By :

Dr. Hasan A. A. Johar – Kuwait National Assembly – State of Kuwait

Published in:

The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies Volume 22, Number 3, Fall 1997 (pp. 267-294)


  1. Introduction

The Gulf region has particular significance in international politics. One reason is oil: The region has more than 60% of the worlds oil reserves (British Petroleum, Company, 1994). Another reason is its site as a link between tile West and the Near East giving it geographical and strategic significance. The Gulf area is a bridge between the Middle East and three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Events in the 1980s and early 1990s have magnified the region’s role at the international level. Although some of the Gulf countries have experienced internecine wars during this time, the area has also seen overt military intervention by tile West to maintain the balance of powers. Even after the dramatic end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Communist system, and the protracted role of Western armed forces in directing international politics, the Gulf area is and will be a major subject of interest on the New World order agenda.

No part of the world is as strategically and economically signifi­cant as the Gulf region, and it is sensitive to both internal and external changes. Thus, Gulf security is always a pressing issue. The region is susceptible to constant danger regardless of the New World order or the regional balance of power (Cordesman, 1993). Compli­cating matters even more is the internal structure of the Gulf countries. Within the last two decades, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have begun to witness changes and waves of modernity. These changes – social, political, and economic – reflect interactions with foreign nations and cultures.

The most critical and complicated period the region has experi­enced has been the years since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, coupled with the radical changes in the rest of the world. With the advent of the new century, careful attention and planning is required to meet these challenges if the region is to continue to prosper in peace.

Threats and challenges are not new, but the present ones combine traditional as well as novel elements. External threats are constant, though not always from the same source. These may be attempts at expansion from strong but poorer neighbors or attempts by others to compete for investment in regional resources, or regional conflict over hegemonic leadership. These threats existed to some degree before the discovery of oil, due to the region’s strategic location, but intensified in the period after World War II as a result of the Cold War between the major world powers and the Arab-Israeli conflict. These changes have managed to polarize the Middle East and the Gulf area into two world camps. As a region that lacked political experience and sophistication until recently, the Gulf used to be controlled from abroad or by greater powers. Moreover, the countries of this region did not surface as independent political entities until recent times.

Most Gulf countries have been independent for only about two decades. The exceptions are Kuwait, which gained independence in 1961, and Saudi Arabia, which was united by King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud in 1926. The poor economic status and standard of living in these states changed radically after the two oil revolutions in the middle and late 1970s when the people found themselves with enormous wealth. This phenomenon transformed their nomadic and restricted existence into prosperity. These changes have had an impact on the social and political infrastructure of these countries in terms of their openness to the world, globalization, and acquisition of new culture that affected especially their intelligentsia. The wealth of the Gulf countries was among the greatest in the world in terms of savings and social, educational, and health care services.

This halcyon condition is changing, however. The dream of security, prosperity, and stability for all faded with the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the Iraq-Iran war. In the mid-1980s, oil prices began falling- Since then, the region has not experienced full political stability because of the storm of changes that began to sweep the region as political and strategic polarization began to overwhelm the Gulf states.

The climax of events came with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and the resulting entry in the region of forces of an international coalition, led by the United States, that drove Iraq back into its borders. This war brought fast and flowing changes not only at the Gulf level but at the world level as well. Since then, world concern, especially the concern of the Western nations that dominate the world balance of power, have focused directly on the Gulf region with little regard for the region’s previous links. In this context, it is not strange to see the increased Western military presence, especially the U.S. forces, shown in number of troops, amount of military equipment, and enlarged services that include the Navy, land bases, aircraft, nuclear submarines, long-range missiles, and combined maneuvers. As many as 50 joint maneuvers have taken place with U.S. troops and troops of the Gulf countries not to mention other forms of cooperation with the rest of the coalition countries, such as France and Britain. All this in a time when all foreign military presence is being reduced globally (AI-Mujtama’a, No.1127, 29/11/1994, p.25). In the following sections, we examine the impact of these developments on the economic and political realm.

On another front, all Gulf countries found themselves dealing with hot and explosive problems that are tile accumulations of issues the countries never addressed. The age of oil superabundance made them think tile future would always be as easy as the then-present. It is not strange in this context that most of the GCC states are unable to afford free services for their citizens, to absorb the outputs of the domestic work market, to absorb education costs, or to cover their budget deficits (Fried & Trezise, 1993; Cause, 1994). They are no longer able to move development forward and to provide support for their citizens that has been available in the past. To make matters worse, these problems are surfacing in a time of more openness and awareness in the region. With this set of affairs, governments are faced with the urgent problem of balancing the traditional form of rule and increasing demands with reduced revenues (Hardy, 1994). A further complication is that now the Gulf states cannot face economic problems without the support of foreign organizations. This will force further openness to the West, from which will follow undesired outcomes and contradictions in these countries. The dilemma of the Gulf countries is that suddenly they find themselves confronting many simultaneous and difficult problems. How these problems are resolved will determine the political stability of the region.

This study examines three new challenges in the Gulf region. First, domestic problems that affect state-building in the region are discussed. It is very important to know how and to what extent the political regimes view the rising social and economic difficulties, and how they will respond to increasing demands for political reform. The second set of problems facing the Gulf countries deals with intra-­regional relations both within the GCC countries and between this bloc and its neighboring countries. This level of analysis is discussed in the context of the New World order and the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

The third group of challenges is the impact of other regional as well as international issues in the region. Special attention is paid to the superpowers’ interests in the Gulf the peace process in the Middle East, oil, and political Islam. Implications of all these interactions are discussed in terms of their impact on the stability and security of the Gulf region as it goes toward the twenty-first century.

  1. The Domestic Dimension

The Dilemma of Statehood

The notion of statehood can still be considered weak and artificial in most of the GCC societies (Redha, 1992; Al-Naqeeb, 1996). This deficiency is due mainly to the discovery of oil in the region in the mid-1940s. The Gulf entities have developed historically as tribal sheikhdoms in which the social bonds are based on loyalty to and dependence on the ruler. Oil has not changed the prevailing customs and basic Islamic traditions in terms of personal affairs (Crystal, 1990; Cause, 1994). Indeed, the tribal bases of those regimes even enhanced the people’s loyalty and allegiance to the ruling families through wealth distribution and the policy of giving. Therefore, the concept of the rentier state developed, in which the citizen leads a prosperous life in return for absolute loyalty without the least threat or danger to the legitimacy of the regime (Beblawi & Luciani, 1987).

These countries developed before there was a world order based on the concept of the nation-state. When they declared their independence, they brought their tribal ways with them. Thus, a huge number of citizens were employed in supervisory government posts as a way for the government to distribute money under the terms of employment. This policy continued in the period of oil superabun­dance. More than 90% of the public manpower is local citizens whereas the great volume of work is accounted for by only 10% of the local employees. This percentage applies in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, whereas the private sector absorbs only 2% of the total work force.

Since 1975, delegated, or foreign, workers perform all real services for the citizens, including education, household services, building construction, maintenance, and even some administrative tasks. Public salaries, health care, education, and other public services take as much as two-thirds of the annual oil revenues. This policy led not only to waste in achievement of development goals but also deterred planners from even thinking about them. Citizens have become accustomed to their heavy, subsidized consumption and short-range spending without any concern for the future.

The superabundance of money was used by the Gulf countries as development funds. Although most was used by organizations linked with the West – like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – a high percentage became loans, grants, and political aids used to gain international support and recognition (Mohammad, 1993, pp.104-105). The value of those loans and grants totaled several hundred billions of dollars paid out since the first oil revolution in 1973. Kuwait alone paid more than $50 billion in such petrodollar diplomacy. In addition, surplus money is deposited as investments in many countries. These sums range from $200 to $600 billion (Al-Wattan, 15/12/1994). With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, there have been direct and indirect losses from the simultaneous fall of oil prices and tile losses of the war, which reached about $125 billion among the Gulf countries (Dagget & Gary, 1995, pp. 88-89). The price of a barrel of oil reached $18 before the invasion, climbing even higher because of Iraqi threats. After liberation, however, the price fell.

The losses from the war were about $125 billion. As much as $37 billion was allocated to cover the direct costs of the war as well as payment and compensation to friendly countries, like Russia, China, the friendly Arab countries, and other countries affected by the conflict. The cost to Kuwait was $72 billion; to Saudi Arabia, $45 billion, and to the Emirates, $8 billion (Dagget & Gary, 1995), not to mention the costs of reconstruction in Kuwait, which topped $60 billion. To satisfy its own people through writing off debts on houses, cars, and bank loans and paying the salaries of all Kuwaitis for the seven months of occupation, the Kuwaiti government spent several more billion dollars that had to come from the country’s reserves for the future. These hardships came simultaneously with the increasing necessity of purchasing weapons. The value of GCC armament contracts was $82 billion from 1990 to 1995 (Al-Qabas, No.8494, 13/2/1997, p.1). By the next century, this sum will reach $120 billion. In 1993, the deficit in the balance of payments reached $40-50 billion because of the high price of exported services, remittances abroad, and war bills.

A new problem, budget deficits, became common with all GCC members in this decade. For instance, the Bahraini deficit in 1995 was 122 million dinars (1.00 = $2.55 U.S.) (Subhi, 1995, p.334). That amount is higher than the country’s 1993 deficit, which reached 72 million dinars. With a population of 576,000, Bahrain is the poorest Gulf country. In Qatar, with a population of 534,000, the 1995 deficit was 28% higher than it had been the previous year, reaching 3.5 billion riyals (3.64 = $1 U.S.) (Subhi, 1995, p.334). This was in spite of a 10% reduction in expenditures as well as the closing of informa­tion offices abroad and a decrease in the budgets of some ministries. In the Sultanate of Oman, the 1995 revenues were 1,847 million riyals (0.38 = $1 U.S.) while the expenses were 2,195 million riyals. Military expenses increased by 885 million riyals in the same year (Subhi, 1995, p.335). Oman’s military expenditure constituted 41% of its budget and this percentage is higher than the 34.7% used by the military in 1992. In the Emirates, the 1994 revenues were 16.2 billion dirhams (3.67 = $1 U.S.) while expenses were 17.7 billion dirhams. This figure represents a deficit of 1.4 billion dirhams (Subhi, 1995, p. 336).

In 1993/1994, Kuwait’s deficit was $4.1 billion dollars. In 1994/1995, it went up to $6.2 billion. At the same time, military expenditures went up to $3,350 million (Subhi, 1995, p.336). This is apart from wages and salaries.

The 1994 deficit in Saudi Arabia was $10 billion, but it dropped to $5 billion in 1995. Military expenditures increased by 50 billion riyals (3.74 =$1 U.S.). Military expenditures in 1995 represented 33% of the total government expenditure ($13.2 billion). In 1994, it was almost the same (53.5 billion riyals) (Subhi, 1995, p.331).

Governments began to publish these facts and declare that their citizens should accept tile cost. In the first Shura Council in the history of Saudi Arabia, King Fahd declared that the increase in service charges, recently imposed on Saudis, had been religious clerks and university professors. This memo asked for eradication of corruption and bribery, establishment of a strong army, and equal distribution of wealth. Though King Fahd criticized this method of asking for reform, he did not deny the content of the two memos. This time, the King found himself pressured to make some reforms. These reforms, though limited, indicated the power of the internal pressures. They were based on two main characteristics: First was issuance of the Islamic rule system of 83 articles. Under these, the Al-Saud family will continue to rule, protecting public properties and the rights of the citizens and restraining the Mutawaa (religious police). Second, a Shura Council of 61 members selected by the King will enact laws and advise the ministers (Hardy, 1994, p.24.).

The situation is probably worse in Bahrain than any of the other Gulf countries. For 20 years, the government has ignored continuous demands for the restoration of democracy, which was put on hold in 1975. This unresolved demand flared into an internal uprising that was crushed badly by the authorities in the early 1990s (Hardy, 1994, p.32). The country experienced increasing violence, instability, and turmoil between 1994 and 1996 under harsh economic conditions. During this time the level of local unemployment reached 25%, according to the official figures, while the number of imported workers increased.

Social reform in the Gulf constitutes a new aspect of domestic challenge for the GCC nations. In particular, the current status of women is an important warning sign for the future. The level of literacy among women in the Gulf states has become very high. Women have readied high official positions in many specialized segments of the work world. Women represent a good percentage of local working power in most of the GCC states. Thus, they have achieved considerable independence in terms of work status. This has emancipated them from the tight control of men. Despite religious and traditional restrictions on divorce, the annual rate of family breakdowns is increasing noticeably. In Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, the divorce rate reached 30% during the last few years (Johar, 1995, p20.). Most divorces occur within the first five years of marriage. Women have been included in some of the new social reforms. However, they still have no political rights in any GCC country, including democratic Kuwait.

The new generation in the region is facing a very uncertain future. Most children and youth still expect the continuation of the rentier state in which all services are guaranteed by the government. The level of services their parents knew, however, is unlikely to be maintained. Crime is increasing in almost all categories, especially in relation to drugs – both using and selling. According to official sources, the entire GCC bloc is targeted with enough drugs to supply the entire population several times over.

Although the problems and changes discussed above represent issues in need of imminent attention, political reform is slow to arrive in the Gulf region.

Unfortunately, most of the Gulf countries are in a period that is full of multidimensional turbulence, yet the ruling regimes continue to display the same close-minded, individualistic mentality with which they have insulated themselves for years. However, attempts at change may come from within the ruling families themselves. All the Gulf states experienced attempted palace coups in the 1930s and 1960s (Crystal, 1990). The advanced ages of the current monarchs, who are all in their mid-70s, coupled with the large generation of younger cousins – close and more distant – could well affect future political stability in the region. There are no constitutions or legal procedures that establish political succession or transmittal of power in most of the Gulf countries (Johar & Gawdat, 1996, pp. 43-44). Some primitive political reforms have taken place or been promised, but all the countries are far from any meaningful concept of real democratization.

There seem to be two opposing political currents in the Gulf. The first consists of a group who support more political openness and modernization; these are mostly traditional merchants, highly educated people, middle-class technocrats, university students, and supporters of Islamic movements. Some members of the royal families are among those reformists, especially in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The other group, which is led mostly by members of the royal families, strongly resists any kind of political change. The latter group seems to have the upper hand in controlling internal affairs, mostly because of the vast wealth they have used successfully to gain the loyalty of the masses (Beblawi & Luciani, 1987).

With the competition between the two currents, their interaction should intensify as new economic, political, and social developments evolve at both internal and external levels. Despite continuous calls for democracy and political participation by so many intellectuals, professional technocrats, and even religious figures, reactions of most of the Gulf monarchs have been generally unyielding. The case of Bahrain may offer the clearest example.

In Bahrain, the government refused to restore democracy for more than 20 years, blaming their intransigence on the harsh economic conditions in the country. It is true that the level of unemployment among the Babrainis was 23%, but the government fueled the situation by importing about 40% of the total population from abroad. This action ultimately led to a public uprising that began in 1994 and lasted for two and a half years. During that time, there were many types of political disorder, including large rallies and demonstrations, attacks on government buildings, and hundreds of arrests and torture of detained citizens, badly damaging Bahrain’s human rights record.

In Qatar, the situation is less volatile, but still unsettled. This country is one of the smallest and most conservative in the region. Even so, in December 1991, a memo was presented to the govern­ment by 50 prominent citizens, criticizing government policies in all domains. The petitioners asked for an elected council and a perma­nent constitution to establish and maintain democracy (Hardy, 1994, p.31.). In June 1995, the current Amir Hamad bin Khalifa overthrew his father and instituted some reforms. He also promised to hold municipal elections, but this has not yet happened.

The case of he United Arab Emirates is not very much different. The country has an important history of political activity. The most prominent parts of the country are the emirates of Dubai and Sharija, which experienced simultaneous political reform movements with Bahrain and Kuwait in 1938. Those movements were successful in both Kuwait and Dubai, where the first elected council was put in place. In 1979, the National Federal Council in the United Arab Emirates presented a memo in which it called for complete unity and parliamentary democracy (Hardy. 1994, p. 36). The government answered that demand with an appointed advisory council (Majlis Al­Shura). Political activities, especially by religious groups, have been banned since the 1980s.

Comparatively, Oman has recorded the best progress in recent political reform in the entire Gulf region. In 1991, Sultan Qaboos paved the way for reforming the existing consultative political system. He replaced the appointed numbers of the advisory council, which was established in 1981, with 59 quasi-elected members. According to the new system, the Sultan appoints one of three elected candidates in each constituency to a 59-member Shura Council. The new council is limited to advising the government (Johar & Gawdat, 1996, p.44).

In Kuwait, the only constitutional state in the GCC, democracy still faces serious obstacles. Political participation is very limited as the total number of eligible voters represents only 12% of the country’s citizens. According to the constitution, the ruling family is empowered with more political authority than the rest of the people. The Amir has the right to dissolve the parliament. During the country’s 35 years of political independence, the constitution was put on hold for 11 years. The government, which is headed by the crown prince, has great power to influence and in some areas control national elections. Throughout the eight parliamentary elections that have been held in the democracy’s history, the government did not hesitate to use any means at its disposal to affect the results of the elections, including bribery and forgery (Johar, 1995, pp.40-41; Aart, 1994, pp.21-22).

III. The Regional Dimension

The GCC Relations: Within and without

The other dimension that weakens the Gulf countries is the intra-regional problem. Territorial problems defined by Britain before its evacuation in 1971 arc the foremost factors of division. They are time bombs, as no two Gulf countries are ever far away from territorial disputes. There are disputes between the GCC members and neighboring countries as well as disputes among the countries of the GCC. Some disputes between GCC members have led to limited confrontation, such as tile Saudi storming of a Qatari border station in 1992 and the confrontation between Qatar and Bahrain over the islands of Howar and Fisht-el-deabil. Saudi Arabia is considered the axis of such territorial disputes, as it is the only country that shares borders with all other GCC members in addition to Iraq.

All disputes are over oil and natural gas reserves. Each country seeks to dominate these resources because of the economic advantag­es each one gains by controlling oil and gas. Moreover, the potential risks from the oil disputes are polarization of the GCC countries (Al-Aydaroosi, 1993, p.171). An indication is the Saudi-Qatar dispute, which led to an alliance by Qatar with both Iraq and Iran. The Gulf countries have recently become divided unofficially into two camps: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain versus Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Such disputes work against Gulf unity. Although the GCC was established 15 years ago, borders have not yet been opened, taxes and customs have not been removed between and among all countries, and few joint projects have been conducted. On the contrary, competitive projects have increased.

In addition to the problems close at home, the GCC countries have difficulties with neighboring states. The Gulf war was caused by the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. There have been difficulties between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, and between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. These disputes make the Gulf countries unable to agree on a joint security system. They also affect the countries internationally. With so little agreement among themselves, the GCC countries will join the new world order in a weak position, with little political or negotiating power, especially with the United States, the world leader. They cannot compete with allies or enemies, especially on such significant issues as security, economic control, and oil.

The United States may find itself opposing not only the regional powers in the Gulf, such as Iran and Iraq, but its NATO allies as well, as oil and energy continue to constitute the backbone of the world economy. The U.S. view of Gulf security will probably be the prevailing one (Al-Aydaroosi, 1993, p.171; Marhoon, 1995, p.36). The deep dependence of the Gulf countries on the United States, as shown in the response to the Iraqi invasion, makes them unable to ensure their own security. Their internal dissensions on one hand and the effect of the U.S. and Western interests on the other weaken the ability of the Gulf countries to expand relations with the world beyond the Middle East. Other regional countries, such as Iran and Iraq, have formed international alliances and have thus become more powerful on economic and military levels. The weaknesses of the GCC countries will prevent such collaborations and contribute to the lack of regional security in the Gulf. As an example, the concept of dual containment of Iraq and Iran proved a failure, but it helped the United States tighten its position in the Gulf. In similar ways, new strategic alliances may appear – European/Russian, for example – to secure Gulf oil (Gerges, 1996/97). The Gulf as a top priority of the United States, the Jordanian/Israeli issue, and privatization are discussed in the following sections.

The Gulf countries face the 21st century with many challenges: deteriorating internal conditions, weakness in the ruling systems, inability or unwillingness of authorities to move from a tribal concept into statehood, and intransigence of rulers in the face of demands by citizens for change. Among the currents pushing for change, the Islamic powers are the most organized, powerful, and well financed. The political coupling that has existed between the Islamic powers and the governing authorities is under strain. Saudi Arabia is an example; in the kingdom, the Islamic movement has begun to oppose the official authority of the ruling family. American policy in the Middle East, especially in regard to the peace process and political Islam, is likely to lead to more Islamic opposition in the Gulf region. As ties between the ruling authorities and the West strengthen, opposition by Muslims to such alliances will grow stronger (Ayub, 1993). The opposition to the United States from the Islamic move­ment is principally because of the support of the West for democratic movements.

Another flash point is the Israeli situation. As Gulf-American­-Israeli relations strengthen, confrontation will increase with neighbor­ing countries, especially Iran. The United States is very concerned about preventing any Iranian-Arab Gulf alliances. The U.S. policy is mixed, however; it praises democracy and supports it – except in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where it has strong ties to the nondemocratic ruling authority.

These are some of the struggles the Gulf countries are dealing with today. Their weakest point is their inability to establish a united and harmonious front to present to the rest of the world. This lack of unity puts the GCC countries at a special disadvantage in relation to the giant alliances – economic and military – that have begun to appear internationally. These include the European Community, NAFTA, and the Pacific Agreement. These projects are not limited only to the great-industrialized countries but are also of interest in the developing world. To date, however, the Gulf countries have not been able to unify in a successful economic integration based on distribution of specialized tasks, interdependence, free markets, or even the elimination of customs and tax obstacles – which are fiercely opposed (Al-Zobri, 1 995).

There is little reason for optimism on this front. In fact, with the continuous and rapid changes at the regional and Arab levels, several signs of threat can be identified in the Gulf region, especially those related to GCC countries in both the domestic and foreign arenas. Some of these are discussed below.

The first and most troubling stumbling block is the lack of political development. Changes in government can come about peacefully only with open discussion, tolerance for opposing views and willingness to entertain diverse solutions for current problems. Political development must have a democratic atmosphere and political diversification to flourish.

History has demonstrated – and recently within the GCC countries themselves – that development cannot occur in a climate of repression where autocratic and limited decisions smother alternative and competitive opinions. Real experience also shows that innovation is not achieved without new blood and ideas in the decision-making channels.

In spite of the present situation, democracy is not unknown in the Gulf countries. Both Kuwait and Bahrain have had real democratic experiences in spite of the obstacles they have endured. The United Arab Emirates saw a democratic movement in the first quarter of this century. Other Gulf countries have made attempts to adopt forms of democracy, and most recently the Amir of Qatar promised free municipal elections in that country for the first time. Even Saudi Arabia, the most conservative and traditional of the OCC countries, established the new Shura Council, with its elected/appointed members, as a step toward political reform.

Strengthening the push for reform is the storm of democracy that has swept the world in the aftermath of the Cold War. Through democratic reforms, the GCC countries will be more capable of containing the Islamic political upsurge and wave of extremism that has engulfed poor Islamic countries.

The Islamic rising in the Gulf is a developing and expanding trend. Its leaders repudiate the formal and traditional culture in favor of anew culture based on public religious organizations. These could be like the old mosques or new intellectual clubs, public utility organizations, or arms of the press (Al-Najjar 1991, p.81). Already, the various and diversified Islamic groups have created economic and investment organizations whose social and cultural activities go beyond the borders of these countries. Donations and grants in the hundreds of millions of dollars go to poor Islamic countries.

The Islamic intelligentsia has scored success with the traditional tradesmen and allies of the ruling families. These classes, as a result of the great oil wealth, have learned to equate culture with luxury. The Islamic leaders have managed to reverse this thinking, replacing it with a reverence for nationalism and Islamic advancement. Now Islamic thought prevails in the middle classes of the Arab Gulf societies (Al-Najjar, 1991, p.74).

The reason for the success of the religious groups as well as the explanation for their ability to dominate and influence is their duality: Publicly, they declare their support for political reform, but in actuality they have their own behind-the-scenes policy that opposes the advancement of women and embraces a political and economic reform that avoids confrontation with political authorities. If the Islamic forces are not contained locally within a true model of democracy, they will be powerful opposing forces in the future, hindering any real political reform.

The domestic instability has an international element. Because of the region’s oil reserves and their great importance to the rest of the world, foreign countries will not tolerate great instability in the Gulf. If the social and economic problems are transformed into political problems that require coercive confrontation, instability increases as well as opposition from the Islamic powers. Regional signs indicate that Western powers will support the existing regimes against an Islamic takeover. In spite of calls for democracy, totalitarianism will continue, leading to severe opposition from the people and hatred for the West. The West is already seen as responsible for many internal problems and extremist approaches.

Since its founding 15 years ago, the Gulf Cooperation Council has sought unity. The political independence of the Gulf countries was completed with the evacuation of the British forces. Since the end of the 1970s, the region has seen many unsettling events, including the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the breakout of the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted for eight years. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 has left lingering threats to the states of the region. All these factors were expected to strengthen the unity of the Gulf countries, to encourage them to put aside disputes and find a way to deal as one with the problems of regional security.

Unfortunately, this has not happened. The traditional disputes have remained unresolved, largely because of the types of rulers who emerged. These were mostly sheikhs who brought with them their tribal mentalities and no concept of governing a late-20th-century nation. Territorial disputes because of oil have intensified not only among the GCC countries but with neighbors such as Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. Such difficulties have extended to the maritime borders of the north Gulf triangle shared by Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, disputes that are still not resolved. The Iranian oil minister has visited Kuwait to resume negotiations; Iran is very eager for the disagree­ment to be settled between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to maintain the concessions it had previously won from Kuwait (Al-Ra’yl Al-Aam , No.16837, 12/2/1997).

Problems continue between Kuwait and Iraq, centering on Iraq’s lack of a principal port and its claim to the AI-Ritqa oil wells. These were declared reasons for the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Another regional problem is the conflict between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over the islands in the South Gulf area. These islands have strategic significance as they overlook the Strait of Hormuz, essential for shipping oil to the industrialized world. Additionally, the islands have value for their natural resources.

Strained relations continue between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, despite ongoing negotiations between them. Recent oil discoveries in Yemen may ease the future relations of the two countries.

Problems within the Gulf countries spill over to affect relations with the rest of the world, creating even more barriers to unified strategies among the GCC. The Saudi-Qatari dispute, for example, was used by Baghdad to its advantage. The Qataris were convinced to use the Qatar information system to publish reports on the disastrous condition of the Iraqi people, with a plea to break the international siege against Iraq. The Doha government has sent huge quantities of relief goods to Baghdad- Similarly, the United Arab Emirates has repeatedly called for reconciliation with Iraq since 1995, accompanied by Sheikh zayed’s criticism of Kuwait to gain the support of Iraq in the U.A.E.’s dispute over the islands. Such situations have a destabilizing effect on unity.

In other examples of disunity, the Amir of Qatar withdrew from the Gulf summit held in Oman in 1995 after accusing other GCC members of intervening in the internal affairs of his country Bahrain failed to attend the last Gulf summer because it was held in Qatar. The reason was Qatar’s continuous propaganda about the Howar Islands. The quarrel between Qatar and Bahrain has escalated to a counter-information war, with each side exposing embarrassing political circumstances about the other. Press and audiovisual media in Doha, Qatar have exaggerated public dissatisfaction in Bahrain. The Qatari media broadcast reports of torture, complaints, exaspera­tion, and the demand for reinstatement of the democracy that was discontinued in 1973 by Bahrain’s rulers. The Qatari media present interviews with opposition figures, setting out their political demands. Qatar has also established a satellite channel named Jazirah “Peninsula” for discussion of hot political issues in the Gulf. The statements made by the new Amir of Qatar, who came to power after a bloodless overthrow of his father, that democracy will prevail in the coming few years, has stimulated fear and apprehension in the conservative countries. He made these statements simultaneously with a demand for democracy in Bahrain and greater freedoms in the existing democratic regime in Kuwait. Such activity creates unease in conservative countries like Saudi Arabia.

In other actions, the United Arab Emirates welcomed the dethroned Amir of Qatar with royal treatment. When the new Amir was targeted in a coup d’etat that failed, the current ruler accused Bahrain and other Gulf countries of mounting a conspiracy against his country.

The two smallest Gulf countries – Bahrain and Qatar – have accused each other of harboring political opposition figures, scheming against one another, and practicing espionage. Such internal distrust makes it easy for external powers to polarize the region and create secessionist pressure from the GCC. Within the Council itself side blocs have been created to support counter-trends demanding alteration of joint defense agreements. Any attack on the common security weakens the combined military structure, which is already unstable – and with a weakened structure come more regional threats.

  1. The International Dimension

Regional Security

Many Arabic experts believe that the best prospect for regional security is for it to be integrated as pan-Arab security, a shield against dependence on international security and regional penetration (Saad Naji Jawad, Mariam AI-Amar, & Mun’im Al-Ammar, 1996). An alliance based on pan-Arab principles will provide an opportunity for an Arab internal balance (p. 42). The requirements for such security are steep. They would include rejection of political crises between Arab countries, thorough economic integration among the countries bound by the agreement, and a limit on overuse of wealth. The restrictions would be so great that such security arrangements are highly unlikely. The Gulf countries are not on good terms with all Arab states, many of which are jealous of the vast oil wealth of the GCC countries and accuse them of unjust distribution of this wealth among the total Arab community. This dissension was fostered during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, after which Some Gulf figures began to promote the idea of separating pan-Arab security and Gulf security.

Attention is now being focused on the Iraqi and Iranian threats on the one hand and the rejection of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the other. The Arab-Israeli conflict overburdens the Gulf countries politically and economically, and neither their internal circumstances nor their financial status can allow them to continue these obliga­tions. International powers attempt to link Gulf security with international security. A result of such action is that it would isolate the Gulf from the pan-Arab concept in terms of security. The situation makes the Gulf region susceptible to influence by the United States as the major dominant power in the world (Stevens, 1994; Stanley Foundation, 1995).

The Gulf countries have particular characteristics that require them to take specific arrangements; however, separating them from their regional neighbors (Iraq, Iran, Yemen), other Arab countries, Islamic countries, or even the nonaligned countries may create new and different problems (Jawad & Mun’im, 1996). Three situations can serve as examples of the regional security challenges for the Gulf countries.

The closest neighbors of the GCC countries are different from the traditional regimes in terms of politics, ideology, and demography. These are relatively poor countries with large populations and military or revolutionary regimes that deny public participation (Yemen and Iran). The three neighboring countries have historical and border disputes with the GCC countries that keep tension high. These countries are not on good terms with the United States and may, directly or indirectly, have a confrontation with that power. These tensions tend to encourage the arms race between the GCC countries and their neighbors. After the second Gulf war, GCC military purchases went up to $45 billion. By the end of the century the value of arms is expected to reach $90 billion.

The arms race may represent a war of economic attrition against the Gulf countries. This race may be intended to subject the countries to social or political shocks as the people’s standard of living is degraded by deficits caused by arms expenditures. With so much emphasis on armed forces, the military may become dangerously powerful, and ambitious commanders may use their military might to gain political power, especially in the absence of public participation and reduced development programs. This happened in many third world countries in the 1950s and 1960s. In such a context, the GCC countries would be expected to seek closer ties to Western countries, particularly the United States, for protection (Mohammad 1993). As alliances within the GCC and with its neighbors weaken, individual Gulf countries will seek closer economic, social and security links with the West.

The issue of peace between Arab countries and Israeli is one of the most critical challenges Gulf countries must deal with. The peace prospect looks neither stable nor promising. Sadat paid a visit to Jerusalem 20 years ago, and the repercussions of that visit are still reverberating throughout the region. Conditions have been at best tense and at worst openly hostile since the declaration of the Israeli state in 1948. With Israel’s constant buildup of military and techno­logical force, the tensions continue to climb. The idea of Middle East peace-promoted by Israel politically and through the media cannot hide Israel’s attempt to gain superiority and dominance in this way rather than by war and arms.

And Israel finds the Arab countries in financial straits. Historical­ly, the Arab countries have undergone repeated economic crises. The economics of these countries were generally oriented to using public resources in income distribution and development with the aim of creating an infrastructure capable of succeeding in the work force market. As a result, the Gulf countries find themselves at the threshold of the 21st century loaded by internal debt collectively of about $50 billion. If the condition of the public sector in the rest of the Arab countries is included, the indebtedness is close to $200 billion (AI-Sa’adun, 1996, p.24.).

On the other hand, private sector savings, of which the Gulf countries have the lion’s share, are about $600 billion (AI-Sa’adun, 1996, pp.24-25). This vast economic reserve explains Israel’s eagerness to promote economic naturalization with the private sector in particular. Israel does not take the peace process seriously, as the political side of the process is complicated. In addition, it always denies the terms of agreements signed with Arab governments. Israel’s real interest is in unofficial economic naturalization with the Arab countries because of the bright future of the private sector, especially if there is an atmosphere of unrestricted world trade and repeated calls for market uniformity, open borders, and abolition of contradictory local laws and regulations. In this arena, the scales are in favor of the Israelis, as that country’s economy is more advanced and it has had a greater ability to attract capital to boost its produc­tive sectors. For these reasons, Israel desires to suspend the Gulf boycott and initiate economic naturalization.

It is helped by Western governments and international organiza­tions, such as the World Bank, that are calling for privatization in the Gulf in a time of unparalleled pressure to embrace democracy. Israeli economic superiority will minimize the burden of the U.S. budget as it is overloaded by indebtedness (Ismael, 1995, pp. 20-22).

Such predictions enrage those elements that oppose peace – the national and Islamic ideologists. Supporters of Islamic power in the region see the peace process as just another model for foreign dominance and a new era of imperialism.

Finally, Israeli involvement in the Gulf area, with both Iran and Iraq so nearby, may lead to more tension and possibly a new armed confrontation, particularly with the presence of the United States. After the collapse of the Cold War system and following the Gulf war, the United States has become a principal power in the Gulf region. Its impact on the region is direct. For the first time in the history of Gulf international relations, the United States directs its politics and its strategic, economic, and security interests directly without a local or regional agent. Complicating matters even further is that U.S. policies since the early 1990s are no longer in competition with any other great power in the Gulf, even while opposing major Gulf powers like Iran and Iraq. This situation may lead to direct confrontation between the United States and some of the countries in the region as well as another U.S.-Iraqi confrontation.

Today, U.S. diplomacy is self-explanatory and is expressed directly. In a speech delivered by the U.S. Secretary of Defense in the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, William Perry stated that the concept of dual containment means halting any power from replacing the United States as the dominant power in the Gulf (Al-Ahrarm, 1/7/1995). This stance does not concern the other Western countries as the traditional competitor to the United States no longer exists, and Iran and Iraq are only regional powers. The main characteristic of dual containment for both Iran and Iraq is to maintain a powerful defense capability in the Gulf region. On the other side, there is an annual cost of $40 billion to maintain the U.S. military existence, as stated in a new study by the American Institute for General Polities, “Time Bomb: Increasing U.S. Commitments in the Gulf” (Al-Ra’yl Aam, No.16846, 2/3/1997, p.10).

Many signals indicate that the Gulf region is experiencing American dominance. After lagging behind Japan and Western European countries, the United States has, since the beginning of this decade, become the primary commercial partner with many Gulf countries. American firms have assumed a prominent investment role in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Kuwait, whether in number of investment projects or the volume of these projects (Al-Ra’yl Aam, No. 16828, 12/2/1997, p.15). In oil dependency, U.S. demand for Gulf oil has increased, especially the demand for crude oil. It was 5% to 6% in the 1980s and has risen to as much as 25% in the 1990s (Energy Information Administration, 1994). In return, Gulf dependence on the United States in defense has become quite clear (see Table 1).

There has been an upsurge in U.S. arms to the Gulf. The value of arms purchases increased to $72 billion from 1990 to 1995. The value of Gulf armament will be $90 billion by the end of tile century. There is no doubt that the policy of flooding the region with U.S. arms and weapons is in support of the United States’ dual containment policy against Iraq and Iran. The strategy shores up the defense capability of the GCC countries through bilateral defense relations achieved by the purchase of arms, training programs, and joint maneuvers. The aim is to make the GCC countries a first line of defense.

Table (1)

Values and Percentages or GCC military Dependence on the United States (1970-95)

($ Millions in constant 1990 prices)

Saudi Arabia3233105366084

Source: Sipri Data Base.

Establishing a U.S. military presence and bringing the Gulf countries under the protective wing of the United States will have critical impacts in the long run. According to Quant (1997), U.S. policy from the 1950s to the 1980s was driven by the fear of a Communist threat to U.S. interests. Now political Islam is regarded as a threat.

Political Islam is not limited to the neighboring countries of revolutionary Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan, but also includes others like Pakistan and Malaysia. The Gulf countries have become most influential Islamic centers because of public activities, support, organization, and generous budgets. As mentioned earlier, the local intelligentsia have become Islamic, and some of the Islamic move­ments have armed and trained militias.

If the patterns continue, sooner or later U.S. policy in the Gulf will have a confrontation with Islamic opposition in the region. The Islamists have already shown exasperation with the U.S- presence by the use of force and violent actions. Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the legitimacy of Gulf governments has been questioned by certain opposition groups, especially in Saudi Arabia where a large complex housing U.S. troops was destroyed by a car bomb, with considerable loss of American personnel. Attacks against American targets seem to be well planned as the Saudi authorities, with the help of U.S. intelligence agents, could not find the Source of the two bombings that occurred in Riyadh in 1995 and Khubar in 19%. In a recent interview from his new head quarters in Afghanistan, Usama Bin Laden, the most wanted Saudi Islamic opposition figure, threatened to declare Jihad (holy war) against the United States and its allies if it does not withdraw its forces from the Gulf Bin Laden said that the Riyadh explosion and the Khubar attack were just warnings and that U.S. troops as well as civilians must leave the region before it is too late (Al-Siyasa, No.10144, 21/2/1997, p.1).

The formal American policy supporting Israel will create a passive reaction in some Islamists in the Gulf. Although some Arab parties have signed peace accords with Israel, that country is still acting aggressively against Lebanon and repudiating the terms of the accords. Continuing provocations by Israel – building homes for Jews in the Arab section of Jerusalem by the Nitanyahu government, continuos expansion of West Bank settlements, and the use of internationally prohibited weapons against civilians in South Lebanon without an appropriate response from Washington – will put the Gulf governments in an awkward situation if the United States demands that they normalize relations with Israel. Such a move would be strongly resisted in most Gulf countries.

An even greater peril is the state of confrontation that exists between the United States and Iran. All economic and political indicators show that the Arab Gulf countries could not withstand a new war, particularly one in which they are not a party but are caught in the middle between two opposing powers. Also, the Gulf countries cannot afford to fund another such war. The GCC states spent about $37 billion to fund the Desert Storm operation in addition to the $72 billion that was lost in the war. Kuwait indirectly lost about $38 billion. No Gulf country with a continuous deficit can support a new war to which they are not a party.

All the countries in the region are caught between Washington and Tehran. The United States is trying to convince the Arab Gulf countries that there is a real Iranian threat by giving them information that there are radical organizations in the region, backed by Iran, and that Iran has deployed missiles all along the Gulf as part of a mass destruction program. Iran, on the other hand, has threatened that it will turn the region into a hell and will not hesitate to attack any country that triggers regional war.

The polarization will probably continue to escalate on a wider and wider scale. Mohamed Jaber Al-Ansari (Al-Qabas, No. 8484,2/2/1997, pp.1, 20) pointed out that the United States’ continuing policy to contain Iran and the Western expansion through NATO will probably lead to an answering Asian alliance including China, Japan, Russia, and India that will reach the Gulf through Iran, the largest and most powerful Gulf country if Tehran has avoided confrontation with the United States at least until the end of 1997. These countries are interested in the Gulf because of its energy resources and its potential as a market of consumers. U.S. sanctions against Iran led to more foreign investment in both Iranian oil and gas, which will continue to be the backbone of energy into the 21st century. Iranian gas reserves are 23 trillion Mc, which makes it second in the world after Russia. Iran plans to export as many as 4.5 billion M3 of natural gas in the year 2000 to its main trading partners: Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and West Europe (Al-Wattan, No. 7551, 21/2/1997, p20).

To further its aims, the United States will stimulate movement toward democracy, greater openness, higher standards of living, universal education, and increasing contact with the external world by informational and technological methods. This push to promote democracy may create a reaction against the United States, especially if the Islamists assume or participate in power.

  1. Conclusion

Every society faces constant challenges. The Gulf countries are no different. However, they face a wide range of economic, political and security difficulties in an atmosphere of rapid alterations and influence by internal and international forces. The Gulf countries have advantages – abundant wealth and oil reserves and disadvant­ages: a desirable geographical location, low population, and security weaknesses.

The Gulf countries are small in the power equations – regional or international. Economic circumstances as well as security and political crises during the last decades have made them weak and vulnerable. These countries now face both traditional and new challenges and to survive, they must confront certain realities.

First, the tribal age based on isolation has come to an end. The institutions of society are bases for stability, development, and modernization. In this context, a new model for decision making must be established; it must be characterized by citizen involvement and participation and intellectual maturity.

Second, the GCC countries must realize that they cannot successfully face internal, regional, and international challenges without vital regional projects. They must plan for job opportunities and vital productive sectors. The beginning point should be the sectors directly related to oil industries. Looking forward, the countries must begin planning for how they will feed their popula­tions in the future. If we look at the production rates and prices of Gulf oil and compare these with the expected increase in population, the figures show that it will not be possible to satisfy the increasing needs of a growing population (Al-Sa’adun, 1992, pp. 22-23) (see Table 2).

Table (2)

Current Population and projections for GCC Countries:

1995, 2010, and 2020

Saudi Arabia18,73031,19843,255

The figures may not add to the given total due to rounding and exclusion of certain pseudo-national entities.


Source: The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1996. Funk & Wagnalls Corporation.

These figures do not address the necessity for funding develop mental projects that have become an urgent necessity in a world of industrialized competition. It is difficult to see how the Gulf countries will address the needs of an estimated population of 43,660 in ten years while oil dependency and prices will remain close to current levels. Only through Gulf unity can the region address economic competition at regional and international levels as well as military and political security.

Third, political reform must be instituted to stop outrageous expenditures, abuse of authority, administrative corruption, and narrow display of self-interest and tribalism. In this respect, the Islamic element should be included as a model of purity and tolerance to show that political Islam can translate development and economic dimensions into reality. Thus countries such as the United States should realize that political Islam is not a danger to their interests and issues of democracy and human rights will continue to be in the Gulf foreign policy agenda.

Finally, the Gulf countries must bring into reality a regional security project. Oil is the main element capable of linking the GCC countries with their neighbors – Iran, Iraq, and even Yemen where oil was recently found. In this climate, respect for human rights and pluralities will be safeguards against fears of exporting political and radical ideologies throughout the Gulf and the Arabian peninsula.

In sum, most Gulf countries face a real danger, yet they have the assets not only to overcome the challenges but also to establish a brighter and more stable future. They possess wealth, energy, and sufficient assets of power. What remains is to learn how to employ them positively with adequate courage and steadfast will.



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