Last week, it was announced by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary General Abdullatif Al-Zayani that Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, and Oman were closing their embassies in Syria, joining their fellow GCC-states Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who made a similar announcement earlier in the week.
This is just the latest provocation by the Gulf's autocratic monarchs during the Arab spring. Qatar and Saudi Arabia helped lead the charge against Libyan leader Gadaffi, and have been openly arming the Syrian opposition fighters (with the tacit approval of Washington). This is all in contrast to any internal opposition in the GCC states, which has been violently cracked down on, most blatantly in Bahrain, where Saudi and UAE troops were called in by the Bahraini rulers to put down protests. While revolutions are fine elsewhere, the GCC monarchs are happy to hold onto their own thrones.
Concerning their recent moves in Syria, the GCC is attributing the cause to the Syrian government's wanton use of violence, however with a short study of the regions history, other, less harmonious, motives are easily seen.
Primarily, the GCC governments must be viewed as vassals of the U.S.-U.K military alliance in the Persian Gulf. The area, known (minus Saudi Arabia) as the British Empire's "trucial coast," were some of the last states to receive independence after World War Two, some as late as the 1970s. Moreover, this was a particular type of "independence," as the ruling monarchical families held onto their thrones, and the Western military powers maintained their arrangements. In Saudi Arabia, which had never been under British dominion, the situation was not much different, dating back to the 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Ibn al-Saud aboard a war-ship on the Suez's Great Bitter Lake, where the U.S.-Saudi oil for protection relationship was born.
This was most clearly seen in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, where the Reagan Administration primarily backed Iraq, but as the Iran-contra affair showed, sold arms to Tehran as well. Stephen Pelletiere, a the CIA's top Iraqi analyst at the time, has written that the U.S. policy at the time was to elongate the war and make sure neither side won. “Washington had hoped for a war with no clear victor. Barring that, it would have been pleased to see the thing drag on, become another ‘hundred years’ war,’ as the diplomats jokingly referred to it.” (Pelletiere, Iraq and the International Oil System, pg. 200).
During the last years of the war, the U.S. went as far as to "reflag" Kuwaiti tankers, which in the fall of 1986 were being attacked by Iranian missiles due to Kuwait's heavy support of the Iraqi war effort. This effectively made the U.S. Navy combatants in the war. a policy executed with disastrous consequences. First, in May 1987, before the reflagging mission even began, the USS Stark was accidently bombed by an Iraqi fighter plane, killing all 37 American seamen aboard. Then, in July 1987, in their first ever attempt to escort a tanker--the Bridgeton--to Kuwait, the oil tanker hit a mine, and in order to avoid a similar fate, the entire American escort party had to fall back in single file behind the tanker. To cap off the whole episode a year later, an American Naval Warship, the USS Vincennes, accidently shot down an Iranian passenger airplane, Iran Air Flight 655 en route to Dubai, killing the 290 passengers aboard. Although Washington now had a semblance of "control" over the Persian Gulf, it had no clue how to exercise that control.
Then, starting with the first Gulf War in 1991, and continuing through the U.S.-U.K. "no fly zone" over Iraq that followed the war, the Pentagon established a network of military bases in the Arabian peninsula. During the fall of 1990, after Iraqi forces had invaded Kuwait, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney visited the Saudi King, allegedly telling him that Iraqi forces were also being massed on the Iraq-Saudi border, and that if the king asked for American military support the soldiers would leave at the end of the war. Both counts were proved false, as an investigation by the St. Petersburg Times showed no such Iraqi build-up, and a U.S. large troop presence remained in Saudi Arabia until the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Throughout the 1990's, U.S. Air Force planes flew out of Prince Sultan Air Base to conduct surveillance and bombing runs over Iraq, part of "Operation Southern Watch." This troop presence created a great deal of resentment in the region. Most importantly, it helped turn Osama bin-Laden towards anti-American terrorism. The U.S. felt the effect of this in 1996 when the Khobar Towers, an eight story building in Dhahran that housed American Air Force personnel was blown up, killing 20 and injuring 372.
With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. moved almost its entire military presence out of Saudi Arabia and into the smaller Gulf monarchies on the coast. In fact, now that the American forces have left Iraq, this Persian Gulf basing network is the Pentagon's only remaining concession from the war. But it is quite a concession prize. The Pentagon now controls major airbases in Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, and bases the Navy's Fifth Fleet on the island of Bahrain. Additionally, the Qatar airbase--al Udied--also house Central Command's forward positioning headquarters.
Moreover, in 2004, the GCC states were invited to become partners in NATO, known as the Istanbul Initiative. Although not elevated to full members in the military alliance, the Istanbul initiative allowed the Gulf monarchies to participate in NATO training exercises. In the fall of 2011, a U.S. official stated that the six GCC state were going to begin integrating their air, naval, and missile defense in a new regional "security architecture."
This history paints a group of governments putting everything in the NATO basket, and hoping that bowing to the Western governments will in some way preserve their unstable monarchies. And with the Pentagon's weapons come the Pentagon's enemies, and so the GCC is also in a state of rhetorical war across the Gulf with Iran. Partly, this is due to the GCC's own discrimination against their Shia populations, who happen to live primarily on the oil lands of the Arabian peninsula. By arming the Syrian opposition and fueling the violence throwing Syria into disarray, the GCC hopes to neutralize a key ally of Iran, and at the same time help out their NATO backers in a politically unappetizing mission.