Understanding the Gulf States (2023)

A closer look at the most pressing economic, diplomatic, territorial, and succession issues in each of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

Money, they say, can't buy you everything. But in the conservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf (or the Arabian Gulf as they prefer to call it), money can buy a lot.

What is the tallest building in the world? The Burj al-Khalifa in the sheikhdom of Dubai. What is one of the best airlines in the world? Washington, DC friends vacationing in Asia recently chose to fly there with Qatar Airways via Doha. The newness of aircraft, quality of on-board service and well-timed connecting flight trumped any political misgivings, such as Qatar's support for Hamas in Gaza and the weapons it gives to some of the worst jihadists in Syria.

This prosperity, of course, is a consequence of oil, but in regional terms, the Gulf Arab states -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman -- found oil late in the game. Oil was first discovered in Iran in 1908. The giant oilfield at Kirkuk in northern Iraq was found in 1927. The first oil on the southern side of the Gulf was found in Bahrain in 1931. Saudi Arabia, which now has the largest reserves of conventional oil in the world -- between a sixth and a quarter of the total depending how you do the math -- found its first oil only in 1938. Production did not take off until 1941. Oil was not found in Abu Dhabi, the leading emirate of the UAE, until 1958. It is now estimated to have around 6 percent of the world's oil. Not bad, considering its population is less than one million.

Apart from hydrocarbon riches, the distinguishing feature of the conservative Gulf Arab states is their small populations. Saudi Arabia is the largest with a population of about 27 million though this probably includes at least 7 million expatriate workers. The smallest is Qatar, with about 2 million people but perhaps as few as 10 percent, 200,000, actual Qatari citizens.

So it is hardly surprising that these fabulously oil-rich countries and, in the case of Qatar natural gas-rich, have now emerged on the world stage. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Manama (Bahrain) are now iconic city-states, joining countries like Singapore and Hong Kong. Yet their entrance coincides with their region collapsing into turmoil. They have only been nation-states for a few decades yet their immediate future, what with an almost-nuclear Iran and the turmoil of the "Arab Spring," is uncertain. To make matters worse, the trend line is bad. Ten, or more likely 20 years ahead, there is predicted to be an energy glut in North America (Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.) This will hammer oil and natural gas prices. So what if, collectively, you have more than 30 percent of the world's oil and more than 20 percent of the world's natural gas? Lower prices would certainly be to the benefit of the developed world but probably a disaster to the relatively undiversified economies of the Gulf Arabs.

There is a major "but" in this sweep of analysis. The Gulf States, loosely grouped together since 1981 in the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC, have seen crises come and go, but, with the exception of Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, have themselves been spared political catastrophe. Indeed, one could make the argument -- and quite a few people do -- that their quasi-monarchial-but-listening approach to government and administration has worked well. It hardly fits into the democracy playbook of liberals in the United States and Europe, but their general success has served to highlight the deficiencies of 1950s and 1960s Arab nationalist revolutions in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.

The major problem would appear to be the growing internal contradictions among the GCC member states. In early March 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha to protest Qatari meddling in the internal affairs of the other countries. Apparently there had been a row about this last year, which had led to an agreement in late November 2013. But Qatar was not living up to its side of the bargain. The root cause of the crisis was Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood, though this was unstated. Indeed, the November 2013 pact had never been revealed and the announcement of the withdrawal of ambassadors only emerged in a communique issued at the end of a meeting of GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh.

Such a public schism opens to discussion consideration of whether the GCC as such will continue to exist. It wouldn't be the first shakeup in national boundaries. When the British left the Gulf in the early 1970s, they created the UAE out of the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Fujairah, Ajman, and Umm al-Quwain. Qatar and Bahrain were originally intended to be part of the confederation as well but could not agree with the others on the terms.

Taking each member state in turn:


The kingdom is facing a succession crisis. King Abdullah is 91 years old this year and his half-brother and designated replacement, Crown Prince Salman, is 78. Neither man is in good physical health. There are particular concerns about Salman's mental abilities. Competition to replace either will likely be intense from sons and nephews, many of whom are more privileged than they are able. Stability in the kingdom is maintained by conservative attitudes and the generous distribution of subsidies and government jobs. If the oil price falls, the government's ability to maintain these handouts will be lessened.

Uncertainties for the future include a drop in oil exports as more energy is consumed at home. The populace has become used to highly subsidized prices for gasoline and electricity. Re-educating them will be a challenge. The main foreign threat is Iran, which Riyadh sees as trying to achieve hegemonic status in the Gulf area. On the other side of the kingdom, Yemen is also watched closely because its population probably is larger than that of Saudi Arabia but is much poorer. Within Saudi Arabia, income disparity is an issue with many citizens living in comparative poverty. The tribes along the border with Yemen are suspected of dubious loyalty. On the other side of the country, on the Gulf coast, the population is largely Shiite, co-religionists of Iran and the neighboring island of Bahrain. Saudi Shiites are economically and politically disadvantaged. In addition, hardline Saudi Sunni clerics regard Shiites as not proper Muslims. The Saudi authorities handle the issue carefully but often badly. Any civil unrest could have wider consequences, as the area is also the epicenter of Saudi oil production and export.


The ruler is Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, 84 years old, with a lifetime of government service and experience but now in poor health. The authority of the al-Sabah ruling family is limited by the high standing of other prominent families and a political system that makes for gridlock. The national assembly, the oldest established parliament-type system in the southern Gulf, is divided among hardline Sunnis, tribal elements, and Shiites, with a leavening of technocratic types. Once the most modern emirate in the Gulf, Kuwait has been overtaken by Qatar and the UAE, partly a consequence of never really recovering from the shock of Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1990. There must be a concern that next time, American forces will not come galloping to the rescue. When Sabah retires or dies, the ruling family will nominate possible replacements but the final choice will be a compromise with the members of the national assembly.


The island state has been wracked by political turmoil since February 2011 when pro-democracy supporters, aroused by the "Arab Spring" in other parts of the region, staged protests. The demonstrations rapidly took on a sectarian hue. The Sunnis disappeared, making the events into Shiite confrontations with Bahrain's Sunni Muslim security forces. The main development since then has been the Shiites splitting into those advocating violence and, the apparent majority, those confining their activities to peaceful protests. A secondary, and probably more significant, change has been the emergence of Iranian backing for the violent groups.

The initial protests had prompted the intervention of Saudi paramilitary and UAE police reinforcements. Neither group actually was involved directly in countering the demonstrations, though in March 2014, an Emirati police officer died when an improvised bomb exploded near a Bahrain police unit. Political reconciliation has been thwarted by differences within the Bahrain royal family on whether compromises should be made. The lead conciliator is Crown Prince Salman but he is opposed by hardliners, including the minister of the royal court and the commander-in-chief of the Bahrain Defense Forces, collectively known as the Khawalid. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa vacillates between the two factions. Failing political reforms, the more likely outcomes include more violence and fresh involvement by Saudi security forces. The House of Saud is anxious that violence in Bahrain does not spread to the kingdom and that political reforms do not encourage demands for matching gestures by Saudi Shiites. An outside possibility is that Saudi Arabia will seek political union with Bahrain.


The "bad boy" of the GCC, a status achieved under Sheikh Hamad who abdicated in June 2013, is an even more accurate label for his son and successor, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who is just 33. The country appears to be proud of its reputation for causing trouble whether it is allowing a platform for radical Muslim preacher Yousuf al-Qaradawi, supporting some of the worst jihadists Syria, or backing the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring UAE. Having agreed to behave better at a meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in November 2013, Sheikh Tamim then failed to deliver, prompting the withdrawal of their ambassadors by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE in March 2014. Having the world's largest reserves of natural gas after Russia and Iran, as well as being the biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) funds a lot of mischief as well as building soccer stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. The interesting question may be how long Saudi Arabia will put up with such nonsense. The al-Thani are a large clan and many members are excluded from political power. Hamad's authority was questioned because he gained power by overthrowing his father, a reclusive alcoholic. Could Riyadh -- would Riyadh -- fund a coup in Doha? The Qatari military is perhaps one of the few armies that the Saudis could actually defeat.


The ruler, Sheikh Khalifa, is "stable" after a recent stroke but had essentially already handed over the strings of power to his crown prince and half-brother, Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed, who is pro-American but, like many Gulf leaders, deeply skeptical of the Obama Administration. MbZ, as he is known, represents the new generation of Gulf leadership. The test will be how much he will be constrained by any need to maintain GCC consensus. Much is made of the UAE's persistent dispute with Iran over three islands (Abu Musa, Little Tumb, and Greater Tumb) seized by Iran in 1970. MbZ's views on these islands may be more conciliatory than thought, but sovereignty is claimed by the UAE member sheikhdoms of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah and any compromise may threaten the confederation. Less noticed are two sources of territorial friction with Saudi Arabia -- Riyadh's seizure of land between Qatar and the UAE, removing the common border, and Saudi insistence that a huge oil field on the border lies totally within Saudi territory. The biggest threat is any military confrontation with Iran, which would ruin the commercial viability of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the UAE's cash-cows.


Sultan Qaboos is the odd-man-out of the Gulf. He usually shuns GCC meetings. He takes positions unhelpful to the U.S. -- until, of course, he could be helpful to Washington by facilitating the secret talks with Iran before the diplomacy on the nuclear deal opened up. In socio-economic terms, Oman has got enough oil and gas to keep its relatively large population -- about 3.1 million -- happy. It is the one GCC country that had genuine "Arab Spring" type events in 2011 with riots by discontented youth quashed by a combination of firmness and government handouts. Qaboos believes his people love him. Perhaps most do, perhaps not. His unmarried status and lack of any heirs is a source of disquiet and occasional ridicule. At 74 years old, the question of "who will succeed Qaboos?" is becoming increasingly relevant. And Oman's strategic position, on the southern side of the Strait of Hormuz, will remain vital for Gulf energy flows even if the U.S. becomes effectively energy independent.

All the GCC states have had and continue to have a dependence on the United States. None of them probably think they can rely on Washington for much longer, and certainly not forever. The sensible way forward would be to develop their unity -- but this isn't going to happen. Alternatively, they can look for another security partner. China is the name that springs to mind but there is little immediate evidence that this is going to happen. There remains the prospect of cutting an unpalatable deal with Iran. So far, perhaps with the exception of Oman and perhaps Qatar, this option is being rejected.

It makes for a worrying future.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.


What are the 6 Gulf States? ›

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are important markets for EU agricultural exports.

Why are they called the Gulf States? ›

Countries are gulf countries because they lie on the border of the Persian Gulf.

What are the 5 Gulf States? ›

Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas are considered Gulf States because they border the Gulf of Mexico.

What are the seven Gulf States? ›

The Arab states of the Persian Gulf refers to a group of Arab states which border the Persian Gulf. There are seven member states of the Arab League in the region: Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

What is the largest gulf in the United States? ›

The Gulf of Mexico, bordered by the United States, Mexico, and the island nation of Cuba, is the worlds largest gulf. It has a coastline of about 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles). The Gulf of Mexico is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Straits of Florida, between Cuba and the U.S. state of Florida.

Is Texas considered a gulf state? ›

The coastal states that have a shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico are Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and these are known as the Gulf States.

Why Gulf of Mexico is not a bay? ›

Bay is a part of the coast, having an inward land curve, in such a way that the sea is enclosed by land on three sides. Contrary to this, gulf represents a large and deep coastal indentation, such that land surrounds the sea from the maximum part, leaving one narrow opening.

Why isn't the Gulf of Mexico a bay? ›

A Gulf like the Gulf of Mexico is a centrally very deep enclosed body of the ocean. A Bay like Hudson's Bay or such is a very shallow enclosed body of water. A bay is a body of water partially surrounded by land. A bay is usually smaller and less enclosed than a gulf.

Why isn't the Gulf of Mexico called a sea? ›

Although the Gulf of Mexico is considered to be a part of the Atlantic Ocean, since an ocean has no boundaries, the Gulf and the Atlantic are still separated by the Caribbean Sea. In addition to their boundaries, there are numerous ways these two bodies of water vary and therefore, the beaches we enjoy are unique.

Why is the Gulf coast so brown? ›

The Mississippi River carries roughly 500 million tons of sediment into the Gulf of Mexico each year. The Mississippi River is not the only river with the brownish hue. The color is due to the sediments like, fine particles of sand, silt, clay, along with other materials found in the water.

What is the smallest gulf in the world? ›

Q. Which of the following is the smallest gulf in the world? Notes: Gulf of California is a marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean and it is also known as the 'Sea of Cortez'. It separates the Baja California Peninsula from the Mexican mainland.

Which is the smallest country in gulf? ›

Bahrain is the smallest in area with a population of about 0.55 million. It is an archipelago composed of 36 islands with a total area of 695 km 2 .

Which emirate is called the Pearl of the Gulf? ›

Dubai is the second largest Emirate with an area of 4,114 square kilometres, which is about 5% of the UAE excluding islands. The older districts of Dubai cover an area of 1,500 square metres. Dubai is known as the 'Pearl of the Gulf' and 'Jewel of the World' because of its heritage and history.

Why Yemen is not part of Gulf countries? ›

For its part, Bahrain just follows Saudi policy. Kuwait is the only Gulf state not involved in Yemen.” In addition to the Gulf states' contradictory objectives in Yemen, the clearest obstacle to Yemen's accession to the GCC has come from Saudi Arabia and the UAE's hostility toward Qatar.

What is the former name of the gulf? ›

Father Ascension accompanied Vizcaíno on his voyage in the Gulf; Ascension's report referred to the Gulf by several names: Mar Vermejo, Mar Rojo, Mar de la California, Sea of California, Mediterranean Sea of California, and Mar de Cortés [because, Ascension stated, “he was the first to discover it”].

Why does the Gulf of Mexico only have one tide? ›

Due to the abnormal shape of its basin, the Gulf of Mexico experiences irregular tidal cycles. The Gulf of Mexico shoreline sometimes experiences two low tides and two high tides every day, and sometimes it experiences only one high tide and one low tide in a day.

Which is bigger ocean or gulf? ›

When comparing the vastness, the oceans have a wider reach than gulfs. Oceans cover almost three fourths of the earth's surface. 3. Water in the gulf is calmer when compared to ocean.

What is the largest gulf on Earth? ›

The Gulf of Mexico is the largest gulf in the world. Home to barrier islands, shipwrecks, historical forts, white sand beaches, wilderness, and thousands of species of plants and wildlife, the Gulf of Mexico is a true treasure. Its 600,000 square miles of sea make it the ninth-largest body of water in the world.

Is Mexico a gulf country? ›

The Gulf of Mexico (Spanish: Golfo de México) is an ocean basin and a marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean, largely surrounded by the North American continent.
Gulf of Mexico
Ocean/sea sourcesAtlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea
Basin countriesUnited States, Mexico, Cuba, Canada (minor), and Guatemala (minor)
11 more rows

What gulf is just south of the United States? ›

Gulf Coast, geographic area in the extreme southern United States along the northern portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

Is California a gulf state? ›

It is bordered by the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, and Sinaloa with a coastline of approximately 4,000 km (2,500 mi). Rivers that flow into the Gulf of California include the Colorado, Fuerte, Mayo, Sinaloa, Sonora, and the Yaqui.
Gulf of California
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Why can't you swim in the Gulf of Mexico? ›

Health officials are warning that a dip in the Gulf of Mexico isn't worth the risk, as bacteria in the water could make you seriously ill.

Why is the sand white on the Gulf coast? ›

The sand is made from pure white quartz crystal, which came from the Appalachian Mountains at the end of the last Ice Age and was deposited into the Gulf of Mexico.

Is the Gulf of Mexico the only dead zone? ›

A dead zone—or hypoxic zone—is an area of low oxygen that can harm fish and marine life near the bottom of the sea. Yikes! And there are hundreds of dead zones in coastal waters around the world. The Gulf of Mexico's dead zone is one of the largest.

Where does the water turn blue in the Gulf? ›

Keiser says the Gulf of Mexico turns blue when currents or winds change and move out sediment from nearby rivers, or a lot of rain dilutes that sediment. While water color may not influence the amount of flesh-eating bacteria, water temperature does.

Why is there no sand in the middle of the ocean? ›

The simple answer is that not all of the ocean floor is made of sand. The ocean floor consists of many materials, and it varies by location and depth. In shallow areas along coastlines, you'll mainly find sand on the ocean floor. As you venture deeper, though, you'll encounter other thicker soils and sediments.

What would happen to the US if the Gulf Stream stopped? ›

Without the oceanic currents bringing warm water north, Europe and North America experience a sudden and catastrophic temperature drop.

Which side of Florida is warmer? ›

During the cooler months, the farther south you go, the warmer it will be. Fort Lauderdale, Miami, the Keys, Marco Island and Naples will have the warmest water during the winter. During the summer months, the Gulf of Mexico will be five or more degrees warmer than the Atlantic Ocean.

Why is Florida sand white? ›

The sand is almost 100% quartz, which is a highly unusual occurrence to find on other Florida beaches, and the extra-white color comes from the natural 'bleaching' from the water and the sun.

Why is the Gulf of Mexico not blue? ›

The brown water has nothing to do with pollution. It is simply due to the way the earth was constructed. Many blame the Gulf oil spill, but it has been long cleaned up from the waters. Also, the water was brown long before the spill happened.

Can you swim in the Mississippi river? ›

Current Status and Research. Stretches of the Mississippi River within the park corridor exceed water quality standards for mercury, bacteria, sediment, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), and nutrients. Unfortunately, these "impairments" can make the water unsuitable for fishing, swimming, and drinking.

Why does the water turn blue in Galveston? ›

When the region has lots of swells coming out of the Gulf, they wash up on the beach and mix with the water causing its brown discoloration. Large rain events also cause silt to come down the rivers that empty into the Gulf which "can very quickly turn your water from blue to brown," Prochazka said.

Does Texas have blue water beaches? ›

South Padre Island

Why You Need To Go: If you're looking for bright blue beaches, South Padre has some of the bluest waters on the Texas coast and you can't go wrong with visiting any beach on the island.

What is the deepest gulf? ›

The deepest point is in the Mexico Basin (Sigsbee Deep), which is 17,070 feet (5,203 metres) below sea level.

Can you swim in the Gulf of California? ›

Sea Life. Although it is not the coral-rich environment of the Caribbean, the Gulf of California still hosts a spectacular range of sea life. Instead of corals, snorkelers can swim above thick forests of kelp.

Why is the Gulf of California so hot? ›

The sea covers a fault line that runs up the middle of the sea. That fault line runs up to join the San Andreas fault line that runs upward through California. The rift under the sea of Cortez is volcanic and there is volcanic action under the sea which heats up the water.

Which is the richest Gulf country? ›

Qatar has been ranked as the richest Arab country and the fourth wealthiest on a global scale, per findings by the Global Finance's latest report.

Which is the best country to live in Gulf? ›

UAE ranks 1st in Gulf, 6th globally as best destination for expats.

Which is the best country in Gulf? ›

Best Gulf Countries with a Strong NRI Presence
  • United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi and Dubai, two of the Middle East's most promising cities for professional advancement, are located in the United Arab Emirates, which is made up of seven emirates. ...
  • Saudi Arabia. ...
  • Qatar. ...
  • Kuwait. ...
  • Oman. ...
  • FAQs.
23 Aug 2022

What are the 10 Gulf countries? ›

Countries that border the Persian Gulf are referred to as gulf countries. Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates are the names of seven gulf countries. In addition, all of these countries, with the exception of Iraq, are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

How many states are in the Gulf States? ›

There are a total of five Gulf States. Those states are: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

How many Gulf State countries are there? ›

The GCC is an alliance of states that currently consists of six countries in Western Asia. All member states comprise a total area of 0.99 million square miles2.57 million km² and about 59.56 million people. This is 1.70 percent of the habitable area around the world and 0.76 percent of the world population.

How many Gulf are there? ›

Notes: There are total 62 gulfs in the world of which the Gulf of Mexico is the largest and the deepest gulf, located in the Atlantic Ocean. It is followed by the Gulf of Guinea on the second place and the Gulf of Alaska on the third.

Which is the most beautiful gulf country? ›

Oman, the most beautiful country in the Arab peninsula. Natural beauty is one of the reasons that can lead you to Oman, but it's not the only one.

Which is the richest gulf country? ›

Qatar has been ranked as the richest Arab country and the fourth wealthiest on a global scale, per findings by the Global Finance's latest report.

Which is the most powerful gulf country? ›

Saudi Arabia ranked most powerful country in Arab world.

Which state has the most Gulf Coast? ›

The Texas coastline is 367 miles long, 3,359 miles counting the tidal pools, and 23 ports.

What are the Gulf states known for? ›

Offshore petroleum and natural gas exploration and production are of great economic importance along the coast of Louisiana and Texas. The Gulf Coast also has reserves of sulfur, magnesium, and phosphates.

Which country is smallest in gulf? ›

Bahrain is the smallest country and the only island-state in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East. It covers an area of 620 square kilometers (385 square miles), about 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C. Bahrain consists of 33 islands, of which only 3 are inhabited.

What are the 7 Arab states? ›

The ILO Regional Office for the Arab States covers the following countries and territories:
  • Bahrain.
  • Iraq.
  • Jordan.
  • Kuwait.
  • Lebanon.
  • Occupied Palestinian Territory.
  • Oman.
  • Qatar.

Why is Yemen not a gulf country? ›

Yemen was in negotiations for GCC membership, and hoped to join by 2015. Although it has no coastline on the Persian Gulf, Yemen lies in the Arabian Peninsula and shares a common culture and history with other GCC members.

What is the difference between gulf and gulf? ›

As both bay and gulf are the places where land meets water. They are the water bodies connected to the sea, formed by the erosion of coastline.
Comparison Chart.
Basis for ComparisonBayGulf
EnclosureLessComparatively more
FormationContinental drift or glacial erosion.Formed by continental drift.
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2 Nov 2017

Why is the Gulf of Mexico not a bay? ›

Both bays and gulfs are also part of a sea or ocean. A bay is a broad, recessed coastal inlet where the land curves inward. There is a coastline on three sides of a bay. A gulf is a more defined and deeper inlet with the entrance more enclosed than a bay.

What makes a gulf a gulf? ›

A gulf is an indentation along the coast that is filled with seawater from a nearby ocean or sea. Gulfs are often connected to other bodies of water by straits. Some important gulfs are the Gulf of Mexico, which is the largest gulf in the world; the Persian Gulf; and the Gulf of Carpentaria.

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