A question of GCC unity

Dr. Adel al-Toraifi

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King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s call for the establishment of a Gulf union in December 2011 received considerable attention in Arab and foreign circles. On the one hand, this call posed a serious question for the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] to think about developing their joint cooperation, for it to be at a level to counter the internal and external challenges faced by the people of the Gulf region.

On the other hand, the call came at a time when these countries, more than ever, have adopted a consensus regarding a number of regional stances at a time of great Arab disruption – called the “Arab Spring” by some. This greater compatibility also merits a review of the mechanism for the Gulf States joint action, the future of their security, and the continuation of their growth in an unstable environment.

Firstly, the call was greatly welcomed, given the stature and respect that King Abdullah enjoys, and the positive role played by Saudi Arabia, especially during the past year in its coordination and consultation with the Gulf States, and its support for its collaborating partners during the current crisis. Saudi Arabia played a pioneering and leading role in determining Gulf interests in the face of an unstable transition crisis in some Arab countries, and the Libyan, Syrian and Egyptian cases all bear testimony to this.

Opposing stances

However despite all this, it seems there are opposing stances and legitimate questions regarding the Saudi call for a Gulf union, perhaps the most prominent of which is the debate around the mechanism or form of this planned union. These questions mainly focus on the details of the project, such as its nature; a confederation or a federation, rather than focusing on its essence, namely the real need to develop mutual cooperation and upgrade to a union. Perhaps the most notable contributions to this debate have been put forward by Director General of al-Arabiya television channel Abdul Rahman al-Rashed in his Asharq al-Awsat column entitled: “My apprehensions about the Gulf Union”, as well as the article by GCC Assistant Secretary General for Economic Affairs Dr. Abdul Aziz Aluwaisheg, entitled: “Why the Gulf Union? And why now?” (al-Watan newspaper, 14 May, 2012)

The first article is a somewhat critical interpretation of the idea of a union, in which al-Rashed puts forward reservations and concerns. As for the second article, this is in favor of the project, with the author citing the economic and organizational benefits that encourage further unity. However, what is striking is that both articles – despite the relevance of the arguments put forward – do not focus on the core issue, namely the “security interest” that was at the forefront of the emergence and survival of the GCC in the first place.

In his article, al-Rashed tries to amass a number of arguments to counter the idea of a union, and puts forward a number of justifiable reservations about the need for Gulf States to maintain their legitimate sovereignty in matters relating to domestic policy, or more precisely their political models. He expresses his rejection of any form of union that would undermine political and economic gains, and more importantly the social characteristics that distinguish the Gulf States, such as the economic and social openness of a country like the UAE, the parliamentary models of Kuwait and Bahrain, or the – relative – openness of the Saudi media. However al-Rashed, who rejects the aforementioned scenario, returns at the end of his article to emphasize the need for a union, if the idea is clarified and takes into account the sovereignty of each state, stressing that Saudi Arabia would be the state most willing to compromise in order for the experiment to succeed.

Aluwaisheg, for his part, refers to the circumstances in which the GCC emerged, noting that the union idea had existed since the first day but did not come to fruition because the member states at the time were still in the process of building their own institutions. Their societies were not capable in terms of experience or infrastructure to proceed with this step. Aluwaisheg then asserts that now is the time to proceed with the step, in order for the GCC member states to achieve their economic and organizational interests.

In my opinion, both arguments are important and useful, but it seems that the union project itself still merits further study. The GCC summit cannot complete the project at this stage, most think that the proposals are still unclear, or that the transfer [to a union] would be unable to overcome fundamental differences and translate them into a project that can be implemented practically. There is no doubt that everyone is talking about “interests”, but there does not seem to be a consensus about precisely what these are. Are there only security, or economic, or social and organizational interests? Then what are the priorities and alternatives, even within each of the desired aspects of the union?

Here we should focus on two points, firstly: assessing the feasibility of the union should be based on interests – in detail not in general – and not inspired by the political model of one state at the expense of others.

Secondly, the basis of this union should stem from the foundation of “security interests”, i.e. a common defense against any external threats. Let’s be honest, economic, social and organizational interests are important, but the primary motivation – or shall we say justification – for returning to the issue of a Gulf union is security concerns, especially as the entire region is passing through a phase of disruption in terms of the balance of power, and major security threats have emerged to confront the stability of the Gulf States.

To further explain this issue, let us consider economic interests. For example, the Gulf States would reap the benefits if they developed their commercial cooperation, united their trade systems, established a supreme court for trade disputes and a uniform system for taxes and customs, along with other aspects of economic partnership.

However, even if these steps are not implemented, the Gulf States with their oil economies will be able to grow individually for decades to come. What I want to say here is that priority must be given to the development of security cooperation in order to face the regional challenges such as Iran’s threats, or the negative side-effects stemming from the rise of “populist” – or ideological or sectarian – regimes in neighboring countries.

European experience

Here we can invoke the European experience, and not only its unionist aspect, i.e. the opinions favoring union, but also the negative aspects that oppose the forced fusion of state sovereignty in the largest regional bureaucracy, namely the European Union (EU).

There are many benefits of European unity, but there are also disadvantages, examples of which can perhaps be seen in the European crisis resulting from the enormous debt of countries such as Greece and Spain. There is also the phenomenon of decline in European military spending, which in turn has reduced the defensive efficiency and readiness of EU states, forcing them to rely heavily on the equipment of their American allies in NATO during the Libyan crisis for example.

In her book “Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World” (2002), former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduces an important account of the gradual evolution of the EU, confirming that economic, organizational, legislative and judicial interests, which were heralded by advocates of the union at the time, in the end were nothing but a means to cover the “federal” ambitions of European politicians. In an intelligent and in-depth manner, Thatcher explains the essence of disputes over the EU, and compares it to the US federal model, whereby the Europeans want to imitate the American experience – although they have not verbalized this explicitly – but at the same time, they do not want to unify their language, cultures and values.

Thatcher argues that the idea of European unity is flawed, because the United States did not begin its unity project until the 18th century, and it did not truly become a federal system until the 19th century, largely due to major events but first and foremost through necessity, as a result of the civil war. Thatcher goes on to say that by contrast; the EU is the result of bureaucratic plans, or in fact a classic “utopian project”.

She claims that it serves as a monument to the egos of a group of intellectuals, and as such it is a project doomed to fail, and the only question is the scale of the damage in the end. There is no doubt that the EU has borne fruit, however, as Thatcher points out, in the sovereign concessions of each state there are major negative aspects, and perhaps this can explain the essence of the dispute surrounding the Gulf union project.

For this reason, we can record two observations about the barriers preventing further collective Gulf action that were, and still are, present: The first is that the Gulf States want to achieve an idealistic image of a union without acknowledging the natural constraints of any large-scale, comprehensive project.

The second observation is that the Gulf States, perhaps owing to their psychology, feel free to discuss their differences openly, and hence they are putting forward their reservations and concerns about the true image of a Gulf union. If the Gulf States are serious about the union project, they should establish a defense union first, for this was, and still is, the primary motivation for cooperation between them, ever since the establishment of the GCC.

This article was published in Asharq al-Awsat on May 17, 2012.


Adel Al Toraifi is the Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat and Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs his research focuses on Saudi-Iranian relations, foreign policy decision making in the Gulf and IR theories on the Middle East. Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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