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Hichem Karoui: From Cooperation to Union
May 12, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The notion of moving from cooperation to Union in the Arab Gulf occupies more an important place, both in the deliberations of officials during their periodic meetings, and in the discussions of intellectuals. The idea was first introduced by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, who started the thirty-second session of the Gulf Cooperation Supreme Council, held in Riyadh on 19 December 2011, by a speech in which he invited the six states of the GCC to “move from the stage of cooperation to the stage of Union into a single entity.” In the statement issued by that session, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council welcomed the proposal of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, while issuing recommendations on regulatory procedures and a timetable. These recommendations were “in line with the provisions of Article IV of the Statute of the Council to cooperate on achieving coordination, integration and interdependence among Member States in all fields and up to the unity.” Arrangements were provided for the formation of a specialised Commission to be selected by the Member States. The meetings of the Commission would take place at the headquarters of the Secretariat General.

Six months later, the 14th consultative summit of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council gathered in Riyadh (14.05.2012), in an atmosphere dominated by the tension in Bahrain. On the eve of the meeting, the Bahraini Minister of State for information Samira Rajab declared: “The Saudi proposal about moving from Cooperation to Union will be on the agenda of the ministers this evening in Riyadh.” Then she added, “The proposal, supported by Bahrain, could start by the union of two or three states.”

It is worth noting that whereas Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal, at the conclusion of the summit, stated that the leaders of the GCC countries postponed the announcement of the transition from cooperation to the stage of the Union, until issuing a comprehensive and accurate study, Iran’s response was swift. The Iranian Shura Council condemned what it called “the Saudi project to annex Bahrain,” while its speaker Ali Larijani said, “Bahrain will not be so easily swallowed up by Saudi Arabia.”

Observe that the project of Union has never been related to sole Bahrain, but to all the members of the GCC, and it was not directed against Iran. Just imagine how the Europeans would feel, if the former Soviet Union said the same thing about their project.

The Gulf project aimed at creating political bodies and other security, economic and military institutions, in order to form the nucleus of the Union. The key idea is similar to the European Union. It will not undermine the sovereignty of states and the political systems currently in place.

Nevertheless, despite the goodwill and the great deal of work that has been achieved so far, some obstacles still hinder the Union. Observers mention some vital projects that did not materialise yet. Examples: the GCC common market, the common currency, and the Gulf central bank, border disagreements still waiting to be solved, in addition to some political disagreements.

In my eyes, these border and political disagreements are minor issues that may be settled, as soon as the leaders decide to give them priority. However, the most important is to carry on the institutional projects that had already been decided.

It is clear that there is a popular enthusiasm for the idea of Union, but there are also legitimate doubts. This has been the case in the eighties when the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council was announced.

Some observers mention three kinds of scepticism regarding the project of the Union:

• The first concerns a group of sceptics believing that the laws and decisions taken by the Cooperation Council have been so far issued to address the crises the Gulf countries had faced, namely Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990 and the political unrest in Bahrain after February 2011. As the GCC faced these challenges more or less successfully, they argue that it is better to complete the process of cooperation, instead of hurrying to the Union, which may face obstacles and exacerbate differences. In my eyes, these sceptics take the idea of Union as an emotional rather than a rational project. They even consider cooperation as a way to fend off external threats rather than a voluntary planning in order to strengthen economies and multilateral relations at various levels. However, once it becomes clear to them that the Union is not just a reaction to the circumstances, but the crowning of the phase of cooperation, with an integrated programme in which everyone would realise the public interest, they would change their mind.

• The second type of sceptics thinks that the Union at this stage may topple or downplay some of the popular gains that have been achieved locally in some states and not in the others. This group may also change its mind and support the Union, once reassured that it would not prejudice those gains.

• The third type of sceptics sees the Union as a threat to their interests and influence. The relative power enjoyed at the local level by some of these groups may become stale within the Union, with the probable shift in power balances, and the emergence of a new majority. This group may include political opponents with isolationist inclinations. Caution and wisdom are advised here: including them in the framework of the new system, if they accept the terms and the rules of the game, would be better than excluding.

However, perhaps more and more people are realising now that the integration of the Arab Gulf structures and institutions into the project of Union would result in benefits, not the least among them: maintaining stability in an Arab world characterised by upsetting social and political events and the rise of hardline opposition groups, and the growing possibilities for transnational “jihadist” groups. The projected Union would also reduce the dependence on the United States in security and defence matters, and increase the capacity to stand in the face of threats represented by hostile powers. Furthermore, some observers pointed to the demographic imbalance as a threat to the social fabric of the Gulf States, with 9 to 75 per cent as proportions of the local population related to expatriates. On this level too, the Union is expected to reduce tensions in the social fabric and maintain the identity of the Arab Gulf societies.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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