News from the Persian Gulf region has recently been dominated by the shaky political situation in Baghdad and the rapid collapse of the American trained Iraqi army. The P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran drag on. Iran’s negotiators are stuck between the population’s desire for sanctions relief and more openness to the world and the self-reliance, resistance position preached by Iran’s ruling hardliners. Which way the nation of 81 million will finally tilt on the nuclear matter remains an open question. The countries located to the south and west know from experience that they can’t ignore what happens in Iraq and Iran.
The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as it is mostly known in the West, is composed of six member states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Stretching down the western side of the tumultuous Persian Gulf, the GCC (founded in 1981) is an alliance designed to promote economic cooperation and defense. The member countries have a combined population of approximately 46 million. Saudi Arabia, the largest in territory, is about the same size as the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Dry and sparsely populated, its population of about 30 million exceeds the combined population of the other GCC states.
The GCC states contain 45% of the world’s known oil reserves plus vast quantities of natural gas. They derive the majority of their income from oil, gas and related petroleum based products. The size of the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates rank among the world’s top ten. The countries in the GCC have been trying to diversify their economies, to move away from dependence on oil. Since the 1970s, they have invested billions in infrastructure, industry, health services and education. The emphasis on education has made a difference. The literacy rate in the GCC is now in the high 90% range for both males and females. In the early 1970s, the literacy rate ran between 10% and 30% depending on the country. Healthcare has greatly improved, there has also been a massive shift from rural to urban living.
The rapid expansion in economic activity resulted in a massive inflow of foreign workers. In the GCC states, the number of expatriates in the labor force ranges from 40% to 85%. The countries are all governed by royal families, with varying degrees of popular political participation. Their legal systems are based on Islamic law, in some of the counties it is combined with western legal adaptations. The people are mostly followers of Sunni Islam with a minority 10-15% being Shia. The exception is Bahrain which has a Sunni royal family and a majority Shia population.
Although the Saudi state was not established until 1932, Saudi Arabia has a long history. It is the birthplace of Islam. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also a relatively new political enterprise. It was formed in 1971 when seven separate emirates granted specified powers to the UAE government which established its capital in Abu Dhabi. Over time, the emirate of Dubai has transformed itself into a bustling, cosmopolitan regional commercial center. One of the world’s tallest building, standing at 2,722 feet, is located in Dubai.
In conservative Saudi Arabia, which follows Sharia Law, women have been agitating for the right to drive vehicles. A number of economists have noted that the strict segregation of the sexes in the workplace has hampered the economic diversification effort. Across the GCC, economic change has brought pressure for greater popular participation in politics. Stresses have also developed between the largely expatriate workforce and local populations.
The six GCC nations are attempting to deal with the tensions brought by economic change and Sunni-Shia issues. In an area beset with regional rivalries, the GCC states fear dominance by Iran or Iraq. When Kuwait was overrun by Iraqi forces in August 1990, the result was war. The U. S. led coalition drove the Iraqis out. As part of its defense arrangements, in December 2014, the GCC agreed to establish a unified armed forces command to be based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
As oil prices continue to decline, it has been estimated that the GCC oil producers could suffer as much as $350 billion in lost revenue. The oil revenue loss could be partly offset by the $225 billion in United States debt that is held by GCC states. A few days ago, at the age 90, King Abdullah the ruler of Saudi Arabia, was admitted to the hospital. His health is of international concern because any changes in Saudi Arabia’s leadership could affect the stability of one of the world’s largest oil exporters, one that is located in an already volatile region.