Gulf states huddle to shore up defenses

In one small conference room this week on a tiny island in the Gulf, six men representing roughly half of the world's known oil reserves huddled in an attempt to shore up their military and economic defenses.

But what the summit served to emphasize was not the potential strength but the vulnerability of the six states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

For, as the sheiks and sultans and kings of the Arabian peninsula conferred, the war between Iran and Iraq raged into a bitter new stage on their northern border, underlining a threat which they see as more ominous than the Soviet Union or Israel.

And on the GCC's southern frontier, in Oman, plans were under way for new maneuvers later this month of the United States Rapid Deployment Force - emphasizing the inadequate self-defense of a region that provides the largest single share of Western oil supplies.

The GCC was founded 18 months ago primarily because of those factors of regional threats and dependence on outsiders militarily. The fate of the Shah had triggered a dramatic change in thinking about total reliance on the US during a crisis.

In effect, the resource-rich group is seeking to establish small Arabian equivalents of the European Community, NATO, and the international police organization known as Interpol, all to be interrelated to foster long-term stability and self-reliance.

The venue for the conference, Bahrain, offers the best explanation of the Gulf states' motive:

* Although the first to strike oil, back in 1931, Bahrain has little left. It is the poorest of the six and needs development and investment projects to avoid reverting to the pre-oil lifestyle.

* Although the ruling Khalifa family has been in place for more than two centuries, there remains an internal danger from the powerless majority of Shiite Muslims, the same sect as the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Last December, the authorities nipped in the bud a plot to overthrow the government, led by a small group of Shiites, who were trained and equipped by Iran.

* And on defense, the island's armed forces total a mere 2,500, originally set up more as a prestige symbol of a sovereign state than a practical military unit.

Alone, Bahrain is troubled. But it can contribute to and benefit from an umbrella organization of dominant Saudi Arabia and its five little brothers.

Western envoys in the Gulf have heralded the GCC as an important and determined new alliance. However, several have also expressed concern about its ability to ''beat the clock.'' On all three fronts - economic, internal security , and defense - the GCC has discovered a host of logistical hassles and a divergence of views on key issues.

Bahrain's minister of development, Yusuf Shirawi, admitted this week that it would probably be 20 years before the GCC would have effectively integrated economic systems and laws. These would include opening up commercial markets and real estate, lifting tariffs, allowing free movement of all labor forces, and creating a potent development fund with capital of $2 billion and, possibly, a common currency.

That is the most hopeful aspect. On internal security, analysts in the region feel the GCC members could become more efficient in tracking down or monitoring dissidents in the area.

But the six countries have so far shown no intention of coming to grips with some of the underlying causes of discontent: the lack of power-sharing and the wave of Islamic fundamentalism, especially among the Shiite populations. Shiites are a significant population in four of the six countries, all of which are ruled by rival Sunni Muslim monarchies. Diplomats in Kuwait and Bahrain, for example, claim the two nations have dealt with significant numbers of suspicious Shiites by simply deporting them.

Prospects for joint defense are even bleaker. Saudi Arabia will not have the capacity to survey by air all of its own terrain, much less the entire region, even with the eventual delivery of the controversial AWACs. The US AWACs now in use in the region did not detect the Iranian jet fighters that hit a Kuwait oil installation earlier in the Gulf war.

And surveillance is but one small aspect of joint defense that includes organizing a unified command and control system; standardization of equipment that comes from Europe, the US, and in one case from the Soviet Union; acquisition of more sophisticated military hardware and aircraft; and training large numbers of military experts and troops. The total defense forces of all GCC states is 132,600, according to the Institute of Strategic Studies, compared with Iran's estimated 200,000, which does not include the volunteer forces of the Revolutionary Guards.

There are also philosophical differences among the member states. Kuwait has urged the Gulf to shed all ties with the superpowers and establish strict neutrality. But Oman has argued that it wants to retain ties with the US Rapid Deployment Force until the GCC can offer a substitute for patrolling the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

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