Before I started writing this article I threw a question on Twitter about the GCC. All of the responses were cynical. I can hardly consider this a poll in anyway but nevertheless if you have been living long enough in the region or following its media you would get a sense that popular perceptions on the GCC tend to be negative. Many consider it an unfulfilled project, to put it mildly.
This month the council will mark yet another anniversary. Over the past three decades much has been achieved. The most apparent being that Gulf citizens move and work freely between and within any of the six states. There are other les tangible benefits in security and trade; but as far as the average citizen is concerned they are too little for a project that can deliver much more. Moreover they dwindle when placed against the resources in time and money that were allocated to the GCC project. Much more should have been done.
The GCC’s internal tensions
The challenges ahead of the GCC countries are many: food security, water security, energy security, Iran, unemployment and regional instability. The average person worries about the capacity of the GCC to function as a unit in facing those challenges. And the history of the collective actions of the GCC does not give much confidence. Moreover the current tensions between some GCC countries following the events of the Arab Spring make one more skeptical about the current GCC model to function.
Why are the GCC states not able to create a strong collective will towards the things that matter most to the population of the region? Why do they disagree virtually on everything strategic?Abdullah Hamidaddin
So the question in my mind is: What is missing? Why are the GCC states not able to create a strong collective will towards the things that matter most to the population of the region? Why do they disagree virtually on everything strategic?
But should we realistically expect of the GCC to work together? Are we expecting too much of them? Some of us sometimes insist on that based on the commonalities the people of the region have. We state that since the GCC countries share the same culture then they ought to get somewhere. Others assume that since they are all monarchies – in one way or the other - then this increases their capacity to align and work collectively. Both are highly misleading. The GCC is not a cultural fair. Nor is it a club for ruling families. It is a regional bloc of sovereign states. And when it comes to regional affairs states do not act based on the culture of their populace; nor on the nature of their political systems; they solely act based on the interests of the states. And it does not need a political expert to know that the interests of the GCC states diverge more than converge. This is due to difference between those states in levels of power, wealth, and external threats. To make matters more complicated many of the interests of the states of the GCC are shaped and defined by distribution of power and resources across the region. This distribution is not in the hands of any individual state. And to make things much worse, this distribution has been shifting in the past 30 years due to the various political upheavals the region has witnessed making it difficult for one state to have long term strategic interests; let alone for a regional bloc of states.
So maybe what is missing is that we expect too much from the GCC given its problematic nature. We should be realistic and happy with whatever that has been achieved. Actually we should be happy with the very idea of the GCC and in politics ideas of possibilities matter even if some take longer to manifest.
Foreign diplomacy and cultural interactions
Another missing element in my view is lack of focus on popular diplomacy between the GCC and important regional and global actors. If I were to make a suggestion to the GCC leadership I would suggest setting up a GCC youth council with three mandates. The first is to promote cultural interaction with Iran, India, China, Turkey, South Korea, and Brazil (to start with). The second mandate is to increase the presence of GCC youth volunteers in poverty and disaster stricken areas. The third mandate to promote global and regional environmental awareness. I think those three mandates will simultaneously serve two similar and related goals. The first is in enhancing the sense of a GCC identity. Cultural interaction with others as a GCC unit is an effective way in creating a GCC ‘cultural self’. Humanitarian support for is second to none in cementing ties between those working together. And a supporting a globally needed cause creates a sense of GCC pride much needed to build its identity. The second and related goal is to change the nature of the presence of the GCC in global affairs. Until now we are only present as oil producers. And I believe that there is more to our existence in this globe that just pumping oil.
To sum it up we need to realistically manage our political and economic expectations from the GCC bloc but we also need to create a new global face for it; one based on people rather than government diplomacy and one that focuses on pressing human challenges of understanding and survival rather than oil prices.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1