The announcement by the Bahrain Minister of State of Foreign Affairs, Ganem Al Bu Ainain, on December 6, 2012, that the GCC Union proposal would not be part of the GCC summit agenda later in the month did not come as a surprise. Ever since Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz proposed at the last summit meeting in Riyadh in 2011 that the GCC “move from a phase of cooperation to a phase of union within a single entity”, the concept of the “Union” has remained vague and non-descriptive. As such, it has raised more questions than answers.

Similarly, no further development has taken place with regard to the idea of expanding the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan. While officially, a committee has been established to study the details, in particular as far as Jordan is concerned, there is no indication that any progress has been made or whether the initiative has any traction left at all. In terms of both the Union and the integration concept, it has to be asked whether the proposals were the product of hasty reactions or a part of more calculated initiatives.

Whatever the case, there are questions about where the GCC is headed. While numerous official pronouncements are made about integration at the security, economic and foreign policy levels, little detail is provided about how this integration is actually to be implemented on the ground and who the direct beneficiaries will be. For the union concept, no specific description has been put forward to outline how the idea would be implemented or even what the ultimate meaning of such a union would in effect be. Instead, what has become evident is what the union is not going to be, i.e., a European Union style organisation involving a transfer of some sovereignty away from member states.

The reasons for the lack of specifics or the failure on forward movement can, on the one hand, be found among the GCC leaders themselves. Instead of the GCC becoming more inclusive and developing as an institution, it appears that the GCC leaders are growing more inward-looking with a high degree of scepticism about too much integration. Conservatism has always been a leitmotif for the GCC leaders in promoting the GCC. Moreover, the GCC states have come together only when pushed due to their collective interest mostly brought about by common threat-perceptions. From the very outset of the organisation’s founding, necessity and not necessarily free choice was the glue that bound the member states to one another.

For the GCC leaders, the strength and ability of the GCC to survive as an institution is to be found in its weakness as a centralised, independent entity. Within the present GCC structure, each country can, by and large, pursue the policies it wants without being bound or curtailed by any supra-national restrictions or obligations. As it stands, the GCC is an institution that means all things to all people, one that each member state fills with its own perceptions or expectations. It will appear as if the GCC rulers are quite happy with the present structure of the GCC. The flexibility through which the GCC has survived through its first three decades of existence will thus be killed by either strengthening or expanding the Union.

The issue of sovereignty is at the heart of the matter here. For the rulers, the main issue would be the heightened suspicion that could be brought about by the creation of a more centralised authority that might infringe on their present authority.

Even if the GCC leaders wanted to move forward with a closer union, under current circumstances, the organisation might not survive if pressed for true integration. Without a doubt, with the current ideas being put forward, the GCC will be stepping on new and unknown territory. The deeper concern is that both horizontal (geographical expansion) and vertical (devolution of power) extension of the GCC would ultimately lead to the group’s disintegration given that the present structure as it exists will not be able to cope with such changes. Institutionally, the GCC remains weak and underdeveloped. And while it is certainly the case that any proposed union in the true sense of the word cannot function properly if the dimension of sovereignty is left untouched, there is the distinct possibility that if forced to come together under a more stringent and tighter umbrella, the organisation will fragment from inside due to the lack of consensus about what integration means and why it is necessary.

A more fundamental question is what happens to the GCC as member states begin to pursue different paths to their political development? There can be no denying that the GCC states are feeling the impact of the wave of political change that has swept the Arab world for the past two years. Different GCC countries are feeling the pressure in different ways.

Yet, in the end, all politics is local and as such it is the elites that will decide on how to respond to those challenges on the ground. This could ultimately lead to GCC countries going down different paths in their domestic politics, including a greater role being played by the wider population and public opinion. For now, decisions within the GCC are made by consensus at the elite level. It is doubtful that such consensus will still be possible if the basis for decision-making in each member state begins to differ.

This is the dichotomy with which the GCC finds itself confronted.

The elites pay lip service to the further development of the GCC by holding on to their sovereignty and preferring a loose federation rather than a real union. By maintaining a weak structure, they also ensure that the GCC will not be able to produce sufficient consensus to deal with the impending challenges and a shifting domestic and regional environment. Overall, this puts the future of the GCC as an organisation very much in doubt.

Christian Koch is the director of the Gulf Research Centre Foundation.