Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

Wary Gulf states rekindle plans for closer union

Although there is no love lost between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all six Gulf kingdoms recognise a common enemy in terrorism.

In large swathes of the Middle East, anarchy and bloodshed are the order of the day. But in one important part of the region - the Gulf - the narrative appears to go in the opposite direction: towards a greater union between Arab states and a determination to enhance stability.

Pan-Arab assistance was the dominant theme of the discussions that took place between defence and foreign ministers from the Gulf states when they assembled for the so-called Manama Dialogue over the weekend - a local annual security conference organised in the Bahraini capital by the International Institute for Strategic Studies along lines similar to Singapore's Shangri-La Dialogue.

Furthermore, later this week, at a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the region's heads of state are planning to announce a number of new initiatives designed to bind their economies and militaries closer together.

Although considerable doubt remains over the GCC's ability to either protect its members from future trouble or impose stability in other parts of the Middle East, there is no question that all of its current efforts are positive and help counteract the otherwise depressing news from the region.

When Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman founded the GCC in 1981, few questioned the organisation's relevance. All six GCC members are Sunni monarchies and, at that time, all were threatened by Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Sticking together made more than just common sense - it was a matter of survival.

Nor is there much doubt that, over the three subsequent decades, a common GCC identity has evolved among the region's 50 million people.

Nevertheless, the differences between individual nations have remained far more important than the similarities.

Bahrain and the UAE, for instance, represent societies more open to foreign investment and receptive to foreign influence, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait adhere to more conservative codes of behaviour and government. All are oil- and gas-rich, apart from Bahrain, which has almost no energy wealth. And all are very small, apart from Saudi Arabia, which dwarfs the entire region in every conceivable way.

Even regarding Iran - still viewed by all as an existential threat - there never was complete agreement about what the region's states should do: While Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia remained keen to contain Iran's influence, Qatar and Oman often argued that engagement was the only way of dealing with the Iranians.

The result was that, even though pledges for deeper regional cooperation were frequently made, little coordination was actually achieved.

A Customs union proclaimed in 2003 got nowhere, and will be up again for negotiations this week. A single currency was supposed to have been launched in 2010, but has since been postponed for at least another decade. And a joint regional military command structure touted for years has remained just a slogan, as individual countries procured their own weapons and training from sources as far apart as France and the United States, or Britain and South Korea.

Given such a yawning gap between rhetoric and accomplishments, why should anyone take the forthcoming GCC summit with its routine promises of pan-Arab unity any more seriously? Well, the latest wave of revolutions sweeping through the Middle East has reminded the Gulf's Arab states just how vulnerable they are and how much they actually do need each other.

The GCC initially responded to the popular revolutions that erupted in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria in the only way it knew: by tightening internal security, and by offering lavish welfare benefits to its people in order to buy their acquiescence. But Qatar trail-blazed in a different way: Instead of trying to isolate the revolutionary bacteria spreading through the region, it used its considerable wealth to embrace the revolutionaries instead.

The sight of the conservative, fabulously rich Qatari monarchy making friends with Muslim Brotherhood revolutionaries, who are committed to reshaping the Arab world by sweeping away all crowned heads, stunned other regional leaders and generated an anti-Qatari backlash that almost brought about the GCC's demise. Earlier this year, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia withdrew their ambassadors from the Qatari capital of Doha, and the region was rife with rumours that even a military confrontation between Qatar and its neighbours was no longer in the realm of fantasy.

Ultimately, however, the Gulf states grudgingly accepted that they needed one another far more than they cared to acknowledge in public.

Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood came to nothing, as the Brotherhood government was overthrown by the military in Egypt. Qatar realised that, although plenty of money goes a long way, cash has its limitations.

A country of 2.2 million inhabitants, of whom only 200,000 are native citizens, Qatar had simply over-reached itself and was in danger of becoming a pariah in the Arab world. It thus relented and prepared last week to return to the GCC fold by promising to cease its financial support for revolutionary movements, and by offering to tone down the criticism of other Arab monarchies broadcast by the Al Jazeera TV network, which is financed mostly by the Qatari government.

But the Saudis and the Kuwaitis who brokered this deal had to swallow their pride as well by accepting that Qatar's views had to be taken into account, and by agreeing to attend the upcoming GCC summit, which will be hosted by Qatar. There is no love lost between the Qataris and the Saudis - even so, they all acknowledge that a return to public spats is no good for anyone.

One reason for this rekindled Gulf unity is the realisation that, if left unchecked, the violence promoted by the terrorist organisation that goes by the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as the vicious civil wars raging in Syria and Iraq threaten to suck in the entire Middle East. As Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa put it recently, "if Afghanistan was a primary school for terrorists, then Syria and Iraq are a university for them". The common threat of terrorism is binding the GCC together.

Still, a greater driver for unity remains fear of a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, coupled with the suspicion that the US no longer has the will or the interest to remain the Gulf's pre-eminent power, and that Washington will either betray the Gulf monarchies as part of a new carve-up of spheres of influence in the Middle East or simply lose interest in ensuring their protection.

Most of these fears are misplaced. If anything, US President Barack Obama's ability to make concessions to Iran is diminishing, given that a new Republican-dominated Congress will start work next month.

The US will maintain its current deployments in the Middle East, including the large airbase at Al Udeid in Qatar and a sizeable number of troops in Kuwait.

And despite all its planned defence expenditure cuts, the US will continue to keep one aircraft carrier group permanently stationed in the region. It's ludicrous to suggest that the US will pull out of the Gulf - the Fifth Fleet deployed there is larger than the navies of most countries around the world.

Finally, Britain has just announced that it is re-establishing a permanent naval presence in Bahrain, overturning half a century of post-imperial withdrawal from the region.

By all accounts, therefore, the last thing that the GCC should worry about is the danger of being ignored. However, considering the huge and unexpected changes that have already taken place in the Middle East, Gulf leaders can be excused for refusing to feel reassured.

The thaw in relations between the GGC nations is still in its infancy. The Saudis suspect that, soon after the upcoming GCC summit ends, Qatar will return to its previous stance. The Qataris, in turn, fear that the concessions they have offered the Saudis will be followed by even more demands to conform to broader Saudi foreign and security priorities.

Nevertheless, the efforts that the GCC is about to initiate towards the creation of a more unified political and military structure make perfect sense. Although Gulf rulers will never be in a position to address the broader problems in the Middle East, they might at least be capable of preventing violence in the region from spreading further.

That, by the current standards of the Middle East, would still be quite an achievement.

Jonathan.Eyal@gmail.com