Gulf states debate problems

The regally-robed kings, sultans, and sheikhs of the world's richest alliance , per capita, are meeting here to debate the increasing number of problems that threaten the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.

The nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain - will try to consolidate their alliance at their three-day conference which began Tuesday. Since its establishment four years ago, the GCC has sought to emulate the economic and political goals of the European Community, and the military ties of NATO. But the going has not been easy.

The key issues this year are:

* The four-year-old Iran-Iraq war.

* Self-defense and internal security in the most economically strategic land mass in the world.

* The impact of the drop in oil prices, as well as means of diversifying their economies from the dominance of oil.

But the strongest underlying theme is the desire to diminish reliance - politically, economically, and militarily - on outsiders, particularly the United States.

Ties with Washington have become increasingly controversial in all six states because of a growing sense that the US will ultimately side with Israel in any dispute with the Arab world. On the eve of the summit, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah Ahmad Jabir Sabah referred repeatedly to the goal of self-sufficiency.

''We sincerely believe that the protection and security of this area is mainly the responsibility of its countries alone without any foreign intervention,'' said Sheikh Sabah. ''If this intervention would ever happen, 'God forbid it,' it would not be in the interest of anyone living in this area.''

The summit opened just days after the United Arab Emirates announced diplomatic ties with China, a move that reflects a desire to promote an image of nonalignment. In this staunchly pro-Western region, Kuwait is the only nation to have ties with the Soviet Union and other East-bloc states.

But for all their wealth and projected income from oil reserves (one-third of the world's known reserves), the ambitious GCC nations are discovering that their common resource has not helped solve their common problems. Originally formed after the outbreak of the Gulf war, the GCC is still a long way from achieving its top priority, self-defense, diplomats here say.

One key proposal is to form a Gulf rapid deployment force to be called in if any of the sister states is attacked. While the commitment is admirable, the implementation of coordinated defense has hit several obstacles, they say.

The status of the GCC's joint forces was evident at maneuvers last month held in Saudi Arabia. Like the first exercises last year, there were several hitches, Arab and Western envoys say. The six states can muster only a total of 140,000 troops, according to GCC statistics. Military sources concede there is neither sufficient materiel nor trained manpower to counter threats from Iran, Israel, or the Soviet Union. Indeed the main benefit of pooling resources lies in the psychological factor.

''If there is a Gulf force, it would not increase defensibility of these nations,'' one Western envoy explained. ''At the military level, it can only hope to become capable of holding off any aggressor until political forces go into action or others come to their rescue.

''But standing together might deter possible aggressors, who realize taking on one nation means taking on all of them. Formation of a GCC force will make it politically more difficult to attack any member state,'' he added.

Wide variation in war materiel and the complexities of a command-and-control structure spread through six states add to the difficulties. The bottom line, according to diplomats, is that any major threat from land or sea would require outside intervention, since the GCC is not expected to be able to become fully coordinated ''for decades, at least,'' Western sources says.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.