Can six gulf states speak with one Arab voice?

Syria and Iraq tried it. So did North and South Yemen. And Libya and Syria gave it a go.

But those Arab marriages are on the rocks.

In its own low-key way, however, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is really the only "Arab unity" plan that looks as if it will go the distance.

After 18 months, with the crises in Lebanon and the Iran-Iraq war as ipetus, the conservative, wealthy Arab nations along the Gulf are pressing ahead with plans to bolster their stability through a collective defense network:

The GCC, founded in May 1981, is maturing from a fledgling common market for the Gulf nations into what could well become a mini-NATO. Defense ministers of Saudi Arabia (guiding force behind the GCC), the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, meeting earlier this month in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, discussed creation of a joint air-defense system and weapons industry. The ministers also are reported to have given thought to conducting joint training exercises. Further developments along these lines are expected at the GCC summit in Bahrain Nov. 9.

Much of the GCC's backup muscle may come from Egypt, with which post-Camp David reconciliation is proceeding.

Reports from Cairo and Riyadh indicate GCC countries are considering resuming financing to Egypt's Arab Industries Organization, a Cairo-based arms manufacturing venture. The AIO lost funding from other Arab countries in 1979 because of Egypt's separate peace with Israel.

But since Israel returned to Egypt the rest of the Sinai Peninsula last April , GCC investors have visited Egypt frequently and are currently helping capitalize a $500 million Arabian Gulf Investment Company for commercial ventures (initially this will mean real estate developments in Cairo). Financial analysts believe that Gulf funding for the AIO may not be far behind.

If Gulf funding resumes for the arms industry, it will mean a $4 billion investment over the next five years to set up coproduction plants in Egypt to produce parts for, and assemble, American fighters and other weapons used in Egypt and throughout the Gulf.

This Egypt-GCC weapons project may be clinched at an expected summit early next year between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Fahd. So far Mr. Mubarak has been doing all the right things as far as King Fahd and other Gulf leaders are concerned. He has condemned Israel's invasion of Lebanon. He has promised aid to any troubled country in the Gulf. And he has thrown in with most GCC states in offering war material to Iraq in its two-year-old war with Iran.

It is with Iran in mind that the GCC is planning joint defense strategy and weapons development. Interviews earlier this year with Kuwaiti and Bahraini officials indicated that -- although Gulf governments were not overly concerned about the Shiite Muslim populations of their countries acting as fifth columns -- they nevertheless were keeping a wary eye on Iran. The worry in Kuwait and Bahrain is about possible spillover of the Iran-Iraq war now that it is clearly established that these countries are giving Iraq considerable amounts of financial aid.

Arab analysts say the Iran-Iraq war is currently a stale-mate. Iraq has managed to stymie Iran's counterinvasion and recently blocked an apparent thrust aimed at its capital, Baghdad. But there is some thinking the Iranians may have been feinting for Baghdad in order to draw off Iraqi defenders at the real target: the oil refinery city of Basra.

If Iranian troops were positioned in Basra, Iran wouuld have cut off Iraq from the Gulf by land and sea. More importantly for the Gulf states -- beginning with Kuwait -- Iran's Army would then pose a real threat, and Iranian ultimatums might have to be taken seriously.

So it is that GCC countries gave full backing to yet another Gulf-war peace mission by the Islamic Conference Organization. Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Toure conferred in Saudi Arabia Oct. 22 and then headed a nine-member committee on a tour of the warring capitals.

But the Iranians were not ready to end the war peacefully -- especially given the recent military advances Iran has made. Mr. Toure said Oct. 24 that his latest peace mission had been deadlocked, though it will keep up its efforts.

If the Iran-Iraq war persists but remains contained, it may help the GCC consolidate its organization. With those two powers tied up, and with Egypt a strong but distant ally, the GCC may yet disprove cynicism about "Arab unity."

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