Yet in light of the Council's dramatic military intervention in Bahrain, and even more recently the choice of retired Bahraini Lt. Gen. 'Abd al-Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani as its new Secretary General, it is increasingly difficult to view the GCC as an organization focused primarily on economics. The "Cooperation" in Gulf Cooperation Council, if it had not been clear already, is now clearly more akin to the cooperation of NATO than to that of OPEC.
That the GCC's raison d'être was security all along is not necessarily a controversial idea. As Mohammed Ayoob argues in a recent article in Foreign Policy, for example, the GCC
was established in 1981 in the wake of the Iranian revolution, ostensibly to promote economic cooperation and defend its members against external threats. However, it quickly became clear that given the similar nature of oil producing rentier economies in the Gulf, talk about increasing economic exchange was merely a façade. So was the argument that the Gulf monarchies needed an organization to coordinate their external security policies.Its real purpose, he continues, was "not defense against external enemies threatening the security of GCC states but cooperation against domestic challenges to authoritarian regimes"; it was the Gulf's reaction "to the Iranian revolution of 1979 in which people's power toppled the strongest autocracy in the neighborhood. The Arab autocracies of the Gulf did not want to share the Shah's fate."
Enter the new GCC Secretary General, Lt. Gen. 'Abd al-Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani of Bahrain.
Selected after Bahrain's first choice was rejected by Qatar due to his role in the countries' erstwhile dispute over the Hawar Islands, al-Zayani is notable as the GCC's first leader from a military background. And he wasted no time in emphasizing the Council's security purpose and, of course, in directing GCC ire toward Iran and its "interference" in Gulf affairs, namely those of Bahrain and Kuwait. In his very first statement after taking office, al-Zayani spoke of the "glorious march" of Gulf countries and "underscored the principle of collective security and commitment to stave off any foreign designs."
Then, in an "extraordinary meeting" yesterday in Riyadh, GCC foreign ministers "severely condemned Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain which is in violation of international pacts"; condemned "the blatant Iranian interference in Kuwait through planting spy cells on its territory"; and, you guessed it, "condemned the baseless accusations in the irresponsible statement of the Iranian parliament regarding Saudi Arabia and considers it a hostile stand and a provocative interference."
Al-Ziyani thereafter gave his first newspaper interview with Al-Riyadh, the transcript of which has been translated into English here. He was asked directly about his military background and how it may shape his priorities (as if he had any independent decision-making role) as GCC leader. Though emphasizing his commitment to non-military objectives, he says interestingly that "the Al-Jazeera Shield force [i.e., the one in Bahrain] is the nucleus of a Gulf defense force" that GCC Defense Ministers will/should work to develop further.
Apart from the symbolic significance of a retired Lieutenant General at the head of the GCC, we might also note another aspect of his résumé: a long-standing relationship with the U.S. and British militaries. He studied at Sandhurst and Perth in the U.K.; at the Air Force Institute of Technology in, Dayton, Ohio; at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California; took part in the Command and General Staff course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and "received the sword of honor along with the title of Master Logistician from the US Army." This represents, in total, some 15 years of experience with Western military academies.
Whether or not this will translate into improved U.S.-GCC military coordination (to the extent that the GCC itself can be described as having an independent military policy) remains to be seen. Yet the quiet decision by the U.S. to suspend military arms deliveries to Lebanon--several weeks after the Bahraini government canceled flights to and from Beirut out of supposed fear that Hizballah (read: Iran) might use them to transfer arms to Bahrain's opposition--may provide some indication.
If Ayoob is correct that at the GCC's inception in 1981 "the argument that the Gulf monarchies needed an organization to coordinate their external security policies" was a façade, thirty years later in 2011 this is arguably still the case. The only difference is that, previously, the excuse of an external military threat was used to coordinate domestic repression. Now, the excuse of an external military threat is used, as in Bahrain today, to engage in joint GCC enforcement of domestic repression, backed by a "nucleus of a Gulf defense force."
If the current crackdown in Bahrain represents just the "nucleus," surely the population there and elsewhere in the Arab Gulf cannot be excited at the prospect of further movement, as represented symbolically by the ascension of al-Zayani, in the direction of the full-fledged atom.