Six nations, one voice

The federation of seven emirates served as a model to Gulf countries seeking to come together to deal with common issues of security and development, so it is fitting the Gulf Cooperation Council took its first steps here.

Bahrain's Emir Issa arrives at the airport in Abu Dhabi.
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"My brothers, your majesties, your highnesses, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the United Arab Emirates, on behalf of the Government and the people of the UAE who look favourably and hopefully upon this conference. I pray God Almighty to grant us security, development and solidarity and to give us the means to reclaim the rightful privileges of our brothers. Peace be upon you."
With these words, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan opened the first summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), also known by the more formal name the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, on May 25, 1981, in the ballroom of the InterContinental hotel in Abu Dhabi, a ballroom still in use today. It was one of the first defining acts of the 1980s in the United Arab Emirates and set the tone for the next 10 years. Yet the roots of the GCC's creation came much earlier, as the UAE tried to adjust to its place in a rapidly changing world. By the start of the 1980s, the landscape of the Middle East, and particularly the Arabian Gulf region, had been altered by the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War the following year, resulting in instability in the oil market. There were big changes in a small region.
In the television footage from the time, everyone looks young. The ballroom at the InterContinental was filled with large leather chairs, set around a central table. A line from Al Ittihad reporting the meeting shows what a small affair it was: "It was an intimate encounter, where there was no need for loudspeakers. The brothers sat next to each other with this order: UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia."
The leaders sat around the main table, with their government colleagues behind them, assisting and advising. Ranged along the walls of the room were other colleagues, politicians and soldiers, some in suits and others in military uniform.
The day had begun at the international airport, then at Al Bateen. Outside, the sweltering heat of May in Abu Dhabi hadn't stopped Sheikh Zayed meeting each ruler as he stepped off his plane.
To see the list of rulers in attendance is to recognise the history of the region, the continuity of rule that links that day with the present. Of the five rulers who arrived at Abu Dhabi airport that day, one still rules his country (Sultan Qaboos bin Saeed of Oman), two were, like Sheikh Zayed himself, the fathers of their nations' current rulers (Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar, the father of the current Qatari emir, and Emir Issa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the father of the present Bahraini king) and one was the brother of his nation's current ruler (Jaber Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, then the Kuwaiti emir). The last to arrive on the tarmac was King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (also the brother of today's current ruler).
In the hallways of the airport and on the roads leading out, the flag of each country was raised in turn, as a show of respect for the rulers. They were driven to the InterContinental, a prestige development for the UAE's capital that had opened the year before. Everything was ready for their arrival, the result of weeks of preparations leading to that day.
Fadi Rezk, who in 1981 was the coordinator between the InterContinental and protocol officials, recalls that in the weeks before, the hotel's staff of 500 was expanded to 750. People were brought in from other InterContinental hotels in the region just for the occasion.
As part of his job, Rezk - now the director of the executive office at the Yas Hotel - was responsible for making sure the different protocols of each of the GCC countries were followed. "We had the protocol - the arrangement of where each one will sit, according to his seniority. We had to coordinate between the protocol of each country and to make sure all went well."
Rezk was just 26 at the time and had only recently arrived in the UAE from Syria. He remembers that Sheikh Zayed came to view the hotel around a week before the conference, taking a hands-on approach to the preparations. "He took a personal interest, to make sure everything was ready and up to standard before their arrival."
Rezk would meet Sheikh Zayed several times during his career and said such an approach was typical of the man. "He was a very simple guy. He would never request anything special for himself. He gave instructions to the hotel to take care of his guests, [offer them] anything they want, but he never asked for anything special for himself. All his focus was about his guests to be happy. When they stayed in Abu Dhabi, he wanted them to feel it is their home."
Shaukat Ali, who had been working as a photographer at Al Ittihad since 1975, recalls how the capital looked that day. "They decorated the whole city for the event with lights and pictures of the rulers. All along the Corniche there were flags of the GCC states. At that time all the pictures were painted by hand."
Ali was part of the media team covering the summit. "Security was very tight for this event," he says, "We [the media] had to gather at the Hilton hotel at 9am where security checked our bags and our equipment. Then they loaded us on a bus and we were led by a police escort to the InterContinental hotel. It was the first GCC conference and we were really stressed."
At the InterContinental, the media were taken to a waiting room near the main ballroom. It was inside that ballroom that the six heads of state would meet for their historic declaration.
Marwan Nasser, then the head of security for the hotel, picks up the story. "The ballroom of the hotel was purpose-built for the GCC summit. The dome in the middle of the ceiling was built to mirror the round table directly below, where the meeting took place." Nasser recalls the opulence of the room: 31 small crystal chandeliers designed like Moroccan lamps; the carpet below, divided into 31 segments with a large circle directly below the dome also mirroring the design above.
Even the hallway had been designed in detail: lined with brass mirrors, with the floor and pillars made of pink marble. Nasser remembers that embedded in the capital of each column was a gold seal bearing the falcon emblem of the UAE Government.
The summit was inaugurated with verses from the Quran, spoken by a muqri', a learned person who can recite the Quran. The verses chosen were some of the most famous from the holy book about cooperation, from Surat Al Imran.
Sheikh Zayed spoke first: "What the Arab world expects of us is serious solidarity, cooperation and loyalty. I congratulate my brothers for this council and for this meeting." This was followed by a brief speech from Abdullah Bishara, the secretary-general of the GCC, and then from Sultan Qaboos of Oman.
Sheikh Zayed closed the summit with remarks about the council and its future, in which he referred to the world outside the Gulf, a world that was seen to be encroaching on the independence of the Gulf states. "We want our attitudes and actions to be felt in the Arab region. We shall endeavour to reclaim the violated rights of our Arab brethren, in Palestine and elsewhere," he said. In that remark he summed up much of the thinking that had led to that momentous day.
The GCC's charter was signed on that day in 1981, but the idea for a larger union had been born years earlier. In 1967, Sheikh Zayed told British representatives of his desire to create a federation among the southern Gulf states. The UAE was formed on December 2, 1971, but without Qatar and Bahrain.
It was the new ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, who first called for a formal union of the Gulf states in 1977. He approached Sheikh Zayed to seek his advice about establishing a "Gulf union". The two countries then approached Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman with their proposal. In his speech following the signing of the GCC charter, Sheikh Zayed gave his Kuwaiti counterpart the credit for the idea.
Sheikh Fahim bin Sultan Al Qasimi remembers the speech. He would go on to become the second GCC secretary-general in 1993, but in 1981 he was serving as the UAE's ambassador to the United Nations. He remembers Sheikh Zayed's acknowledgement that the UAE's success served as the model the GCC aspired to emulate. "Our brothers in the Gulf wanted us to relate our experience [in forming a union], and we gave our experience," he recalls Sheikh Zayed saying. "We hope that we are moving from a local federation to an even greater federation."
It was very different from the world of today. Ideologically, the political world was torn between two superpowers, each bent on exporting its ideology and each willing to use military might to defend its interests.
The day after the GCC was born, May 26, 1981, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai Al Aam noted: "As the Gulf leaders know, we live in a wild world, one in which oil attracts sharks in the manner of blood."
The Middle East was in the middle of serious upheaval, with uncertain times ahead. The end of the 1970s brought an event that shook the region, with repercussions still felt to this day: the shah of Iran was overthrown and a theocracy took his place. The shah had been a staunch US ally, the defender of America's interests in the Gulf at a time when other Gulf countries - including Saudi Arabia - were fiercely independent.
Sheikh Zayed in particular was keen to keep the two superpowers out of the region. In an interview with Al Khaleej days after the summit, he said the appearance of Soviet warships in the region explained the need for the GCC. "We are entitled to our lands and properties and we shall combine all our efforts to protect our countries, our peoples and our security. We don't want any country, big or small, interfering in our affairs or conducting their conflicts on our soil, air and seas."
Other Gulf rulers recognised this, too. Speaking in 1980, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah - then foreign minister of Kuwait and today its emir - had warned: "The stationing of even token American forces ... or the establishment of bases and regional security pacts could only introduce destabilising factors into this still-peaceful region."
But the Gulf rulers also recognised that arms were not the answer. That message had come over loud and clear the year before the GCC was born, when the region's two strongest military powers went to war.
The start of hostilities between Iran and Iraq in 1980 shattered the balance of power in the region and provoked fears that other Gulf countries could be dragged in, disrupting the world's energy supplies. The US - as the former secretary of state Henry Kissinger later admitted - wanted both sides to lose. The Gulf could not maintain its independence through force, but perhaps through politics.
The Arab Gulf states hoped that their combined economic strength, along with their control of the majority of the world's known oil reserves, would translate into political and military clout, which could help stabilise the region. In the 1980s their combined gross domestic product was already in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and it was rapidly rising.
The union promised to create one of the most important economic powerhouses since the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957. In Aramco World magazine, the British politician Earl Jellicoe was quoted saying that the GCC "represents a new and potentially very powerful trading bloc".
Almost immediately, the GCC set to work trying to negotiate a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War. Its efforts were frustrated and it was to take eight years, more than a million deaths and a UN Security Council resolution before the two sides put down their arms. The GCC succeeded in remaining largely above the fray and its citizens relatively untouched by the fighting, although in the latter half of the war, tankers carrying oil from the Gulf states were attacked by Iran.
During the 1980s most of the GCC meetings involved questions of bolstering security and oil pricing strategies. By 1982 a recession had hit the Gulf, brought on by a drop in oil prices and exacerbated by the Iran-Iraq War.
Necessity brought the GCC closer to the world's superpowers than it would otherwise have liked. In 1987, Kuwait, hardest-hit by the creeping war in the Gulf, began to fly the Soviet or US flag on its tankers, allowing it to have naval escorts from the respective country to deter attacks by Iranian warplanes. In 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a US-led military coalition expelled Saddam Hussein's forces.
When the GCC was established, Abdullah Bishara, the Kuwaiti statesman who was its first secretary-general, described it as "neither a confederation nor a federation". Today, he hopes that it will become more a confederation. "We are not there yet, we are pushing," he says. "Confederation means three things: security, unification of security; diplomacy, one diplomacy, one line of diplomacy. We cannot have divergent views." The third element was defence cooperation.
On the second anniversary of the GCC's formation, Bishara laid out the main goals of the new body, as reported in Aramco World magazine. "Political coordination", the uniting of foreign policies, was the primary goal. The second was economic integration, which he called the organisation's "backbone".
Despite the preoccupation with security, progress towards the third goal - defence cooperation - was stunted. In the wake of the bombing of Kuwaiti oil facilities by Iran in 1983, the GCC began a series of joint military exercises 180km west of Abu Dhabi dubbed Peninsula Shield. That would eventually become a pan-GCC fighting force by the same name.
Bishara admitted that defence cooperation was going to be difficult to implement, but that it was essential to the effectiveness of the GCC. "Non-alignment rings hollow if it is not coupled with an instrument for its assurance and protection."
At the time the GCC was formed, Bishara predicted that the Arab Gulf states would have a common market akin to Europe's by 1991. That has yet to happen.
Sheikh Fahim bin Sultan, the GCC's first Emirati secretary-general, attributes that partly to instability in the Gulf, which dominated the GCC's attention. "We were forced to focus on security - short-term issues like how to stop the spread of the Iranian revolution." Sheikh Fahim estimates that during his three-year administration from 1993, security concerns accounted for about 80 per cent of his work. "The movement on the economy was slow."
Today, Bishara gives the GCC credit for something unprecedented: uniting the Arabian Peninsula. "We strengthened the identity, the Gulf identity. There are now 'Gulf' people. We don't make sweeping statements about being 'Arabs'," he says. "There are Egyptians, there are Sudanese, and there is the Gulf."
It was precisely that idea that was on Sheikh Zayed's mind at the very start of the GCC. In his interview with Al Khaleej in 1981, he said: "We hope that this Gulf Cooperation Council would be a source of strength for the Arab world and proof for other Arab countries that cooperation is beneficial. We hope that the GCC would be an example and an incentive for other countries once they witness the achievements of the cooperation among Gulf states."
Zayed's remarks about the Arab world were not mere politeness. The charter of the GCC makes it clear its founders were concerned to position the council among other cross-national groups in the broader region. The charter explicitly notes that cooperation and integration between the states would serve both the "objectives of the Arab nation" and "reinforce and service Arab and Islamic causes".
Yet as the 1980s progressed, it became increasingly clear that the GCC would find itself as the pre-eminent cross-national grouping in the region. That was partly because the 1980s did not go according to plan. The portents at the beginning of the decade were just the start.
The 1980s became one of the most turbulent decades of the 20th century for the Middle East. A series of upheavals rocked the region, leaving the fledgling GCC to cope in a rapidly changing political landscape.
The greatest of these, for the Gulf states, was the Iran-Iraq War. It was on the mind of the GCC leaders even at the first summit, when Sheikh Zayed, speaking to Al Khaleej, said: "We're not part of the fight, but it does harm us . We are greatly affected by this ongoing strife. We hope the war would end soon as neither Iraq nor Iran has anything to gain from it."
For most of the 1980s, that war, always close to home, loomed large in the calculations of GCC members. By the following year, 1982, Iranian forces had advanced into Iraqi territory and the year after that the GCC members held their first joint military exercises.
The Iran-Iraq War was not the only regional threat the GCC had to tackle. The 1979 seizure by Islamist dissidents of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, just months after the Islamic revolution in Iran, shocked the Islamic world. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan that same year and stayed for most of the 1980s, it contributed to the sense of an encroachment from the wider world.
There was more to come. Egypt's president Anwar Al Sadat was assassinated in 1981, months after the GCC conference. The following year, an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Hama was violently put down, with tens of thousands of deaths. Also in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, leading within a few months to the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
These issues dominated the Middle East for the 1980s. As the end of the decade approached, there were again tensions in the region. Civil war started in Yemen and the Palestinian intifada was sparked in 1987.
But the biggest challenge for the Gulf countries was to come at the start of the 1990s with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
For the GCC, all these challenges were very real, not merely political but, in a sense, existential. They were challenges that could not be dealt with by one country alone, nor, at the other end of the scale, by the Middle East's largest international grouping, the Arab League.
Over the Iran-Iraq War, over the continuing Israeli occupations, even over economic issues, the Arab League's inability to cope set the stage for the GCC to take over as the main regional body, through the 1990s and into this century.
The 1980s had begun with extraordinary challenges and changes in the region. By banding together and working together, the countries of the Gulf entered the 1990s in a position to maintain their independence in a turbulent world.