The Founding of the Gulf Cooperation Council: A Retrospective and Diplomatic Memoir

What follows is an edited transcript of recent discussions between His Excellency Abdulla Y. Bishara, Founding Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Dr. John Duke Anthony, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO as well as Founding Secretary of the U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee.

H.E. Abdulla Bishara was not only the first leader of the GCC, but is also the longest-serving leader in the organization’s history. He was elected to four consecutive three-year terms from 1981 to 1993. Bishara was previously Ambassador of Kuwait to the United Nations from 1971 to 1981 and, prior to that, Director of the Office of Kuwait’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

H.E. Bishara and Dr. Anthony’s friendship dates from the GCC’s May 1981 founding in Abu Dhabi. Dr. Anthony was one of the official guests present for the occasion, and since then has been invited to every GCC Annual Ministerial and Heads of State Summit. The two reconnected several times recently, first in Doha, where Bishara was the keynote speaker at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Second Annual Gulf Studies Forum. Dr. Anthony also participated in the forum in addition to holding meetings with Qatar University officials, including Dr. Abdullah Baabood, Director of the University’s Gulf Studies Program, on whose Advisory Board Dr. Anthony serves. They met again a few days later in Riyadh, where they were among the invited guests for the GCC’s 36th Annual Heads of State Summit.

H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara, Founding Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the organization’s longest and highest-ranking official to serve in that position for a record of four elected three-year terms, with National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony at the GCC’s 36th Annual Summit, December 10-11, 2015 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo: National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

The transcript includes discussions between H.E. Bishara and Dr. Anthony regarding the GCC’s founding. An earlier report on this topic centered on how the founders envisioned emulating the European Union in matters regarding economic cooperation and integration. That report was offered in conjunction with analyses and assessments by incumbent GCC Secretary General Dr. Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani in a seminar sponsored by the National Council and the Council’s U.S.-GCC Corporate Cooperation Committee. Both reports venture behind the headlines. In places, they contest what are often mistakenly unchallenged views of the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the GCC.

This transcript does the same by providing hard-to-come-by information, insights, knowledge, and understanding regarding the geostrategic and geopolitical conditions of the time. Readers will also find material that bears on the GCC countries’ contemporary concerns, namely terrorism, regional security, and, by extension and implication, the ongoing issues and challenges represented by Iran and Iraq. As such, the transcript provides context and perspective on the current array of issues and challenges confronting the GCC’s decision makers as they face an uncertain future.

The account is composed in the format of questions from Dr. Anthony and responses from H.E. Bishara.

The Impetus for the GCC’s Founding

Q: Were you to address Americans and others who were not present when the GCC was founded in Abu Dhabi in May 1981, what would you have them recall as to the situation prevailing then that served to bring the GCC into being?

Death and destruction were at our doorstep. We were aghast at the nature and extent of the challenges we faced. Iran and Iraq were at each other’s throats, and each had populations as large or larger than ours combined.

A: Regardless of the fact that the GCC would likely have been established at some point, it was Iran’s and Iraq’s resort to armed conflict that provided the immediate geostrategic and geopolitical context and also the pretext for the GCC’s establishment, indeed its necessity. We were under a cloud. Death and destruction were at our doorstep. We were aghast at the nature and extent of the challenges we faced. (Would that the threatening issues in play then were not still in some ways present.) Iran and Iraq were at each other’s throats, and each had populations as large or larger than ours combined.

Q: Was it just the enormous demographic asymmetry that was such a cause for concern?

A: It was that and the fact that each had armed forces that were larger, better equipped, and more experienced than all six of ours. Given their and our respective capacities at the time, it was also that their swords were drawn and were being used; in contrast, ours, impressive as they were in the eyes of some, were still sheathed. As such, the imbalance was precarious.

Q: But as the two were fighting only each other, and neither Iran nor Iraq appeared ready to attack any of the GCC’s founding members, how did this affect the situation?

A: One had little choice but to assume the worst. Not to prepare for what sooner or later would likely be coming toward us was hardly an option.

[LEFT] H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara; [MIDDLE] HH Shaikh Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs (1970 to 2005) and present Deputy Prime Minister; and [RIGHT] H.E. Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, at the 10th GCC Summit in Muscat, Oman, in 1989. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony.

Q: What made this seem so certain?

A: Baghdad and Tehran alike were reeling in anger at what we had done. In ways that were similar yet different, each was fuming at what most analysts, in retrospect, seem to have forgotten or overlooked. Both were irate that we had, in their eyes, stolen a march on them. Here were the GCC’s six founders forging a degree of unprecedented unity of purpose among the region’s eight countries.

Q: How could they have objected to that?

A: Baghdad and Tehran believed that they – not the six of us – ought to be at the forefront of any Gulf cooperative venture. Iran and Iraq found it difficult to accept what we were doing. They still do.

Q: In what ways did their reasoning differ?

A: Iraq’s reasoning was grounded in a sense of Arab nationalism and ethnicity that did not apply to Iran. Iraq also had the view that its Arab population was approximate to all six GCC countries combined. Tehran, for its part, was able to boast that its citizenry was larger than all six of ours plus Iraq’s put together. In addition, Iran’s coast fronted on the Gulf for a longer stretch than the coasts of any three of the GCC countries.

Further, the Islamic Republic was fresh on the heels of its revolution. Having overthrown the shah’s Western-backed government, Tehran’s new rulers sought to rid the rest of the Gulf of foreign, especially American, domination. They believed that Iran alone could provide for the region’s defense.

Q: How did the GCC countries react to Tehran’s position?

A: None found it credible. Nor did any agree that Iran should be granted a role of regional dominance merely out of respect for its self-anointed position, role, and aspirations. Of course, the GCC country leaders’ views regarding such matters riled Tehran’s leaders no end.

Causes and Effects of the Iran-Iraq War

Q: What would you say brought about the Iran-Iraq War and what was the impact on the GCC’s founders?

A: America’s geostrategic thinking and planning took a turn in the mid-1970s. One might not be able to say that this turn led to the war, but there is no doubt that it contributed to it mightily. My perspective is from when I worked in New York City from 1971 to 1981 as the Ambassador of Kuwait to the United Nations. I had a first-hand view of what was under consideration. This was when the United States was coming to grips with the geoeconomic, geopolitical, and geostrategic implications of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. One could see the seeds being planted that would subsequently lead to what we are witnessing now: the discovery and development of shale oil and the depressant impact on the price of hydrocarbon fuels generally. A variety of means aimed at lessening, if not eliminating, America’s reliance on Arab and especially the GCC countries’ oil and gas resources were under consideration then.

Q: How did this affect Iran, Iraq, and the GCC countries?

A: Linked to the American-led search for alternative fuels were other developments that were equally ominous, such as the possible U.S. use of armed force to invade and seize the GCC countries’ and/or neighboring oil fields. Both Iran and Iraq believed that the United States would be inclined to attack them rather than the region’s other oil-producing countries. Baghdad reasoned that Washington resented Iraq’s greater hostility to the United States and to Israel. Tehran, then a leader within OPEC, knew that the United States blamed Iran more than the others for its role in pressing for the highest possible price when the 1973 Arab-Israeli War commenced. Being territorially contiguous, with some of their oil fields overlapping, each reasoned that they would present a more tempting target than the others. Each reasoned further that the United States would “justify” seizing their hydrocarbon reserves with a view to influencing production levels and oil prices, thereby removing further possible challenges from OPEC countries to global and American allies’ energy needs and interests.

Q: So it was to remove the possibility of their being in the crosshairs of American weaponry that Baghdad and Tehran signed the March 6, 1976 Algiers Accord?

A: Yes, they believed that, through the accord, greater unity between their capitals, representing two powerful OPEC producers, might provide the necessary deterrent to prevent an American attack. Yet a key provision of the accord helped lead to the Iran-Iraq War five years later. Each swore that from that point forward, they would refrain from interfering in the domestic affairs of the other. This was especially important, for up to then Iran, with Israel, was interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq with regard to the Kurds. Few will recall that Israel was irate at this provision of the accord. Iran, in close association with the Jewish state, with the ostensibly unofficial blessing of successive American administrations, was sending weapons and other material to Iraq’s Kurds. The Kurds used the weaponry received from Israel via Iran in support of their struggle for autonomy against the government in Baghdad. This was part of the close geostrategic and geopolitical relationship between Iran and Israel.

[LEFT] H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara and [RIGHT] HRH Prince Saud Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s long-serving Minister of Foreign Affairs (1975 to 2015), at the 8th GCC Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1987. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony.

Q: To what end were those materials put?

A: At the time supplying the weapons was in support of Tehran and Israel’s joint efforts to weaken Iraq’s government. Baghdad, in Israel’s eyes, was the last remaining powerful Arab country. It was not in a peace treaty arrangement with Israel. Unlike the Sinai Peninsula, the Suez Canal, and Egypt’s oil and gas fields, as well as Gaza, Jerusalem, Syria’s Golan Province, and the West Bank of Jordan, Iraq had not been defeated. Its lands were not Israeli-occupied territory and its government policies remained hostile to the Zionist project. So Iraq was viewed by Israel as its enemy. Iran, too, had issues with Iraq that, unresolved, could possibly provoke the two into war with one another. One was the maritime boundary between them. Rather than risk armed conflict to settle the dispute, the two sides came to an agreement.

It is the concept of non-interference, and Iran’s persistent violation of it in Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, the UAE, and Yemen, for which most of the GCC countries hold Iran at fault to this day.

It was to that end, as well as to foster unity in the face of possible U.S. aggression, that they inked the Algiers Accord in which each pledged, among other things, to forego interference in the domestic affairs of the other. And it was this pledge that Khomeini violated immediately upon his return from Paris in February 1979. Worse, he continued to do so until 19 months later, when Iraq’s armed forces snapped. Exercising the right to self-defense, they counter-attacked Iran, and the war between the two countries – and the consequent massive regional threat to the six GCC countries – commenced. Of direct contemporary relevance, it is this concept of non-interference, and Iran’s persistent violation of it in Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, the UAE, and Yemen, for which most of the GCC countries hold Iran at fault to this day.

Iran and Iraq: The Story Behind the Headlines

Q: How is it that so many continue to claim that Iraq started the war and is therefore to blame when it was Iran that repeatedly violated the Algiers Accord, setting the stage for violence?

A: This was the question that Article 6 of UN Security Council Resolution 598 of July 15, 1987 sought to address and resolve – though this was a secondary purpose of the resolution. Its main goal was to produce a ceasefire. Saddam Hussein accepted it immediately, while Iran took 13 months. When Ayatollah Khomeini finally agreed, he was said to have stated that he would rather have “drunk poison.” While no one can say for sure that this was because of Article 6, it is possible and logical. The article called for an independent tribunal to determine which of the two countries caused the war and, therefore, would be required to pay compensation to the other.

When the parties convened in Geneva after the war’s end to determine responsibility, Iraq’s representative, Raid al-Kaisi, presented Baghdad’s 111 documentations of Iran’s having violated the Algiers Accord following the Ayatollah’s return from Paris. According to al-Kaisi, the Iranian representative, realizing that Tehran had no case, left the proceedings. No Iranian representative has since returned or, so far as is known, gone elsewhere to press for the procedure’s resumption. While all of this was clear to the GCC’s founders at the time, others not then present may find value in revisiting the question of who started the war and thus is liable for providing compensation to the other. For 19 consecutive months, Iran waged largely unreciprocated hostility against Iraq.

Secretary Generals of the Gulf Cooperation Council: [CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT] H.E. Abdulla Y. Bishara (1981-1993), H.E. Shaikh Fahim Bin Sultan Al-Qasimi (1993-1996), H.E. Jamil Ibrahim Al Hejailan (1996-2002), H.E. Abdul Rahman Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah (2002-2011), and H.E. Dr. Abdul Latif bin Rashid Al Zayani (2011-present). Photo of Secretary General Al Zayani: U.S. Department of State. Photos of the four other Secretary Generals: Dr. John Duke Anthony.

Q: Given that most of the Western world’s writers and commentators have viewed or remembered the situation as the opposite, might you provide the context and relevant details?

A: Since the early 1960s, Khomeini had been in exile. What took him abroad was his opposition to Tehran’s economic and social reforms. These were part of the shah’s campaign to accentuate the development and modernization of Iran along mainly Western lines. When Khomeini returned to Tehran after nearly a decade and a half, he immediately broke the Algiers Accord. The accord was between Saddam Hussein, on behalf of Iraq, and Shah Reza Pahlavi on behalf of Iran. In violating the accord repeatedly, Iran provided Baghdad a casus belli against Tehran.

Q: But would it be incorrect to say that, from a Western if not Arab perspective, these were relatively peaceful, secure, and stable times for the GCC countries if not for Arab countries elsewhere?

A: For the most part yes, but the exceptions in the region aside from the Iran-Iraq War – the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars and the June 1969 attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the Lebanese civil war, the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli (Camp David) Peace Accord, and, later that year, the seizure of American diplomats as hostages in Tehran, the 1979 attack against the Grand Mosque in Makkah, and the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan – were hardly minor.

In addition, there was the British decision in late December 1967 to abrogate the last of their treaties obligating them to administer the defense and foreign relations of nine emirates stretching from Bahrain to Oman. For the emirates directly affected, that decision created a political earthquake, as for the most part they had not been consulted and were thus ill prepared. As Baghdad and Tehran observed this, their expansionist appetites grew. These events contributed to the altered regional geostrategic and geopolitical situation that left many of its players facing an uncertain future.