Since its inception in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)–comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates–has taken many forms. Most prevalently, the GCC has attempted over the years to enact a currency union among its member states. For various reasons seemingly unrelated to the dire consequences of monetary union in Europe, a single currency in the Persian Gulf hasn’t yet panned out. Talks about a currency union initially broke down when Oman and the UAE balked at the idea that the Saudis would host the future GCC central bank in Riyadh.
In 2013, media widely reported that an agreement might be imminent, but a diplomatic spat between Qatar and Saudi Arabia involving, among other things, the former’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari-based media outlet Al Jazeera, which the Saudis see as a hostile, destabilizing force in the region, led to a stalemate. Suffice to say that, though talk of a fiscal or monetary resurfaces relatively frequently, the divergent political agendas, especially in Riyadh, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, make currency union within the GCC implausible for the foreseeable future.
Despite the fractiousness of fiscal and monetary unionization in the GCC, military cooperation has become a major point on which the six member states seem to agree. In 1984, the GCC created the Peninsula Shield Force. Since its inception, the PSF has become progressively larger and more integrated. In 2011, the PSF, supplied mostly with troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, entered Bahraini territory to quell Shia demonstrators agitating for greater political freedom. It is widely understood that Bahrain appealed to the GCC to send the Peninsula Shield Force in order to stabilize the restrictive Sunni monarchy against the majority-Shia population; at the time, Abdel al-Mowada, a Bahraini parliamentary official, told Al Jazeera, “It is not a lack of security forces in Bahrain, it is a showing of solidarity among the GCC.”
Though member states of the GCC, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, joined with the NATO-led bombing campaign over Libya in 2011 in the successful ouster of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, the intervention did not constitute GCC action, though the constituent nations, through the Arab League, largely supported the enforcement ofa UN-mandated no fly zone over Libya. GCC ministers did, however, label Gaddafi’s regime “illegitimate” and member states were among the first to recognize the National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing authority in Libya.
In 2014, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attended a GCC summit in Riyadh in 2014 to urge further defensive cooperation between GCC states, a move designed to, among other things,streamline US arms shipments to the Persian Gulf. And even more recently, the world has watched as the GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, has begun an aerial bombardment of Yemen in order to quell an allegedly Iranian-backed Shia militia, the Houthis, from gaining more power over the turbulent gulf state. Both the BBC and Al Jazeera offer a panoramic who’s who of the current conflict, which certainly deserves more attention than it’s being given; several Yemenis are live-tweeting about the fighting from Sanaa, and many, understandably, are as incensed with the GCC bombing campaign as they are with the Shia militants.
As far as what the conflict in Yemen reveals about the shifting role of the GCC in international affairs, several important developments are telling. In the first place, the Saudi-backed Council feels, apparently, that interventionist engagement is warranted to mitigate what it sees–rightly or wrongly–as Iranian encroachment into the interests of the Gulf States. Despite a characteristic reluctance to participate in military campaigns (the Bahraini incursion being a minor exception), the GCC states seem keen on disallowing any more Iranian influence in the region. Perhaps a second clue as to the future comportment of the GCC derives from its ability to put aside internal politics for the sake of countering what it sees to be a volatile threat in the region, a stronger, more robust, and more interventionist Iranian regime. After all, if the Obama Administration’s Iran Deal has truly netted anybody anything–a contentious argument, to be sure–it has gained for the Islamic Republic a measure of regional strength that was previously compromised by multilateral and crippling economic sanction and diplomatic isolation.
Though the US seems to have reached a tentative deal with Iran, the framework of that deal involves the nuclear issue alone, not the regional aspirations of Iran either in the gulf states or the broader Middle East. Additionally—and this is pure speculation—it might well seem to the Saudis and the GCC leadership that if the Obama administration is willing to risk Israeli regional interests for a nuclear deal that refuses to ask anything of the Iranians vis-a-vis Israel, the gulf states are unlikely to be beneficiaries of any provisional agreement that seeking to limit Iran’s interventions in the region.
Regardless of the political differences that might preclude something like a currency union, it’s clear that Iran’s attempt to destabilize Arab capitals will bond the GCC member states together, at least for some time. The shifting American alliances in the region will undoubtedly mean that the GCC takes on a more interventionist policy both militarily and diplomatically. As Iranian warships approach Yemeni territorial waters—which the Saudis have explicitly directed them not to enter—the world may see the continued evolution of a proactive GCC military sooner rather than later.