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Summary and Results

Al Jazeera Center for Studies

Tuesday, 31 March 2015 09:01 GMT


The year 2014 was a difficult year for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with challenges and crises so severe that they threatened its very existence as a co-operative umbrella body for its six member states.

In March 2014, an event took place that was unprecedented in the GCC’s history: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar. The ambassadors’ recall was the culmination of several heated political disputes related to the so-called Arab Spring revolutions. It took eight months for the crisis to finally let up, and that happened only after the GCC’s leaders met at a special meeting in Riyadh on 16 November. The three ambassadors then returned to Doha, just days before the GCC’s 35th annual summit was held in the Qatari capital on 9 December 9.

But this crisis of confidence, despite being the most public and the most grave, was by no means the only challenge facing the GCC, and raising big questions about its future. A bundle of intersecting and connected challenges and security issues arose in 2014 that are linked  the dramatic developments and geopolitical shifts in the greater Middle East, which cannot be seen as being entirely separate from the repercussions of the sometimes devastating changes occurring in some of the Arab Spring countries, as discussed in the preface to this collection.

In this context, and in light of the views presented by the assembly of GCC experts, researchers and academics in this collection, a number of conclusions can be drawn about levels of cooperation within the GCC and possible paths that this might take in the future.

1. Security was a dominant motivating factor in the establishment of the GCC in the early 1980s, and prevailing regional and international circumstances kept defence and security at the top of the GCC’s agenda for the first two decades of its existence. That said, the political, social, economic and cultural traits and heritage shared by the six member states have helped to facilitate and enable their integration, and these seem likely to remain perfectly valid catalysts for the development of ever-deeper ties between the member states in the years to come.

2. Although the GCC states emphasise that the security of the Gulf lies in the hands of its citizens, in relation to Iran, the GCC has historically made a distinction between the security of its members and the security of the Gulf as a whole. Thus, the GCC stood by Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s. Contrary to the views often expressed by Iran, the GCC has stressed that the security of the GCC is fundamental to Arab security.

3. Public opinion wasn’t extensively canvassed when the establishment of the GCC was first announced. With the whirlwind of events that the GCC has experienced in the decades since then (the most momentous of which was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990), unity doesn’t seem to have been very high on the agenda of ordinary citizens in the six member states. Most citizens seemed to see security and political co-ordination as the most significant common interests between the member states, but  changed after the Arab Spring. Popular calls for unity increased, and unity now seems to be considered more of a necessity than an optional extra in preserving the wellbeing and prosperity of the GCC states.

4. The factors that encourage the six member states achieve economic and fiscal integration, and to work together as an economically unified and co-ordinated body, are far greater than any that might tempt them to act separately. Such factors include their geographical proximity, and their common cultural and social heritage. These have led to the development similar legislative and administrative systems, thus making it easier for the authorities to consolidate and standardise systems related to matters such as customs and trade and travel, etc.

5. Despite the progress that each of the member states has made in terms of economic co-operation, a number of hurdles continue to thwart stronger co-operation and co-ordination. These hurdles relate partly to the private sector’s limited contribution to economic activity, and the failure of the authorities to create an appropriate environment for private-sector growth. This in turn has prevented the GCC’s financial markets from moving more quickly towards integration. In addition, a virtual lack of shared data and databases related to national economic activities, and the separation of investment opportunities and legislative frameworks among GCC states are real obstacles to stronger co-operation.

6. To achieve greater economic integration, stronger co-ordination between member states is needed. Ideally this co-ordination should also ensure that greater benefits devolve to the smaller, less powerful members. For example, the offices of the GCC’s various different institutions could be distributed between the GCC states, and, wherever possible, systems should be so robust that political matters cannot disrupt economic co-operation.

7. At the time of the GCC’s establishment, military co-operation wasn’t very high on the GCC’s agenda. This quickly changed, however, when the Iran–Iraq War intensified; the GCC states signed a comprehensive military agreement in 1982. Since then, the reasons for military co-operation failing to develop more quickly can be attributed partly to the secretive nature of military operations, and partly to the fact that several foreign states have interests in various GCC states. Nevertheless, higher levels of military co-operation have developed gradually, thus creating a sound framework for stronger co-ordination should the need arise.

8. Given the current political insecurity in the Gulf region (and specifically in Iraq, Iran and Yemen), the GCC countries have shifted away from simply acknowledging that they face common dangers to actually finding ways to address these militarily. Perhaps, the greatest obstacle to stronger GCC security co-operation lies in persuading GCC decision makers that their security is in the interests of the region and the international community, and should therefore be protected by a military force greater than any of the separate forces that the GCC countries can provide at present.

9. Given the increasing chaos in the region, unity among the six member states has become more of a necessity than a choice. The GCC could morph into a much stronger and more powerful force, thus taking much of the burden off each of the individual member states. The main challenges making unity ever more urgent are the strategic exposure of some of the member states, uncertainty about the future of the global energy industry, and the fact that other strong economies are emerging in the region. Other important factors are population growth and the political and economic shortcomings of some member states.

10. The strongest, and most sensible model on which to base the hoped-for GCC Union is economic and political co-operation. This would make integration possible within a secure regional and international framework, and help to eliminate the possibility of nations resorting to violence as a means of resolving disputes. In this context, each of the GCC states must seriously consider how well suited they would be to a confederacy that preserves their individual sovereignty while maintaining a unified outlook.

11. The high-pressure regional context in which they are situated has twice forced the GCC states to reposition themselves to improve their geopolitical standing and insulate themselves from potential dangers and threats. The first attempt at repositioning was when the GCC came under immense pressure from various geopolitical quarters in the late 1970s and early 1980s; this resulted in the establishment of the GCC in 1981. The second attempt has been ongoing since the uprisings of early 2011, and involves a three-pronged strategy, namely: an active foreign policy, bolstering internal co-ordination and integration, and attempting to recruit new members into the GCC.

12. The primary purpose of any expansion policy formulated by the GCC will be to identify and include new members that share the same political values as existing members: that is, countries that have similar political, cultural and economic values, and face similar security concerns. The GCC’s expansion plans might be related to the Arab League’s failure to provide even a minimum of level of political, economic, and security co-ordination in the face of threats and challenges. Given the complex political, economic, social and security issues involved, the GCC seems likely to adopt a flexible policy for new members, enabling such states to first acquire observer status rather than full membership.

13. Although, like every other regional structure in the world, the GCC has experienced its share of conflict, the recall of ambassadors from Qatar in early 2014 was by any measure a major rift that shook the GCC to the core. The danger lay not so much in the fact that this action was unprecedented, but in that it exposed the nature and depth of the disparities between the members in terms of their foreign policies and diplomatic priorities, including the stark contrast between the Arab and regional interests of GCC capitals. The 2014 crisis of confidence will take much hard work to overcome or minimise in terms of the damage it could wreak on the GCC’s integration processes.

14. Although GCC member states displayed considerable reserve in handling the ambassadorial-recall crisis, and were reasonably successful in containing it, their success was largely driven by shared concerns over the security of their region. These concerns forced the six states to close ranks.  This unity might be too fragile to last, however, and could disintegrate when calm is restored in the region. Then the conflicting foreign policy agendas that are apparent between power blocs inside the GCC might again become problematic.

15. The GCC lacks a solid, well-established, and clear-cut code that regulates the relationship among member states, focuses on their mutual interests and unifies their foreign policies. Despite this, the common traits shared by the six member states are gradually popularising the concept of Union, as well as aligning their interests and their foreign policies.

16. The political sectarianism and terrorism that is flooding through some neighbouring states are the two gravest challenges facing the GCC. Although the threat of terrorism might be somewhat more remote, the seeds of sectarianism appear to be sprouting in certain GCC countries. Sectarianism and terrorism are inseparable and evil twins that cannot be tackled separately. They manifest in similar ways, and quick, effective solutions must be found to address them on every level – economic, social, political and cultural.

17. In the short term, however, sectarianism and terrorism seem unlikely to seriously undermine the GCC countries. This means that, for now, the GCC remains an oasis of calm in a desert of turmoil. However, just how severe these two threats become in the longer run depends on whether foreign intervention stirs up further sectarian unrest, both within the GCC and in its immediate vicinity. It also depends on the bonds forged between politicians, jihadi and ideological Islamism in the region.

18. For the GCC states to maintain their national unity and protect their social and political stability against terrorism and sectarianism, they must implement a slew of measures, including:

• Building nation states, that is, bolstering a collective national and GCC identity by achieving equality regarding the rights and duties of all citizens, valuing individuals according to their loyalty and merit rather than their sect or tribe, and building a basis for a society in which peace, tolerance and acceptance is the norm.

• Expedite the march towards unity and integration to achieve the hoped-for Gulf Union that would be strong enough to fend off sectarianism, eradicate terrorism and thwart foreign enemies.

• Continue implementing internal reforms, achieving political and social communion with neighbouring countries so as to address sectarian conflicts that divide them (especially Iraq and Yemen.)

19. The GCC countries face serious challenges in securing their water resources, which are rapidly dwindling. Estimates are that, as water-poor countries, all six states will face severe water shortages by 2030. To survive, the GCC countries must find alternative water resources that are more abundant and less costly than desalination.

20. GCC countries will also need to develop alternative sources of energy in the coming decades, so as to maintain the current levels of national revenue from the sale of fossil fuel. Although the GCC countries have vast reserves – especially oil and liquefied natural gas – trends in the global energy market, and the free fall in the price of oil during the last quarter of 2014, make it imperative for GCC countries to invest in alternative energies such as solar and wind power for domestic supply and to maintain their competitive edge in the energy sector.

The GCC member states showed resilience while ironing out the ambassadorial-recall crisis of 2014. Despite the crisis, the states maintained basic levels of coordination and cooperation, and responded to external challenges and threats throughout the year. These two facts alone are sufficient to indicate that GCC’s quest for co-operation and integration is alive and well, and that the organisation is still capable of achieving its ultimate goal: to facilitate increased prosperity, wellbeing and a sense of community between all its member states.