Commentary

Toward a Gulf Union?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Views from the Region

Established in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While other countries have become associated with the Council over the years, these six countries remain the core of a club of Gulf states that Saudi Arabia’s then-king, Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, urged in 2011 to move towards becoming a Gulf Union. With the upcoming GCC summit scheduled for next month amid increasing doubt over relations with the United States and Europe, many regional observers and officials are indeed urging GCC unity once again. While most are seeking a closer economic union, some have suggested that a security or even political union ought to be in the cards as well.

Citing the possibility of worsening relations with Europe and the United States, Gulf News’s Habib Toumi, in a recent report on the upcoming summit, notes that some GCC officials have expressed support for a closer union of the six GCC countries: “With the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit scheduled in Bahrain next month, Bahrainis have been expressing hope that the annual gathering of the six leaders or their representatives will make a giant step forward towards the Gulf union....Al Amer, a former GCC ambassador in the Belgian capital Brussels, said that the GCC countries should ‘immediately start the implementation of the Gulf economic bloc, outlined by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, that will make the GCC the sixth largest economic bloc in the world and strengthen its international economic power.’ Al Amer said that he hoped the GCC summit would also task the foreign ministers with preparing a Gulf political and economic vision based on the common agreements of the member states about relations with Europe and the U.S., particularly following the election of Donald Trump as president, the successes of the far-right in elections in Europe and the spread of Islamophobia across several countries.”

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, writing in the Arab Times, taps into a similar vein of economic and political concern to make the case for a closer economic union as a way of securing the future: “Major areas within the Arab World are suffocated by internal conflicts, terrorism and widespread poverty or, in the case of Lebanon and Iraq, are being ground down by an Iranian boot. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have evolved to make up the region’s lone stable, secure and prosperous foundation that must be strengthened and defended at all cost, else the ‘Arab World’ will be nothing more than a footnote in history....In all honesty, what are we waiting for?... There is no good reason preventing the above initiatives from being put into action....Please do not let the idea of an economic bloc vaporize like so many others discussed in the past. Securing the future for coming generations must be our priority and once we choose to navigate that boat together in the same direction, we will be a force to be reckoned with.”

Samar Fatany, in a recent op-ed in the Saudi Gazette, comments that perhaps the six economies together can achieve more for their citizens than apart. But Fatany urges the respective governments to look beyond wealth creation as a measure of their citizens’ quality of life: “According to research, the concept of wealth-creation is no longer the goal of government. Success and achievement bring happiness; therefore, policies should be directed at increasing economic mobility....Research suggests that the trusting live longer and are healthier, happier and more successful. Government policies should focus more on gaining the trust of citizens to build a more stable and prosperous society....Arab countries are in desperate need of promoting innovative approaches to the well-being of their citizens. Happiness can provide them a boost to overcome their challenges and the determination to achieve a happier environment for their children.”

But others have suggested that a GCC economic union is only the beginning of a closer political and security union among the six countries. Intisaar Al-Ma’touq argues that only such a union could guarantee the sovereignty of the GCC countries: “The objective behind the organization of GCC was to strengthen its members and to address political and security loopholes; for these countries to become one huge strong entity with absolute sovereignty, able to defend their gains and borders from military aggression that could occur as a result of the Iraq-Iran war.... Among the important objectives of GCC’s political strategy which led to its establishment was the formation of a joint foreign political position that gives the GCC weight in the Arab, regional or international arenas....It is imperative to expedite implementation of the GCC security pact and expand it to include agreements on security, economy, education and society in a manner that will thaw the ice which divides these six nations. In this way, we can have borders of a country known as Arabian Gulf State on the map and in reality.”

In fact, writing for the Saudi daily Arab News, Abdulateef Al-Mulhim suggests that the GCC is already on the right track, as attested by the recent joint-security exercises held in Bahrain: “The region is facing many challenges and they should be countered with more plans for security as well as for more economic and political unity. The Gulf region is blessed with natural resources, which require protection from any military or terrorist threats. The ‘Arabian Gulf Security One’ exercises held in Bahrain successfully achieved the desired results....Economic development in the Gulf is very crucial to meet demands of the population. The Gulf states want to increase cooperation in all spheres of life and they are taking steps to achieve this goal. The GCC is moving in the right direction and is undoubtedly on the road to further progress.”

Meanwhile, the National’s Kadira Pethiyagoda is already looking beyond the GCC, making the case that the GCC countries, and indeed other countries in the region should begin their own version of Obama’s Asian “pivot,” thus providing some much needed diversification of the regional economy: “In addition to seeking to form a regional security dialogue, Middle Eastern countries could look towards Asian powers. China, India, Japan and South Korea all have strategic interests in the region as a key energy source. Energy imports have a significant impact on the strategic capabilities of these powers....A more cooperative future could be underpinned by establishing an Asia-Middle East summit. This architecture could include major energy consumers and labor providers. Rather than being restricted to commercial transactions, the summit would give all sides an opportunity to hammer out common positions and agreements on complex security and economic issues....An Asia-Middle East summit would complement the current mechanisms for engagement between the United States and Europe, and Middle Eastern countries.”


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