Saturday, December 20, 2014

Challenges for the Gulf Cooperation Council

Some Arab leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may not find the idea of handing power to a central authority very appealing but having a strong unified presence on the world stage is a strong incentive for GCC to move ahead with Saudi Arabia’s proposal for a confederation.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), formally known as the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG), is an intergovernmental union of six Arab states, including Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Bahrain. These states are also members of the Arab League, and the first four hold membership of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). GCC was created in 1981 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with the objective to enhance cooperation and connection among the oil-rich Gulf States, and to bolster regional defense in the face of internal and external challenges.
In 2012, the proposal for formation of a closer union came from Saudi Arabia at the GCC summit in Riyadh, in response to the Arab uprisings and what was seen as Iran’s growing threat – an attempt to redefine and renew its commitment to the region. At the summit, Saudi King Abdullah cautioned about “…challenges that require vigilance and a united stance” (AFP). At the time, the original six merely agreed to discuss and evaluate the proposal for a later consideration because the idea of a confederation is a difficult concept to grasp for the Arab monarchs, as evident by political analyst Johann Weick’s quote from an Arab source, that he mentions in his analytical piece titled, “GCC States Remain Split over EU-Style Union”: “EU, one law, one strong and unchecked power capable to legislate, to execute and to enforce its will on your country, even if your government says no?”
However, faced with greater uncertainty and shifting alliances, the need for presenting a united front in the form of a confederation has became an urgent consideration. The idea of a ‘united stance’ makes economic sense too. Despite its susceptibility to rising conflicts, the Gulf has some of the fastest growing economies in the world due to vast oil and natural gas reserves. The regional funds in the GCC countries own and manage assets worth billions of dollars. A proposal for a joint currency named ‘Khaleeji’ (literally, ‘from the Gulf’) has also been proposed, but not without resistance from Oman and UAE who object to the designated Central Bank’s location in Riyadh. If materialized, Khaleeji would be the second largest international monetary union in the world.
GCC has fared well for over three decades because of the members’ somewhat similar political, religious and cultural identity. Yet internal issues continue to bring forth new challenges. Even as the GCC seems poised to add Jordan and Morocco into its fold, Qatar has always pursued its own foreign policy, many times in conflict with the wishes of the rest of GCC members. Its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a group other members view with suspicion,  has caused serious concern among members, and in reaction to this clear violation of GCC policy of non-interference, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar early this year (CNN, March 2014).
This situation underlines the need for member states to consider carefully who they accept into the GCC. Extending the GCC membership to Jordan and Morocco to form a confederation would help strengthen economic, political and security cooperation among the Gulf States. Both countries enjoy good global standing, and their addition to GCC would bring more authority and credibility internationally, while offering strategic and political depth to the alliance. Morocco has never previously shown interest in becoming part of the GCC, but Jordan had already applied for GCC membership twice, in the 1980s and 1996, and was rejected both times. Understandably, the Saudi Monarch, King Abdullah’s invitation has been received with much enthusiasm. Jordan’s economy is largely dependent on external aid and GCC membership promises generous rewards in aid and investment. In return, Jordan would be a valuable member to GCC offering security support through its military, police and intelligence services.
The GCC proposal of a Joint Military Command with Jordan and Morocco aims to effectively manage not only the region’s internal issues of violence and insecurity but also to discourage external intervention. Military analyst, Matthew Hedges, writes that, “Aside from the obvious reasons and closeness of these two countries, the Jordanian forces are the most professional military force in the Arab world”, while the “Moroccan military has been involved in security training operations across the GCC with many governments and have a long history of cooperation.”  According to the Saudi Foreign Ministry reports, the Joint Military Command would have up to 100,000 troops under the Council, a substantial number of which will be from the two countries in exchange for substantial financial support to their economies.
Apart from Jordan, another country that has long aspired to join the GCC is Yemen, but several factors have hindered a positive response to its requests. The instability and unrest Yemen has seen over the years and the growing influence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s support for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, and internal corruption resulting in mismanagement of resources and foreign aid, its low literacy and unemployment rates and extreme poverty, extensive food insecurity and water shortage etc., all contribute to the challenge the GCC members see about Yemen’s inclusion into the alliance. The Shi’ite rebels in areas of Yemen bordering Saudi Arabia, allegedly receiving support from Iran, have also been of serious concern for the Gulf members, and provide GCC enough reason to not open its doors to Yemen.
Despite their concerns, the GCC members do not plan to abandon Yemen, and are constantly exploring ways and means to support Yemen’s development and security concerns. Saudi Arabia pledged US$1.25 billion to Yemen in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in addition to significant monetary and military support from other GCC members. A GCC office in Sana’a, Yemen, was also opened in October 2012 to explore options of effective aid disbursement, as a show of GCC commitment to regional security and development.
To its credit, Yemen has traditionally provided a ready supply of low-skilled workers for other Arab countries, and its strategic location also provides a link to the Suez Canal, that could be a safer route to the GCC countries for exporting oil. GCC recognizes that providing support to Yemen for its economic and social development and a peaceful political transition is directly linked to regional and global peace and security, and remain committed to stepping in if needed.
The Gulf States have much in common and the confederation idea might work well, even if the EU-style union is not immediately possible because of the inherent authoritarian character of the Arab regimes, but the benefits of finding a unified voice from a position of strength in the global arena might soon tip the scale in its favor. However, the far-reaching implications of going forward with the proposal and adding new members require not only thorough examination but also a strong commitment based on realistic expectations.

SouthAsia Magazine, December 2014

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