Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz last December called for promoting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including the Saudi kingdom, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman, into a unified body, which has been described as a “super-state.” The Saudis and the other GCC members are currently engaged in discussions intended to bring closer coordination, if not fusion, within the council.
Regional ambitions by Shia Iran and the chaos in Syria are the main stimuli for such an enhanced Gulf relationship and possible complete unification. All six GCC members except Oman, the largest aside from Saudi Arabia, are ruled in the name of Sunni Islam. Oman is unique in following Ibadhi Islam, an interpretation that is distinct from Sunnism and Shiism.
Syrian aggression has spread intermittently across the border into Lebanon, with Syrian irregular militia accused of kidnapping Shia inhabitants of the neighboring state, and Syrian military reported shooting over the frontier, killing several people. Armed conflict has reappeared in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Forty Syrian Sunnis allegedly have been kidnapped as a reprisal for the abduction of three Lebanese Shias. The UAE recalled its ambassador from Iran last month when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the Gulf island of Abu Musa, claimed by Iran and the Emirates. Saudi authorities have repressed the Shia minority among their citizens, as the Sunni sovereigns of Bahrain have their Shia majority, and Sunni dominance in Bahrain has been enforced by the Saudi-led GCC occupation forces. Abuses against Shias in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have fed Iranian propaganda around the world.
Notwithstanding the threat of a wider Syrian-Lebanese upheaval, with Iranian intrigue behind the scenes, proposals for greater GCC integration have been nebulous. But most significantly, they include full merger of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – which Bahraini prime minister Prince Khalifa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa described in Riyadh on May 12 as “imperative.”
Saudi King Abdullah has an unenviable task in addition to broader leadership of the Gulf states. The monarch must reconcile his absolute power, and the Wahhabi theological hierarchy which stands ostensibly behind it, with the reform measures that he has undertaken since his accession to the throne in 2005. Royal corrective decrees, and the debate over the nature of Saudi society, focus on women’s issues. These include expanded educational opportunities for women, and, earlier this year, a proclamation that women would be allowed to vote and run as candidates in local elections to be held in 2015.
The entrenchment of the Wahhabi caste in Saudi public life, however, presents the most serious obstacle to the changes King Abdullah has initiated. Wahhabi clerics are not alone in repudiating any alteration of the Saudi system. An anti-reform faction of the royal family is led by Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz, King Abdullah’s half-brother, designated successor, interior minister, and an outspoken defender of Wahhabi prerogatives.
Women living under Saudi rule face conditions widely-exposed as abhorrent. All women in the kingdom have had to contend with imposition of the abaya, or total body cloak, and niqab, the face veil; limited opportunities for schooling and careers; prohibition on driving vehicles; a ban on social contact with unrelated men, and compulsory supervision of personal activities, such as opening bank accounts, by a male family member or “guardian.” In admitting women to the limited Saudi electoral process, King Abdullah provided that they could participate in the system without the permission of a “guardian.”