GCC at 33: It is time for a more perfect union
By: Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
On May 25, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) marked its 33rd anniversary. Despite many challenges along the way, the GCC has succeeded beyond expectations. It has remained an oasis of peace, stability and prosperity in a rough neighborhood.
Thirty-three years ago, the heads of state of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, adopted the charter of the Gulf Cooperation Council, signaling the birth of a new organization. Its Article 4 set the main goal of the organization as “To effect coordination, integration and connectivity between Member States in all fields, leading to their unity.”
Since then the GCC has undertaken several important projects to achieve that goal, but has it achieved that “unity”?
Most of the visionary founders have since passed away, but their dream of unity still lives on, enshrined in the Charter and in the hearts and minds of GCC citizens. Sheikh Zayed, UAE’s founding president 10 years earlier; Sheikh Issa, Bahrain’s first emir after it gained its dependence from Britain; King Khaled, Saudi Arabia’s fourth king and son of its founder 50 years earlier; Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s first sultan in the modern era; Sheikh Khalifa, Qatar’s first post-independence emir; and Sheikh Jaber, Kuwait’s third post-independence emir, were all historical figures who wanted to translate the GCC member states’ newly founded wealth into a strategic power that can maintain peace, stability and security for the region and to enable their citizens to enjoy the fruits of their combined strength.
Most GCC member states in 1981 had barely a decade of independence from Britain, with barely developed governmental structures. The combined population of the six members was 14 million, with a national population of only nine million. While they controlled about half the world’s petroleum resources, they had little else in terms of economic power; the size of GCC economies totaled a mere $200 billion. As newly emerging countries, their human development indicators were way below their wealth levels.
GCC populations were not only eager to use their new wealth to better themselves, but also to reclaim their unity hampered by centuries of foreign domination.
They enjoyed much more in common than similar blocs, such as the European Union — common history, kinship, traditions and culture, as well as religion and language. But they lacked the formal structures necessary to turn that common culture into an economic and strategic unity.
As the GCC turns 33 this week, its citizens have much to celebrate. In economic matters, the GCC has moved from a free trade area in 1983, to a customs union in 2003, and a common market in 2008, bringing the six countries closer together. Intra-GCC trade has grown nearly forty-fold since its establishment and investment has grown by leaps and bounds, at double digits most years.
Militarily, the GCC is moving toward a unified military command and already has a sizable land force (Peninsula Shield Force) and closely coordinates its air and naval forces.
Similarly, the GCC has adopted scores of laws and hundreds of directives. It built a system encompassing over a dozen organizations to integrate their efforts in education, health, labor, social development, the environment, and almost every other aspect of everyday life.
Despite those accomplishments, most GCC citizens lament the slow pace and gap between the promises and the reality. They are especially frustrated by the slow progress toward unity, the goal the organization set for itself in 1981, especially since nearly all GCC agreements and pronouncements, since its inception, have restated that goal in one form or another.
Recently, the most significant initiative toward that goal has been the call two years ago by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah for the evolution of the GCC from its current “cooperation” phase to a “union” phase, in a “unified body for the common good, that meets the aspirations of citizens of GCC states and counters the challenges they face.”
In GCC terminology, the word “unity” is the translation of a word in Arabic that means a close federation of states. On the other hand, a “union” refers to a loose grouping.
The Gulf union could be looked at as a step on the way to that eventual goal of unity, the attainment of which could take some time.
The statement issued at the conclusion of the 2011 summit, where King Abdullah made his call, recalled Article 4 of the Charter and reemphasized the goal of unity as stated therein. It made clear that what was under discussion was how to form an interim “union” to achieve that ultimate goal.
To carry out the idea further, a high-level “Special Commission” was empaneled, composed of 18 members, three from each member state. The Commission put together a blueprint to effect transition from the current cooperation to the union formula.
Since then, a charter for the Gulf Arab Union has been drafted as a legal translation of the Special Commission’s recommendations. The draft includes the amendments required for the GCC to evolve into the union.
The proposed charter emphasizes sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. It maintains all GCC goals, but adds more clarity and precision, informed by its 33-year-long experience. It also tightens the operational workings of the organization
Currently, the GCC is run by a small staff coordinating the work of hundreds of committees. Since 1981, thousands of committees have come and gone, and tens of thousands of meetings convened. The results have sometimes been very slow to come by and not always satisfying.
The Gulf union would replace that cumbersome committee-based system with a simpler one, based on permanent staff, overseen directly by permanent representatives of member states. The new system will provide a consistent and transparent framework, professionally run with clear timetables and lines of responsibility and accountability.
Member states will remain directly in the driver seat through those representatives. The current system of oversight by the supreme council and the ministerial council would remain to ensure that member states are in control.
Currently, GCC has informal implementation and enforcement mechanisms, with no exact timetables or judicial recourse. To make sure that union decisions are uniformly and quickly implemented, a judicial commission will be established to ensure consistency of implementation of those decisions.