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GCC union: Putting right step forward

It was the call of the Saudi King to Gulf leaders at the December summit to 'move from a phase of cooperation to a phase of union within a single entity' that sparked a debate on whether the countries of the bloc are ready to form a union. Gulf News writers Jumana Al Tamimi, Habib Toumi, Samir Salama and Sunil K. Vaidya bring the views of analysts in the six GCC countries on the issue.

GCC Summit held in Abu Dhabi
Image Credit: Gulf News Archives
A file photo from the GCC Summit held in Abu Dhabi. The GCC covers around 2.5 million square km and is home to more than 44 million people.
01 Gulf News

ADVOCATES

Analysts across the six-member Gulf Cooperation Countries, to whom Gulf News spoke, were almost equally divided over the call of Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz which was backed by other GCC leaders.

King Abdullah said: "I ask today [December 19, 2011] that we move from a phase of cooperation to a phase of union within a single entity.

"You must realise that our security and stability are threatened and we need to live up to our responsibilities."

Dr Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, Professor at the UAE University, says the proposed union must be as unique as the Gulf Cooperation Council and be based on the 30-year-long cooperation experience.

Dr Abdullah said the Arab Gulf Union is a message from the governments of the Gulf countries to their peoples that the union is the Gulf plan for the future and a message to Iran that the new Gulf entity is a strong, well-defended fortress.

"Unlike the GCC, which was created to cope with threats such as the Iranian revolution, the Iraqi war and Afghanistan, the Arab Gulf Union evolves from the Gulf that is strong, confident and having a mood of greater cooperation," he said.

Last month, Kuwait's parliament Speaker Ahmad Al Sa'adoun, however, expressed his doubts saying the suggested union is "unlikely" because of the differences in political systems of the member states.

‘Hurried statement'

But Mohammad Nasser Al Senussi, a former Kuwaiti information minister, said: "Ahmad Al Sa'adoun made a hurried statement... He should not have made such a statement, and he was criticised," Senussi told Gulf News.

"I wish if there is a country that has reservation over a certain topic to overlook some self-limited interests and sacrifice for the sake of the group," he said, claiming to speak as "a Gulf citizen".

What has been implemented in Kuwait and has succeeded is not a formula for success in another country, analysts said.

"Honestly, I believe Al Sa'adoun should have said that those in prisons are facing the charge of deviant thoughts," a term used in Saudi Arabia to refer to those facing charges of terrorism, said Abdul Aziz Al Saqr, chairman of the Gulf Research Centre. Everybody in the GCC countries will benefit from the formation of a union among the member states, particularly in the business field, he added.

"The concept of the union is to have a unified policy towards the most important issues in foreign policy, security and defence," Al Saqr said.

Sovereignty

Al Sa'adoun told Al Arabiya: "It is, for example, very difficult for a country like Kuwait that grants freedom of speech and where people are represented in parliament, to form a union with countries whose prisons are full of thousands, who are guilty of speaking their minds."

Saudi Foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz stressed last week that the proposal would not affect the sovereignty of any member country, and said it will have positive impact on the all members.

"The union... will not be used as a medium to interfere in their internal affairs. It aims at formulating effective bodies enjoying flexibility and speed and the ability to execute policies and programmes," Prince Saud said, adding that the union would strengthen GCC cooperation in different fields including the political, security, military and economic affairs.

"Prince Saud has clarified some very important issues related to the [proposed] union," said Al Saqr. These issues, or "fears", Al Saqr told Gulf News, include the worries that it could negatively affect the sovereignty of member states and the differences in the economies of the member states.

For example, Bahrain and Oman are less rich than oil and gas giants Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar.

Therefore, Al Saqr said, it will be "premature to jump to any conclusion at present about the suggestion", which "is still in the studying phase".

More time needed

More time is needed for the consultative committee, which includes all member states "to revisit the subject again, address it, look at it, and look at the reservations, fears and assurances of each country". "Once they agree, it should be [also] marketed to the peoples [of the GCC member states]," Al Saqr said.

More than two months before the Saudi King's call, Abdul Lateef Al Mahmoud, an Islamic scholar and Bahraini activist, said to an audience: "We want to go back to our union or unity before colonialist forces forced us apart into statelets, kingdoms and sultanates."

For many Bahrainis, who shared Al Mahmoud's views on the union, there was no need for further explanation.

"It was clear that the GCC should, after 31 years of its establishment, turn into a union," said Jaber Mohammad, a Bahraini political analyst.

Ahmad Al Aradi, a researcher with a legal background, said that he supported the concept of the union, but insisted that it had to be gradual integration and that the grouping should remain a confederation.

Ahmad Al Romaihi, the editor-in-chief of Qatar's Arabic daily Al Arab, said the union of the GCC member states "will boost people's well-being, ward off problems, fulfil the aspirations of the Gulf citizens and confront all kinds of challenges."

Relative prosperity

Khalid Al Safi Al Haribi, the managing director of Tawasul, Oman, feels that the Gulf Union is feasible because the countries share similar language, history, traditions, and beliefs, apart from the long positive experience of the bloc in bringing stability and relative prosperity to its peoples.

"The Arab awakenings assert a leadership position for the GCC in the Arab world and this could be reinforced through a union," he says.

He believes the unity experiences of the European Union, Maghreb Union and others could also serve as comparative studies to understand the do's and don'ts of such unions. According to Al Haribi, Oman will gain from joint political, defence, and financial policies.

    
OBSTACLES

For some analysts, a union among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) should be preceded by internal reforms and by resolving political and cultural differences.

Dr Ebtisam Al Kitbi, professor of political science at the UAE University, said the GCC scheme faces great challenges that could derail it ahead of a union.

"While there is no unified political will that may transform the GCC into a greater integration entity, there are differences among the six member countries over sovereignty and independence. Oman, for instance, opposes setting up a Gulf Union. Other countries have reservations and wariness," Dr Ebtisam said, citing Kuwait's newly elected parliament speaker, Ahmad Al Sa'adoun's recent statement to Al Arabiya that it was difficult for Kuwait to enter a union with a state with thousands of prisoners of conscience, in a reference to Saudi Arabia.

Dr Ebtisam added that small countries in the GCC need assurances that in a union, the big would not dominate them.

Mohammad Al Hammadi, an Emirati writer, agrees and said that before transforming it to a Gulf Union (GU), the GCC members should first remove obstacles hindering joint economic, cultural and development projects.

"Citizens of the six member countries should be seen as equal, whichever country they choose to live in. So, it does not make sense that unlike citizens of other GCC countries, Emiratis are not allowed to enter Saudi Arabia with their ID cards. Instead, they are treated like foreigners who enter the Kingdom with their passports."

Also, opponents to the union attributed their scepticism to the fact that the GCC could not achieve a genuine common market or a monetary union.

"We need clear answers to questions such as why this union is to be created. Is it prompted by a security development? Will Kuwaitis, who are more liberal politically, integrate with other less liberal members? Is the UAE, one of the most culturally tolerant and open countries in the region, prepared to integrate with another conservative country such as Saudi Arabia? And what form of integration schemes are we after, is it a single state, a federation like the UAE, or a confederation like the EU?" asked Dr Mohammad Bin Howaidin, professor of political science at the UAE University.

‘Economic integration'

Citing the European Union's integration scheme, Dr Bin Howaidin said a successful union entails addressing differences between the GCC member countries. "Economic integration or the Gulf Common Market has not yet been realised. Certain countries are not effectively committed to that market. Failing to achieve this goal will adversely affect the end product of the integration process as a whole — creating a weak union."

He stressed the importance of having crystal-clear goals designed to unify the Gulf countries in more ways than just economically.

Dr Bin Howaidin suggested that it is time for the GCC to move a step forward to a greater integration or a stronger confederation and then to an EU-style confederation, with a common market, a unified army and defence system, a foreign affairs commission and a Gulf court.

For Saleh Al Kuwari, the editor in chief of Qatar's Al Raya, the GCC successes, even though they are numerous, are still below the expectations and aspirations of the Gulf citizens.

"The successes do not match the ambitions and hopes of the people," he said. "The GCC has succeeded as a regional alliance in resisting the tensions of the First Gulf War, in siding with Kuwait against the Iraqi occupations in the early 1990s, and with Bahrain in 2011 when it was confronted with security tension."

However, the military harmony is not reflected in the political, economic and financial fields, he said.

"There is still a lot of mystery and vagueness on several economic issues, mainly the financial union and the Gulf bank," he said.

Ahmad Al Nayem, a Bahraini agreed: "These tasks were less formidable than a union, yet the six GCC countries could not agree," said.

"We would like to have a union like the European Union, but with the vast cultural and political differences between the GCC countries, I find it difficult to look towards a common future for all of us with optimism," he said.

Writing in the Arabic daily Al Sharq, Ali Al Jaber said the talk about integration into a federation is a bit exaggerated as it is not readily achievable and people should have rather talked about integrating into a confederation.

"Unfortunately, such factors are deeply entrenched in the Gulf political mentality, and, for instance, the slightest difference over a border issue sparks an all-out political and media war between the countries involved, and each wants everybody else to adopt its position," he wrote.

For Al Jaber, the most crucial step towards the Gulf union is to boost reforms within the GCC countries to ensure greater participation by their citizens while preserving security, stability, national cohesion and social well-being.

‘Unified currency'

A leading legal expert in Oman also thinks that formation of GU would be a challenge. "I believe that the transformation of the GCC into a more integrated union would be challenging as was apparent from the GCC's unsuccessful attempt in creating a unified currency," reckons Riyadh Al Balushi, a leading columnist on legal affairs in Oman.

One of the most learned and respected Tweep from Oman, Raid Zuhair Al Jamali said that for the proposed GU to take shape, there must be a broad-based shift in will power.

"Integration? Yes. Union? Not without internal reform," he further added.

Political analyst and leading journalist Awadh Al Baquwair thinks the GU is not feasible. Although he agrees that all six GCC member states would benefit — economically, socially and in all fields — from the proposed GU.

He is also pessimistic about Oman accepting the proposal. "I am not sure if Oman would prefer such a union."

"The main challenges the GU could face is the different policies of the GCC states," he pointed out, adding that foreign policies of each state could be a major bone of contention, especially when it comes to dealing with Iran.

 

Opportunities, challenges

  • Unified foreign and defence policies: In 1984, the GCC defence ministers agreed the creation of the Peninsula Shield Force, a joint intervention force.
  • The Shield was based near King Khalid Military City at Hafar Al Batin in Saudi Arabia under the command of a Saudi officer. The force could be enlarged at a time of threat. The six GCC states are keen on a common concept in building their defence forces and endeavour to have unified operational procedures, training, and military curricula and to accomplish compatibility of their military systems.
  • These states have very similar social and cultural identity.
  • Acceleration of economic integration of the member states.
  • Collective benefits to the countries' people from unified policies and strategies.
  • The common market agreement in the beginning of 2008 was a historic milestone that addressed movement and residence, employment and pensions, investments and ownership, capital movement and tax and education, health and social services.
  • Other successes include the completion of the second phase of the three-phase GCC power grid. The Dh5.1-billion project is set to save the GCC states Dh18.4 billion in electricity costs.
  • The Dh55-billion GCC rail project, agreed upon in 2003 and mandated in 2009, is expected to be operational by 2017.
  • Challenges facing the bloc: The GCC customs union, agreed upon in 2003, was delayed again until 2015 and the GCC common currency, even with Oman and the UAE formally withdrawn, remains a stalled project.
  • The member states continue to have border disputes.
  • Different political systems in the GCC.
  • Differences in size of their economies.
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