging in the vicinity of the Gulf, with both superpowers attempting to safeguard their regional interests. Washington’s need for fuel oil, its policy on Israel and its consternation over the Iranian revolution led the US to support the Afghan Mujahideen for obviously contradictory reasons.

Theoretical perspectives on the formation of the GCC

Two theoretical perspectives on the processes related to the formation of regional associations and alliances between states are helpful in understanding the origins of the GCC. These are briefly outlined below.

Neo-liberalism or international interdependence

“Interdependence” occurs when disparate persons or parts of a system interact in such a way as to become dependent on one another.(15) In international relations, interdependence refers to a state of affairs distinguished by reciprocal influences between states or between actors from different states.(16)

Under neo-liberalism, regional or international institutions order the interests of different states and administer cooperative arrangements between them. Ostensibly, such cooperative arrangements aim to reduce anarchy both regionally and internationally, and the participation of states in international organisations should promote pluralism and cooperation as a means of securing their national interests and overcoming any obstacles standing in the way of interdependence.(17)

According to neo-liberal theory, however, cooperation becomes difficult to achieve in the absence of reciprocal interests between states. With states cooperating for the sake of gaining benefits, great difficulties or setbacks occur if some states refuse to comply or cooperate. Neo-liberals suggest that cooperation can be ensured if states and other actors promise to observe certain rules, with this cooperation guaranteeing benefits to all parties. Of course, cooperation is easy to achieve in certain fields such as communications, or economic and cultural exchanges. In relation to cooperation in the field of security and military affairs, however, the neo-liberals are less optimistic.(18) According to neo-liberals the greater the degree of interdependence the greater the cooperation, with this, in turn, contributing to regional and international stability.(19)

Interdependence relies on certain factors, the most important of which are:
• The volume of transactions among the principal actors in the system.
• The sensitivity of state actors to changes occurring in the system.
• The responsiveness of different actors to external change.
• The availability of institutional frameworks for transactions between states.

In terms of this theory, the formation of the GCC would be seen as having been directed towards adjusting the interests of the six member states, and putting multilateral cooperative arrangements in place. The GCC became a vehicle for securing the national interests of all six member countries and helped them to overcome various obstacles obstructing their interdependence. Likewise, cooperation between the member states was eased by the reciprocity of their interests. Thus the six member states moved to form the GCC with a view to attaining unlimited benefits, trusting that all the members would comply with the rules of cooperation and abide by their commitments. At the same time, the council initially agreed to cooperate in fields where this would be relatively easy and comparatively uncomplicated such as social, political and cultural affairs, while postponing or withholding cooperation in the more sensitive fields of military and strategic affairs.

Regional integration

Theories of regional integration developed out of attempts to understand and ultimately predict the integration of different states in terms of incentives, motives and mechanisms of cooperation. Regional integration refers to the emergence of a supranational institution within a community of states that takes over the management of certain functional areas formerly performed by constituent units of an integrated community. The theory applies very well to the formation of the GCC.

The theory of functionalism or functional integration, as advocated by David Mitrany,(20) rests on the separation between the political and economic spheres and a focus on functional integration in terms of economic and technical fields without political integration. Mitrany cites the League of Nations as an example of both the success and failure of integration. While the League collapsed as a political body, he points out, the International Labour Organization survived as a functional body. According to Mitrany, the best means of securing peace and cooperation among nations is for countries to join in functional regional communities, transferring aspects of their economic and technical functions to such communities without surrendering their political sovereignty.

The functional-integration model is based on a rejection of total political merger between national political units. According to advocates of this model, the way to integration lies through gradualism and an initial focus on limited sectors. The integration model posits that even if states are very similar and strongly in favour of integration, it is not possible to achieve integration quickly since is necessarily a long drawn-out process of gradual steps that eventually lead to full integration.

Theorists argue that a number of prerequisites are necessary for regional integration processes to work, the most important of which are:

• Social homogeneity. Scholars generally agree that certain minimum requirements are essential in this regard. These include an absence of national cultural prejudice, the existence of friendly relations between the concerned states, and agreement on the objectives of their foreign policies.

• Shared values. A strong sense of shared values, particularly among the elites, seems to be crucial. Thus if economic integration is the aim, the process will be accelerated if participants share either capitalist or socialist values for example. Similarly, political integration may be facilitated by a shared adherence to the values of liberalism and democracy.

• Reciprocity of benefits. Countries need clear incentives if they are to surrender aspects of their national sovereignty in favour of maximising shared benefits.

• Historical bonds of friendship. Friendly relations between participating nations in the past tend to be conducive to peaceful common action. Similarly, it is unlikely that previous mutual enmity or hatred could form a basis for peaceful interactions.

• External factors. Perceived threats from external sources, especially threats of aggression or war or of adverse trade conditions and so on.

The formation of the GCC is congruent with such theories. The GCC has gradually developed functional institutions without requiring complete constitutional merger or the surrender of state sovereignty on the part of member states. The six member countries have concentrated on limited areas of cooperation that have the potential to lead to a continuous widening of the scope for integration with a view to achieving unity as set out in the GCC Charter.

Thus, it can be argued that GCC satisfies all the prerequisites of regional integration, namely social homogeneity, shared values, reciprocity of benefit and external challenges; the emergence of the GCC in 1981 was therefore entirely to be expected.


Having provided an account of the official statements, the opinions of analysts and prevailing theories regarding the origins of the GCC it may be concluded that the GCC came into being at a time in history when the Gulf region was experiencing major security challenges and military tensions. These circumstances required that the GCC prioritise the issues of peace and security at the forefront of its concerns, even though the first official statement issued by the GCC in May 1981 did not mention security directly. At that time, the factors mentioned included strong historical bonds, shared values and culture, and similar political systems.
Perhaps this was the perception of the founders at that time. The GCC Charter emphasised the basic goal as being the achievement of unity, but this would be achieved through gradual steps of cooperation, coordination , the creation of regional institutions, a merging of policies and procedures, and the downplaying of differences. Following this path the GCC addressed the concept of collective security when it created the Peninsula Shield Force, which formed the nucleus of a GCC military force, and played a material and morale-boosting role in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.(21)

Essentially, my views can be summarised as follows:

• Security concerns have not prevented GCC member states from focusing on multilateral cooperation in the economic, cultural, and social spheres, with a view to achieving their ultimate goal of unity.

• External (regional and global) conditions played a greater role in the formation of the GCC than internal factors. However, even if external conditions ceased to play a role, the GCC would probably continue to exist and function by virtue of the shared objectives and interests of its members.

• In spite of the member states’ assertion that the defence of the Gulf region is the responsibility of all its inhabitants, the GCC differentiated between the security of the Gulf states and that of Iran, thereby siding with Iraq against Iran. In so doing, the GCC declared that the security of the Gulf was linked to the security of the Arab nations and not isolated from this issue, as was suggested by Iran at that time.

• Despite facing many obstacles, such as border disputes between member states, the fallout from the Iranian revolution, the Iraq–Iran war, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the GCC’s origins and characteristics as outlined in this chapter have enabled it to survive and thrive while other experiments related to Arab unity have faltered.
* Dr Omar Said Al-Hassan is chairperson of the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies in London.

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