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Khaleeji Public Opinion on the GCC

Al Jazeera Center for Studies

Monday, 30 March 2015 12:01 GMT

[AlJazeera]

Abstract

This chapter highlights the unofficial position of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries towards the idea of Gulf unity and the establishment of a more formal union between member states. It begins with a review of the wording of the GCC Charter on the issue of unity and show how the possible formation of a ‘Gulf Union’ – a concept raised periodically in official circles – has been responded to by both ordinary people and state authorities over time.


The views of both supporters and opponents of the GCC are examined and attempt to present the grounds on which each group bases its arguments. The evolution of unofficial public attitudes of the peoples of the Gulf states towards the issue of union are traced, noting that when GCC was established in 1981, the public was not consulted, and that, until recently, the issue of union has seldom been high on the agenda of either the GCC or the citizens of its member states. Even during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the coordination of political and military responses was seen as the crucial reason why GCC officials should meet: the formalisation of a union was not seen as necessary for this. Interest in a Gulf Union seems to have been revived by the “Arab Spring” when, perhaps for the first time, urgent calls for progress have been heard in both popular and official quarters.

Introduction

The word peoples is repeated four times in the Charter of the GCC, and the question posed in this chapter relates to the role of the ‘peoples’ of the Gulf in the establishment of the GCC. To some extent, it can be argued that this question is now irrelevant because, in the more than three decades of its existence, the Council has made gains that cannot be ignored, and has achieved a number of its aims and objectives (albeit at a snail’s pace). Nevertheless, with rapidly expanding public access to the internet and smart phones, the “peoples” are increasingly questioning what the GCC has and has not achieved, and the potential merits and disadvantages of formalising a Gulf Union.


Yesterday, when the GCC began

When the establishment of the GCC was announced in 1981, Kuwait was the only country to enjoy a system of popular representation. The peoples of the Gulf states were not consulted about the new organisation and public opinion was not taken into consideration. None of the countries’ authorities asked their citizens for their blessing regarding the large step that was being taken to shape the future of the region, or even drew a map to show the public the entity being formulated, which might be moving slowly towards formalising a union.

In other words, the general public in the Gulf were neither ready nor able to freely express their opinions about the establishment of the GCC. The press reflected – to some extent – the views of each society, but not in ways that were markedly different from the opinions of the authorities.

It is fair to say that freedom of opinion was seriously constrained in the region during this period. Reports published by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Reporters without Borders in the 1980s and 1990s placed the Gulf region in the bottom half of global freedom of expression ratings. The mainstream media (press, radio and television) were monopolised by governments, with licenses for independent daily newspapers granted only to those organisations trusted by the authorities. Radio and television remained under strict government control until the mid-2000s, when satellite stations began to breach regime controls. This means that until recently the people of the Gulf were free to express their opinions only if these were considered acceptable by the narrow and strictly controlled state-approved channels.


In the midst of events

Of all the challenges the GCC has faced since its inception, perhaps the most significant and threatening in recent decades was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. At that point, unity was not on the GCC’s agenda despite the fact that the preamble of the GCC Charter states that, among other reasons, member states established the GCC “in an endeavour to complement efforts already begun in all essential areas that concern their peoples and to realise their hopes for a better future on the path to unity of their states”.(1) The centrality of unity in attaining the GCC’s goals is also underlined by the first objective cited in Article 4 of the Charter, which reads “To effect coordination, integration and inter-connection between Member States in all fields in order to achieve unity between them”. However, so far, the steps taken have been slow and, for the peoples of the Gulf, virtually intangible.

This chapter is based on communications with different categories of citizens in the six GCC countries. Many now see the GCC as little more than an interface that is steadily losing its lustre, as if it had been coated in a new layer of dust each year. Some recalled yearning to attend its opening sessions in the early days, and waiting for its final statement after each summit.

However, when these statements seemed to be merely repetition of the same points year after year, a kind of despair began to creep in, and people stopped diligently following the GCC’s work.

Many stated a belief that the GCC has delivered no tangible benefits to citizens. Its work, they asserted, seems to have been limited to relatively simple matters such as enhancing citizens’ mobility between member states by issuing special ID cards instead of passports, and assigning special queues to GCC citizens at airports. Several more ambitious projects have been blocked and/or delayed by different ministries, however, with many citizens now believing that, for the GCC authorities, the most important matter of official cooperation is internal security, which amounts to little more than exchanging lists of suspects and suspicious activities.

Some of those contacted noted that even the GCC leaders seem to be bored with the structure, and appear reluctant to continue sending the type of high-level delegations to meetings that they did in the first decade of the GCC’s existence. Since the mid-2000s the GCC has only rarely completed its business in the presence of all the member states’ kings, sultans, princes and presidents. Several of the people expressed a wish that the GCC would either “strongly proceed with great strides” or transform itself into a set of committees to coordinate initiatives between member states at an inter-ministerial level.


The resurgence of the idea of a union

From late 2010, the winds of the Arab Spring blew into Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), passing through the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and affecting Bahrain quite strongly. This Gulf Spring revived the idea of a union in the collective mind of the Gulf’s peoples. Perhaps for the first time, public calls grew louder and official efforts intensified, indicating that establishing a union had become an urgent necessity.

In 2011, the official response from the GCC to the Arab Spring focused on the targeting of the region. Attention and accusations were directed at Iran as the alleged driver, instigator, financier, and trainer of groups behind the uprisings, especially in Bahrain (2) and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. GCC leaders and others seemed to feel that external efforts to destabilise the GCC would be easy given the member states’ failure to achieve the unity called for in the GCC Charter. The concept of union was discussed more seriously after King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, speaking at the opening of the 32nd session of the GCC’s Supreme Council in December 2011, declared that:

“History and experience have taught us not to face the world and say we have everything we need. Anyone who does so will find themselves at the back of the line, facing real losses and weakness. This is something we do not accept for our countries’ or our peoples’ stability and security. Therefore, I ask you today to move beyond the stage of cooperation and to unite into one single entity that can bring good and drive away evil”.(3)

This proposal garnered a positive reaction on social media, and inspired several journalists to pen articles in support of the idea, arguing that coordination has had its day in the GCC, and that it was time to seriously consider establishing a union.


Official and unofficial public opinion in the mainstream media

Dozens of overlapping definitions suggest that public opinion is agreement between members of a community about a particular topic, that it comprises views on a particular issue in a particular community, and is a set of ideas and beliefs held by people about a particular issue and over a certain period or a judgment made by a group on an issue of public concern after an open and thorough discussion.

Writing about public opinion and psychological warfare, Hussein Abu Shanab observes that public opinion always remains a collection of individual opinions, regardless of their agreement or unity or degree of homogeneity. He also states that public opinion is the outcome of “discussion and debate between individuals, where some individual views prevail over other views” or where a group reaches a new opinion following “exchange, interaction and conflict between the views of individuals and groups”.(4)

Essentially “public opinion” implies that there is general (not full) agreement among members of the public. Mindful of all the definitions of public opinion outlined, this chapter gathers information considered necessary to provide a sense of the prevailing unofficial public opinion in the Gulf on the idea of union. Texts related to King Abdullah’s speech quoted above are analysed. This speech was selected not only because the king has such a high political status among the Arab nations, but also because his country carries such significant economic, political, geographical, spiritual, demographic, and historic weight. Furthermore, the speech was not merely issued as a press statement, but was delivered at a summit attended by the leaders of five of the six Gulf countries.

Acknowledging that newspapers mostly publish what corresponds to their own editorial line, approach and policy, articles published in newspapers in the GCC countries were reviewed. Searching the electronic archives of various newspapers in each of the GCC states, using the terms Gulf unity and Gulf Union, twenty-three related articles were found, the earliest dating back to 2004.(5) The articles in question differed widely, and were included in the review if they mentioned either “Gulf unity” or “Gulf Union”, regardless of whether these two terms formed the core of the article or were just mentioned in passing.

The following section is an analysis of what these articles indicate about public opinion on the question of union. They are grouped into those that reflect enthusiasm about the idea and those that express some reservations.


Reflecting enthusiasm for union

An editorial titled “Qatari Arabs”, published in the Qatari newspaper al-Arab, on 8 July 2012 reads as follows, “There is no doubt that the Gulf Union, the dream that we wish to see as reality before us, is a union which is based on the single destiny that unites the Gulf states, and is able to solve many of the Gulf’s problems, both internal and external”.

 This position was supported by another journalist who wrote, “Whether in the long or short run, the dangers gone or exacerbated, or whether we agree or disagree on security or political affairs, the Gulf Arab states have no choice other than to go for unity or union, and to participate in a unified economic, political, or defensive system”.(6)

 
Khalid al-Saleh sees Gulf unity as an existential issue, saying:

“When we talk about the Gulf unity, we talk about the future of our children and grandchildren, and those coming after them. It is an issue of existence…Anyone approaching it with insults should be exposed and uncovered before us. There is no space for anyone to manipulate our future unity, whatever their motives or interests”.(7)

Enthusiasm, hopes and appeals are common among those who support unity. As another passionate supporter of Gulf unity in the same newspaper wrote: “Gulf unity is the stage that we have reached and we can't go back to something less. Rivers do not go back to their source”.

One journalist even suggested that legal action be taken against the GCC administration for failing to achieve the unity promised in Article 4 of the organisation’s founding charter, specifically for its failure to meet this objective in 2013 and again in 2014. The journalist asserted that this failure gives Gulf citizens - under paragraph (1) of Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the right, as the GCC’s “owners”, to demand the implementation of Gulf unity. This ownership status, the journalist claimed, authorises the citizens to take legal action against the GCC authorities for the harm caused by authorities’ failure to enforce unity to date.(8)


Reflecting on the long road

Not all writers are so supportive of a Gulf union, with some asserting that forming such a union will be more complicated than merely expressing good intentions, implying that this is all that the GCC has managed to do so far. Some argue that an uneasy mismatch exists between member states and that what happened after the Arab Spring means that the GCC cannot go back to operating as it did before.

Several such writers see the region as being on the verge of transformation that is taking place on several levels. From this perspective, Qatar is seen to occupy one corner of a triangle, with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the second corner, and Oman and Kuwait in the third.(9)  According to this analysis, the space between the countries symbolises the lack of trust between them, and means that unity will not be automatic. Furthermore, these writers assert, in the absence of trust between member countries, all of the GCC states, whatever their geographic size and financial needs, have developed an exceptionally strong sense of national sovereignty. 

For these writers, one of the reasons for the GCC’s failure to build unity or a union to date is its inability to build trust between the member states. They argue that regardless of whatever constraints or motivating factors exist, the absence of trust makes both unity and union impossible. As one journalist writes, “In the midst of those psychological aspects, any hint of unity can be considered as an attempt to swallow the Gulf geographically. This is the major gap that has not been bridged for over 33 years, and if it remains, the GCC will stay as it is for the next hundred years”.(10)

This view is very close to the opinion of the former Kuwaiti information minister and lecturer at Kuwait University, Saad bin Ajmi. Commenting on Omani statements declaring the state’s refusal to join the Gulf Union, he writes: “The Omani position that rejects the establishment of the Gulf Union is a position that represents a bitter reality. The position is based on the reality that most of the decisions made at previous GCC summits have not yet been enforced”.(11)

Meanwhile, commenting on the withdrawal of the ambassadors of three Gulf States from Doha in March 2014, Abdullah Abdul Razzaq Bahajjaj pointed out: 

“People throughout the Gulf are currently confused and bewildered. Yesterday, there was a call to shift from the progress towards Gulf cooperation to Gulf Union. Today the GCC threatens to collapse. How can the public make sense of such strange and bizarre ironies? Herein lies the danger: the regimes themselves do not understand the nature of the current stage”.(12)

Perhaps it is not surprising that several Omani writers hold this position given that Oman’s minister of foreign affairs, Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, has announced that Oman has formally refused to join a union. Similarly, while some journalists advocate union on the basis that it is the will of the people – as if the matter does not remain the prerogative of the region’s top political echelons alone – Bahajjaj writes:

“One major paradox in our Arab Gulf states is that its variables are imposed by the will of the regimes and not the will of its people, as was expected during and after the events of 2011”.(13)


This is echoed by by Khalid al-Saleh who writes,
“The desire for the unity of the Gulf states is the desire of its leaders. It seems that the GCC staff and officials who took responsibility for following up this unity, have not managed, or were prevented from planning, to successfully disseminate a Gulf unity culture among our peoples”.(14)

Al-Saleh then called on the GCC to develop a strategy to make Gulf unity a “firm and popular objective”.

On the other hand, Qatari writer Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani, has attacked Saudi and Bahraini moves to press ahead with the union. Asking about the absence of public consultation on this move, he wrote:

“It is the right of peoples to self-determination, and to express their views on merger or separation. Because unity is a serious issue, we should not go into it before holding a referendum to ascertain peoples' opinions. This blackout on the question of Gulf unity – who requested it, who approved it, and whether the people are satisfied with it – proves that the reason why it has come to light at this particular time, as well as the very reasons for its existence and aspirations, is to further the agendas of these regimes, and to quell the hopes of people who might not agree with these regimes’ visions for the political future of this region”.(15)

Bahraini writer and human rights activist Abdu Nabi Akri has argued that certain factors account for leaders’ enthusiasm about the union: 

“Bahrain alone is enthusiastic about the Gulf Union project, in an attempt to escape from the demands of the change movement. Under political and sectarian polarisation that was deepened by the winds of the Arab Spring – the popular uprisings that began in Bahrain on 14 February 2011, in Oman on 25 February 25, the mass movement in Kuwait and the human rights movements in the UAE – the Gulf Union project was another controversial issue; democratic and secular opposition forces and actors see this as a project to bolster the [rulers’] grip on security”.(16)

Many readers and columnists writing in Bahrain’s al-Wasat newspaper, which has a pro-opposition editorial stance, expressed similar views. Several journalists have expressed the view that the union is an attempt to strengthen the existing governments of the Gulf against popular demands expressed in 2011. Others suggest that the union would attempt to mask sectarian divisions in the region by opening a channel between Bahrain’s “Shiite lake” and the Gulf’s “Sunni sea”, submerging the smaller component in the larger one.(17)


Popular opinion direct from the public

Most Gulf newspapers are subject to official censorship, and do not freely reflect local public opinion. According to the Reporters without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom Index, which surveyed 180 countries worldwide, the GCC countries rank as follows: Kuwait (91), Qatar (113), United Arab Emirates (118), Oman (134), Bahrain (163), and Saudi Arabia (164).(18) Thus, guarantees of free expression regarding what is published in the press must be doubted, especially when it comes to issues on which the authorities have taken clear and explicit decisions, and mobilised their own media capacities to promote. In such cases, journalists either refrain from explicitly disagreeing with official state policy, or the news departments do the job by refraining from publishing articles that contradict state policy.

With the massive spread of new technologies that have given large numbers of citizens access to the internet and smart phones, however, social media usage is increasingly prevalent in the region. While many studies indicate that the majority of social media users are young people, this study assesses the extent to which people are expressing their views on the GCC via social media, by following the terms “Gulf Union” and “Gulf unity” on Twitter. While it would be difficult to include all views expressed under these tags, the general impression is that the comments tweeted give a fairly good sense of what Gulf Union means to average (if younger) citizens in the Gulf.

One hundred and fifty six tweets had the Gulf Union hash tag, and ninty-three had the Gulf unity hash tag. Judging from the names, aliases, and phrases used in tweets, the study concludes that most of the tweets were from people in the Gulf. By excluding the news sites and official press releases, the survey revealed attitudes as shown in Table.

Table 1: Attitudes expressed via Twitter on Gulf unity and a possible Gulf Union

Attitude  #Gulf_Union  #Gulf_unity
 Absolute supporter  31%  27%
 Conservative supporter  22%  17%
 Critical opposition  16%  18%
 Cynical  20%  22%
 Promotions and advertising  11%  16%

Obviously, “Tweeters” do not necessarily base their attitudes on logical, scientific, historical or factual arguments. Many of the tweets were single words or short statements. A large segment of union supporters sent prayers or wishes of good luck encouraging the GCC leaders to make progress towards union, or reviling the Safawi, the Persians, Americans, or others they perceive as enemies.

Opponents were mostly pessimistic about the possibilities of the union “tightening the security grip”, “burying the dreams of the people” and “repressing the revolution’s demands”. Most of the reservations expressed focused on the importance of the role and opinion of the peoples of the region, the harmonisation of legislation, and the disparities in the economic statuses of the various member states.

Both tags drew sarcastic comments on issues such as: the GCC countries’ failure in international sports competitions or low ranking in other fields; the conditions at various border posts and the ways in which travellers are treated by different countries; the sharp income disparities between citizens of the member states, and the impact of this on the ways in which environmental disasters and climate change affect the poorer peoples more than others.

It should also be added that promotional and advertising campaigns for products and services often included these two tags, and a good number of tweets that had nothing to do with the issues seem to have been published by those hoping to increase their followers’ numbers.


Conclusion

Despite the limitations of this assessment of unofficial public opinion on the question of establishing a Gulf Union, it is clear that journalists and the news media lack independence. The old saying that the “media mirrors society” is certainly true in the sense that the news media are politically and financially dependent on state authorities (with the possible exception of Kuwait where media freedom is valued more than in the other GCC countries).

The region has gone through dozens of previous incidents where newspapers and journalists condemn and denounce a particular party in tandem with or in advance of official state channels. Then, if relations between the two parties improve, the same writers and newspapers go back to praising both sides, emphasising bonds of fellowship and commonality.

It is not wise to rely too much on social media to provide an accurate mirror on society, as it is still in an early stage of development. While it is true that social media played significant roles in critical situations such as in Bahrain in 2011, it is also true that social media sites quickly became new, virtual battlegrounds in the war between the two opposing sides, and were used relentlessly with no holds barred. 

Based on an analysis of views expressed via both traditional and new media, it is possible to conclude (although the validity and accuracy of such a conclusion are not absolute) that establishing a union consisting of the GCC countries is imperative. In my view, the notion of such a union should be evaluated in relation to its impact on particular rights, on minorities, and the gains to be made by each country. What is certain, however, is that if a union is to succeed, its seeds need to be sown at the grassroots level in order for it to flourish, rather than its being imposed from on high, as though it were possible to begin building a house from the roof downwards.
__________________________________________________________

*Ghassan Alshihaby is a researcher, writer and journalist.

1. An English translation of the Charter is available online at http://www.gcc-sg.org/eng/indexfc7a.html.
2. Al-Shihabi, Ghassan (2014). The Distance Between Bahrain and Iran: Inhaling Tension, 26 August, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies. http://studies.aljazeera.net/reports/2014/08/20148269273403263.htm
3. King Abdullah’s speech is quoted in the Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyadh of 20 December 2011, see http://www.alriyadh.com/693340. All translations in this chapter are by the author.
4. Abu Shanab, Hussein (n.d.). Public Opinion and Psychological Warfare, Palestine International University.
5. My review included a search for columnists who write for the following newspapers: in the UAE – Al-Bayan, Al-Khalee; in Bahrain – Al-Aiyam, Al-Wasat, Akhbar Al-Khaleej; in Oman – Al-Shabeeba, Al-Watan; in Qatar – Al-Raya, Al-Watan, Al-Arab; in Kuwait – Al-Qabas, Al-Watan, Al-Seyasa; in Saudi Arabia – Al-Riyadh, Al-Youm, Okaz. However the search function on most of these newspapers’ websites were either very rudimentary or not working
6. Al-Rada'an, Rashid, (2014). “Consensual” Agreement,  Al Watan (Kuwaiti newspaper), 17 February.
7. Al-Saleh, Khalid Ahmed (2014). Gulf Unity Wears All Colours, Al Watan (Kuwaiti newspaper), 7 September.
8. Al-Ajmi, Zafar Mohammad (2014). Failure to Establish the Union Opens the Door to Prosecute GCC, Al Arab (Qatari newspaper), 12 March
9. Al-Rahbi, Mohammed bin Saif (2014). Summer Cloud…is a Gulf Cloud, Al Shabeeba (Omani newspaper), 12 March
10. Bahajjaj, Abdullah Abdul Razzaq (2014). 33 Years Pass Since the Establishment of the GCC, Al-Watan (Omani newspaper), 26 May.
11. Al -Mahari, Jameel (2013). The GCC and the Transition to the Union, Al Wasat (Bahraini newspaper) 13 December.
12. Bahajjaj, Abdullah Abdul Razzaq (2014). A Second Strategic Coup: The Situation in the Gulf, Al Watan (Omani newspaper), 10 March.
13. Ibid.
14. Al-Saleh, Khalid Ahmed (2014) Ties of the Same People, Al Watan (Kuwaiti newspaper) 16 February.
15. Al-Qahtani, Mohammad Fahad (2012). The Gulf Unit,  Al-Arab (Qatari newspaper), 16 May
16. Ekry, Abdel Nabi (2012). Gulf Union Between Two Visions, Al Wasat (Bahraini newspaper) 25 December
17. See for example, the comments made about the views of Salafist scholar Adel Al Ma'awdh, who declared that the Gulf Union would be established by mid-2013: http://www.alwasatnews.com/3756/news/read/724266/1.html, as well as the comments on an Al Wasat editorial titled ‘The idea of the Union’ published on 14 May 2012: http://www.alwasatnews.com/3537/news/read /662923/1.html.
18. Reporters Without Borders (2014). World Press Freedom Index is available online at http://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php.

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