In 2008, the then secretary-general of the GCC Abdulrahman bin Hamad al-Attiyah, was trying to forge greater cooperation among the six-nation bloc. A planned single currency, which the member states had been working on since the beginning of the decade and was due for introduction in 2010, was the linchpin of this process.

By 2010, the plan had collapsed, with the UAE and Oman withdrawing support for the unified monetary policy and complaints that there was no consensus among member states about how to proceed with the proposal. Momentum subsequently evaporated and although the four countries still involved in the plan say work continues, no one expects the introduction of a GCC single currency soon.

Three years on, and despite the collapse of the currency plan, greater integration is coming. The GCC is becoming a more assertive voice in the region. This time, it is not being driven by economics, but by politics.

Changed region

When Al-Attiyah’s successor, the Bahraini Abdulatif bin Rashid al-Zayani took over as the figurehead for the council, the region was in a markedly different shape. Al-Attiyah had presided over a region that for most of his nine years as secretary-general was enjoying an economic boom, relative political stability and was fostering stronger ties with the West.

By early 2011, when Al-Zayani took on his current role, the GCC was surrounded by popular protest movements rising up against dictatorial governments. Even within its member states, fears of uprisings spooked rulers. The sectarian split throughout the Middle East intensified, putting pressure on the Sunni-dominated GCC.

At the same time, some members of the bloc were worrying whether their allies in the West could really be counted upon, following the US’ decision to drop support for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. This pushed the Sunni monarchies of the GCC closer together.

“Our position on political issues is more unified than ever,” says Al-Zayani. “We have joint projects in the economic field, are working more closely together in the military [field] and there is more joint training being done. We are reorganising and fine-tuning our cooperation in security affairs. So, when we talk about integration and coordination, we have programmes and are going through reforms in the GCC secretary-general’s office to ensure that we integrate and develop higher levels of coordination.”

The key for all of this is cooperation will be security in its broadest sense. “Security is taking care of our people,” Al-Zayani says. “It is all aspects of security, health security, education security, food security, water security. It is not just policemen guarding a facility.”

This focus on security was clearly evident in mid-2011, when the joint military alliance, the Peninsula Shield Force, was deployed to help put down an uprising in Bahrain. It also brings the GCC full circle. When it was established in 1981, a key part of its role was acting as a security alliance against Iran. The GCC, and particularly Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, has long accused Iran of meddling in its affairs and stirring up unrest among Shia populations.

Iran relations

With Iran’s new popularly elected president Hassan Rouhani, thought to be more progressive than his bellicose predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there is much optimism that regional and international relations with the Islamic Republic could now start to defrost.

Al-Zayani is cautiously optimistic. He points to positive statements made by Rouhani after winning the election when the president-elect said: “I hope we will enjoy very good relations with the Southern Persian Gulf Arab countries, and especially Saudi Arabia.”

“The statements that president-elect Rouhani made about cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the region are positive,” says Al-Zayani.

“But of course, actions speak louder than words. We have always called for good relations with our neighbours and for dialogue. We always call for efforts to maintain the security and stability of the region. That is very important not just for us, but for the global economy and energy markets. We continue to call for Iran to stop threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, and for them to cooperate with the international community regarding their nuclear programme, and to be transparent about it.”

A rapprochement between the GCC and Iran currently seems unlikely, however, as the proxy battleground between the Sunni-ruled Gulf and Shia Iran has moved to Syria. The civil war there has become a sectarian conflict, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing Sunni rebels against the regime and its Shia allies. Saudi and Qatari military and financial funding helped tip the war in favour of the rebels, but the recent arrival of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, have helped President Bashar al-Assad win several tactical victories.

Hezbollah sanctions

The GCC is now preparing sanctions against Hezbollah, which receives significant backing from Tehran, in response to its involvement in Syria. “We have called for Hezbollah to pullout of Syria,” says Al-Zayani. “Each nation is working on some measures [against Hezbollah] and there will be collective measures taken by the GCC.”

On 4 July, the GCC was due to hold a meeting in Riyadh to discuss how to implement the sanctions. Already some states have begun taking unilateral action. Qatar has expelled 18 Lebanese citizens it accuses of links to Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia has said it will take similar measures.

Al-Zayani says the GCC sanctions would be against “individuals supporting Hezbollah or related to Hezbollah, who are residing in the region, and also against companies in the financial area and in commerce and trade that are linked to Hezbollah”.

Iran’s support for Al-Assad risks further damaging relations with the GCC. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, has already criticised Iran, Hezbollah and Russia for backing what he called “genocide” in Syria. Although promising a more moderate stance, Rouhani will have limited influence over Iran’s involvement in Syria. This will be the preserve of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The support for rebel groups in Syria by Saudi Arabia and Qatar has led to accusations that two of the GCC’s most important members are pulling in opposite directions. Al-Zayani says the GCC has always been united in its position that the “Syrian people have a right to defend themselves”, but that Syria policy is being led by the Cairo-based Arab League.

One regional trouble-spot where the GCC did take a more active and unified role was in Yemen, where the GCC led negotiations that resulted in President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down in November 2011.

Al-Zayani says he is pleased with the progress already made in Yemen and the continuing National Dialogue, which aims to map out a system of governance, a new constitution, and a raft of reforms to help restore stability. “I’m really impressed with how the Yemenis have helped themselves,” Al-Zayani says. “As the GCC and the international community, we have just facilitated and helped them.”

Despite his optimism, Al-Zayani is well aware that the path ahead for Yemen is fraught difficulties. “There are others who don’t want to see [the National Dialogue] happen,” he says. “Of course, there are problems in the north and problems in the south, and people who have boycotted the dialogue, but there is still progress towards a new constitution and elections.”

The challenge for the GCC in Yemen is deploying the almost $8bn that has been pledged to help develop the economy. “It is moving, but it’s a bit slow and I wish this could be accelerated,” says Al-Zayani. 

Investment projects are vital to improve the economy, but need better security to go ahead. Stabilising Yemen is a key concern for Riyadh, which worries about who and what is coming across its porous border. That makes a stable political transition one of its pressing concerns.

Expanded bloc

The GCC’s other strategic move to bolster security in the region was bringing Morocco and Jordan closer to the fold in early 2011. It was seen as an attempt by oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf to support other regional monarchies from being unseated by protest movements. The GCC has promised $5bn to each over five years as part of its efforts to cement ties.

“The partnership [between the GCC and Morocco and Jordan] is healthy and the intention is to make it even healthier and stronger,” Al-Zayani says.

But he adds there is no timeline for the two countries to become full members of the GCC and it has not been discussed. “At this stage, we are just saying let’s become closer and help each other,” he says.

Maintaining a consensus on key issues has been tough enough with just six members, expanding further would make it even more difficult. However, Al-Zayani is optimistic about the future role of the GCC.

“It is amazing how much closer the people of the GCC are getting as they travel more and build trust, and that is reflected at the level of the heads of state as well,” he says. “This is what gives me comfort that the GCC is really evolving, growing stronger and becoming more confident.”

The statements Rouhani made about cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the region are positive

Each nation [in the bloc] is working on some measures [against Hezbollah]

Career history

  • 1973 Graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK
  • 1980 Master’s degree in logistics management from the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio, US
  • 1986 Doctorate in operations research from the Naval Postgraduate School of California, US
  • 1973-2004 Served in the Bahrain Defence Force
  • 2004 Joined the Interior Ministry as chief of public security with the rank of major general, and was promoted to lieutenant general in 2010
  • 2010 Appointed an adviser to the foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.
  • April 2011 Appointed GCC secretary-general