The Gulf security pact: Another GCC dilemma

How to implement the amended Internal Security Pact.

GCC rulers approved the security pact's latest revisions in December 2012 [AP]

As Riyadh seeks to upgrade the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alliance into an effective union, moves to safeguard various security planks are met with opposition, notably in Kuwait. What alternatives are there for such regulations?

Although Gulf security concerns almost always focused on regional and global hegemons, especially Iran, Iraq, Russia (and before it the Soviet Union), as well as the United States (GCC) societies faced a slew of internal challenges as well. All were expertly addressed, given that the 13 ruling families that governed the six GCC States were both legitimate as well as popular which explain their longevity.

Such regional threats overwhelmed Arab Gulf monarchies that, for the most part, were relatively young independent countries, as they struggled to make the transition from tribal societies into modernising entities. Many were seriously concerned with the spillover effects of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, especially since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini loathed monarchies and did not hide the desire to export his revolution across the Gulf.

Inside Story – Crossing the Gulf’s red lines?

Whether the February 1979 revolution inspired decades of instability throughout the Arabian Peninsula, was a perpetual subject of academic debates, though few overlooked that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia faced an existential threat from Juhayman al-Utaybi and his followers when the latter occupied Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca for about three weeks in November 1979.

Simultaneously, clashes in the Eastern Province in early 1980, a failed coup attempt in Bahrain in December 1981, followed by a series of bombings in Kuwait in 1983, led to various quarrels. The entire region was caught in the vortex of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War as the nascent GCC confronted epochal challenges long before the 1991 War for Kuwait liberation and the subsequent US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The 1982 Internal Security Agreement

It was within the context of regional instability that GCC Interior Ministers first discussed a comprehensive “Internal Security Agreement” (ISA) in 1982. Though forgotten by time, it was worth recalling that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia embarked on a series of security agreements with its junior partners between 1979 and 1982, precisely to enhance security coordination among all six conservative Arab Gulf monarchies.

The first accord was signed with Bahrain, followed by similar bilateral pacts with the UAE, Qatar and Oman, “to provide for the exchange of equipment, expertise and training, and for the extradition of criminals and border cooperation”. At the time, only Kuwait balked at the offer, and insisted on the application of its own regulations. In fact, the extradition of criminals, particularly political prisoners, was an important element of the bilateral agreements, because security laws differed among GCC states.

What Riyadh wished to accomplish was to eliminate difficulties encountered following the Mecca Mosque takeover, when several suspects fled to Kuwait before Saudi authorities could apprehend them.

If efforts to create a unified GCC internal security mechanism failed in 1982, significant technological developments during the past 20 years facilitated compromises, as human and economic contacts improved throughout the region.

If efforts to create a unified GCC internal security mechanism failed in 1982, significant technological developments during the past 20 years facilitated compromises, as human and economic contacts improved throughout the region.

Consequently, GCC citizens along with expatriate permanent residents gained relatively unrestricted travel privileges within the zone that, unbeknownst to most, could only be guaranteed after strict security measures were introduced at various border posts.

Indeed, and with increased human interactions, member-states confronted a serious peak of cross-border movements as revolutionary elements spread throughout the Arab World. That was the reason why GCC interior ministers revisited the internal security pact that was last amended in 1994 – three years after the liberation of Kuwait – though Kuwait was still opposed to various amendments.

Kuwaiti opposition

If Kuwait opposed the 1982 ISA clause that allowed any GCC security forces to pursue suspects 20 kilometres inside the territory of a neighbouring state, its chief argument against these rules stemmed from a belief that such operations would violate the country’s constitution.

Interestingly, Kuwaiti liberal and Islamist parliamentarians were united in preserving intrinsic privileges, and rejected any and all breaches in the country’s charter. By all accounts, Kuwait enjoyed a healthy parliamentary life with relatively free elections, still rare in the region. Its press freedoms were a notch above the rest and, in the aftermath of the 1990 Iraqi invasion and occupation, few were ready to offer compromises.

Not even the 1991 War for liberation altered Kuwait’s perception on the pact. There was, indeed, an unwritten rule in Kuwaiti political life, namely that elected officials would do their utmost to prevent the country from becoming a police state. Even pro-government parliamentarians would almost always oppose strict restrictions that endangered the country’s identity.

Still, and ironically, while a duly elected Kuwaiti parliamentarian was duty bound to uphold the laws of the land, GCC officials periodically reminded their Kuwaiti counterparts that the country’s laudable democratisation efforts were not sufficient to deter the 1990 aggression. Moreover, and though the 1982 or 1994 versions of the ISA may have included fundamental contradictions with Kuwaiti laws, the latest 2012 amended version did not diminish freedoms. From this perspective, many argued, the time was right to close ranks and put the GCC house in order.

Inside Story – Kuwait in crisis

Under the circumstances, GCC rulers approved the pact’s latest revisions in December 2012, though Kuwaiti parliamentarians raised several fresh legal objections. For its part, and as a signatory to the 2012 accord, the Kuwaiti Government maintained that the new regulations did not contravene the country’s constitution or laws, and that its first article clearly stated that national legislation superseded all of its provisions.

Still, this pledge proved to be unsatisfactory to several parliamentarians who insisted that the agreement contravened the charter, and that it threatened the sovereignty of the state. Lawmakers hammered that several provisions were ambiguous and that what was missing were clear definitions of what constituted political crimes or how “internal unrest” could be understood in various capitals as decision-makers mobilised their security forces to take action.

Naturally, these objections were advanced on the grounds that the GCC’s 2011 intervention in Bahrain were “unconstitutional” from a Kuwaiti perspective, even if catastrophic developments on the ground necessitated GCC involvement there.

For now, Kuwaiti parliamentarians requested expert legal assessments to determine whether any of its provisions indeed contradicted the country’s constitution, which meant that no votes were likely before next October at the very least. In the meantime, the al-Sabah ruling family was confronted with another draft law, one that banned any Gulf security agreement from including provisions that contradicted Kuwaiti laws.

While it was unclear whether enough votes were available to pass it in parliament, this bill hung like a Damocles Sword over the country, threatening to take an internal constitutional dispute over to the GCC arena.

At a time when GCC governments contemplated a fuller union and gradually introduced genuine reforms, one wondered whether member-states could eventually sort out inherent contradictions, to better contend with pending threats. The latter were palpable as regional crises loomed over the horizon.

As the Arab World confronted nation-building challenges, it was difficult to reject concrete security initiatives that protected GCC citizens and residents alike, though such refutations were par for the democratisation course.

Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).