Six conservative Gulf states, which among them produce one-quarter of the noncommunist world's oil, are defying Arab history. In search of an elusive Arab unity, not to mention greater regional security, they have formed a Gulf Cooperation Council. And Arab and Western diplomats in this humid stretch of desert, which surprises one with its patches of green lawn and palm-tree-lined streets, say that it has a "serious chance of success."
Nonetheless, the new council, which was formally launched at a May 25 meeting here of the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, bahrain, Qatar, and Oman, faces many obstacles. Among the most prickly of these are:
* Disagreements over how to counter external threats both from the big powers and from the nearby military forces of Iraq and Iran.
* Different perceptions of the internal threat posed largely by major population groups of foreign nationals in each country.
* Opposing views on price and production strategies for their most vital commodity -- oil. These divergencies were visible as the current meeting of oil ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) got under way in Geneva May 25.
The six states reject the presence of outside forces in the Gulf region. "Our conception of Gulf security is one in which the countries of the Gulf are allowed to live peacefully and securely without interference from foreign powers , and without the great powers trying to determine the area's fate," United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nuhayan told a London-based Arab newspaper last week. But then the consensus crumbles:
Kuwait wants its fellow council members to open relations with the Soviet Union in order to balance United States influence and keep both superpowers out of the Gulf. At present, Kuwait is the only one with diplomatic relations with Moscow.
Oman, on the other hand, is the only Gulf state to have granted the United States military facilities and to have openly supported the US-sponsored Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Oman is worried by frequent clashes with neighboring South Yemen, Moscow's closest ally in the region.
Saudi Arabia takes a middle-of-the-road position. The Saudis have refused to permit American bases to be established on their soil; but they have agreed to sophisticated US radar-controlled surveillance planes operating from their territory and have asked to buy five of the AWACS planes for themselves.
Contrary to the perception of the Reagan administration, most council members see the threat to their security as an internal one, stemming mainly from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"The central role which Western and other countries can play to ensure stability in the Gulf and in the Middle East lies in their work toward a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian issue and in putting an end to the continuing Zionist aggression against Palestine and Lebanon," Sheikh Zayed told his interviewer.
But none of the council members has yet clearly defined what is the internal threat to their security. And many diplomats believe that the divergent approaches stem at least partly from their different demographies.
Most council members have a majority population of foreigners. But, whereas Palestinians are only a small minority in the United Arab Emirates, for example, in Kuwait they constitute 25 percent of the population.
Kuwait, therefore, takes possibly the most radical position in the Gulf. It sees both the Soviet presence in the People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen and the US agreement with Oman as targets of its diplomacy.
When Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah visited Moscow last month, he asked the Soviet leaders to restrain South Yemen and thereby remove what Oman sees as a constant threat to its security --
Meanwhile, the six oil states appear to be concentrating at least part of their efforts on driving a wedge between the Soviet Union and South Yemen. Western diplomats are convinced that massive Saudi and Kuwaiti economic aid to South Yemen could lead to a gradual loosening of the latter's ties with Moscow.
Saudi Arabia itself, traumatized by the November 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, has pushed in the past year for closer cooperation of the various police and internal security forces in the region.The Saudi view that the security of each Gulf state is interlinked with the security of the other countries in the area is one of the cornerstones of the council.
Omani' newspapers report that Oman has submitted a security report to the council reviving the Omani proposal for a joint military force to protect the Strait of Hormuz, the sole entrance to the Gulf waters, through which more than 100 tankers pass each day carrying oil to the West.
Despite the differences between the various members, spokesmen for the council are careful to point out that it is "not meant to antagonize any one power." Diplomats believe that this statement is addressed as much to Iran and Iraq as to the United States and the Soviet Union.
Gulf diplomats contend the council has a number of potentially unifying factors working in its favor:
* The member states are all ruled by traditional families with tribal roots.
* All are in the same geographical region.
* They have similar social and cultural environments.
* They confront similar problems stemming from oil wealth and rapid development in traditional conservative societies.
* They perceive these problems in similar ways and advocate similar solutions.
But in the vital economic area of oil, the council has been unable to reach agreement on policy. Kuwait is a leading price hawk within OPEC and advocates a strongly conservationist approach. Saudi Arabia is responsible for the present glut on the world oil market and is determined to freeze oil prices at or near their present level.