Commentary

Gulf Cooperation Council Meets in Kuwait

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — a political and economic union between Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — met this week in Kuwait to discuss possible ways to advance the integration agenda set by the Saudi King, which would see the 6 member states move closer to a confederation not unlike the European Union. While most of the member states have expressed general support for the project, Oman has categorically ruled out the possibility of their participation in a deeper political union. The Omani government's stance has the support of some of the regional dailies, who have opined that the plan needs to be fleshed out and that a period of self-reflection and reprioritization should take place.

The talks about greater political integration among the six countries take place against the backdrop of an apparent Iran/Western détente. In this context, according to an Arab News' report, Qatar's government has insisted that the GCC be a party to the nuclear talks with Iran: "Gulf Arab states must have a seat at nuclear talks between world powers and neighboring Iran because of their own stake in regional stability, Qatar's foreign minister said on Saturday....Attiyah's suggestion that the GCC become more closely involved in the nuclear talks was echoed at the Manama Dialogue by several serving and former officials, including former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal. Many suggested Iran had to build more trust with Gulf Arabs."

But to be considered a serious player in the region, some suggest, the GCC needs to be a more cohesive and powerful bloc, which explains the recent drive toward greater political integration. For example, an article by the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) noted that in the run-up to the GCC Summit in Kuwait, "the Secretary General of the pan-Gulf council Abdulateef Al-Zayani underscored that the Gulf leaders were eager to achieve full integration despite difficulties.... ‘The idea of the Gulf Union is based on the unity of the Gulf states and that is reflected in the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz initiative which calls for moving from the stage of cooperation to full integration into one entity,' the GCC Chief said....He added that the relevant studies have been conducted and referred to the Supreme Council and Ministerial Council of the GCC member states ‘to take appropriate decisions to materialize article four of the charter of the GCC council.'"

Similary, the Gulf Daily News posted a statement by the GCC secretary-general Dr Abdullatif Al Zayani, who suggest the Gulf countries "fast-track [a] regional security treaty….. ‘The GCC countries should now move closer for approving a comprehensive security agreement, which is an integral part,' he said. He said all Gulf countries backed ‘calls for reforms in respond to legitimate demands of people' and their leaders had played a ‘pivotal role' in maintaining moderate oil prices. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Nizar bin Obaid Madani said GCC countries should not depend on foreign powers when it comes to decision making and its security."

Support for the political unification has come from many regional observers, who consider "GCC unification 'vital'…. Gulf countries should take ‘concrete steps' towards unification or risk being sidelined by international powers, according to an influential regional commentator....Mr Al Qassemi, who is participating in the three-day conference, said a unified GCC bloc would be strongest globally in terms of energy and oil sector. ‘Look what Iran has to offer and the GCC to the world....as fragmented states we have less to offer compared with a unified bloc,' said the commentator. He urged Gulf countries to also speed up plans for a common currency and common market."

But the political unification project is not without its critics. To begin with, there are differences of opinion among the GCC member states themselves, with Oman flatly turning down any possibility of their involvement in such a political union. According to an article by the Agence France Presse "Oman opposes upgrading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to a union of six nations, Muscat's foreign minister said on Saturday. The union issue is on the agenda of the GCC summit to be held on Tuesday in Kuwait....'We will not prevent a union, but if it happens we will not be part of it,' Alawi told AFP on the sidelines of the gathering. If the five other GCC members — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — decide to form a union, ‘we will simply withdraw' from the new body, he said."

Al Arabiya's Abdullah Hamidaddin believes there is a logic behind Oman's public display of disapproval, especially given the timing of the announcement: "Oman's rejection of the Gulf union is not something new....To make a public remark, in passing, about withdrawing from a thirty year old alliance hit hard the little confidence remaining in the GCC. Maybe the Omanis felt that they weren't heard the first time and they needed to be more vocal about it. Or maybe they felt the Americans were also pushing towards more integration between the Gulf States....The timing of the threat of withdrawal from the GCC could not have been worse. It comes during the culmination of Omani efforts to bring the West and Iran to the negotiating table, making it very hard to resist thinking that the Omani efforts also brought the Omanis and the Iranians much closer to each other than before. And it seems that Oman is keen to be the first who reaped the benefits of Western-Iranian rapprochement, since it played an important role in making it happen."

The UAE's main daily, The National, also appears ambivalent about the proposed plan, urging  more caution and calling for more details to come forward: "while the shared interests and challenges faced by the Gulf nations were what originally prompted the formation of the GCC in 1981 at a meeting hosted by Sheikh Zayed in Abu Dhabi, the dilemma since has always been how the group can be best organised to meet those challenges. In this, the difficulty has been the paucity of detail available to the outside world. There are many useful international models for how nations can work together for their common benefit...Even as the group seeks to balance its shared interests against each member state's national sovereignty, there is also the question of priorities. This seems to have been the sticking point at the Manama Dialogue, with Saudi Arabia giving priority to the GCC's combined defensive capability while Oman saw that issue as subordinate to improving economic integration within the GCC."

Finally, the Gulf News editorial, one of the major daily newspapers in the region, believes the best way forward is to perhaps put the issue of political unification aside and take this opportunity for self-reflection, since: "If a Gulf Union is imposed on member states by one or two states, it is not likely to be much more effective in reaching its goals than the GCC has been so far. Oman's revelation presents an opportunity for Gulf states to re-assess their priorities in Kuwait during the annual GCC summit on Tuesday and engage in deep, collective self-reflection. What is it that the GCC wants for itself, and what are the regional, domestic and global issues it agrees on? ...It is imperative on the regional body to take the debate to the public and raise awareness. Once the Gulf states have the people's mandate, few will be able to argue against such a move.


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