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Hichem Karoui: Bearing more traits of unity
December 30, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The thirty-third session of the Supreme Council for the Cooperation Council of the Arab Gulf States has been concluded in Manama (Bahrain) on December 25, 2012, with an important statement containing some commitments and recommendations expected to be followed up for efficient implementation. It would not be excessive to say that this session was held with the ambitious objective of giving the GCC the structures and the means to start the transition from cooperation to union, according to the wish of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz that had met a positive response from all the members of the GCC.

We are talking here about regional integration, experienced successfully, though not without difficulties, by other states, noticeably the members of the European Union.

According to recent research in this field, the strength of regional projects depends on “whether they are able to establish clear and widely accepted perceptions that they enjoy a comparative advantage in resolving international governance problems.” 

Within this context, three different types of regional projects have been identified: hegemonic, non-hegemonic and transnational. In hegemonic regional projects, generally leadership is associated with a major nation-state. Uncertainty of leadership creates instability and the project becomes non-viable. For the continuity of regional projects, the hegemony should be benign towards other members of the project. The past unionist projects in the Arab and non-Arab world failed precisely because hegemony was central to their overall conception. The “sovietisation” of central and eastern Europe, the Nasserist-Baathist and the Gaddafist aborted unions, are clear examples on what should never succeed.

On the other hand, non-hegemonic projects represent state-led and inter-state projects, which assume a degree of multilateral decision-making and shared leadership practices. This type of regional project is most often found in the decolonisation period and post-Cold War 1990s since it comes closer to preserving state autonomy than hegemonic and transnational projects. The European project started this way in the mid-fifties of the last century, before transforming its structures to meet popular demands. The democratisation of the European project did not occur within a few years, but over a relatively long period that took half a century to crystallise, although on the local level (in each member-state), democratic structures were already working and formed the historical background of Western Europe. The extension of the European Union to the newcomers to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, following the great revolutions against the communist regimes, was expectedly perceived as an encouragement supporting these new democracies, a strengthening of the EU through expanding its market, and eventually a protection against any new threats.

Finally, transnational projects fall into two categories: corporate and societal. Even though both are carried out by non-state actors corporate and societal projects diverge according to their main intentions. The corporate actors are concerned with creating wealth through growth whereas societal actors are concerned with identity and redistribution of wealth. Obviously, Europe may be a good example in this context, as corporate and societal integration have been at the core of the project since the transition from the European Common Market (ECM) to the European Union (EU). However, that kind of integration was also contemplated as an objective of ECM, as a market cannot work efficiently without, at least, corporate integration.

While the Gulf Cooperation Council is trying to make its way towards full regional integration, the European experience, despite the cultural and societal differences, may still be useful.

Indeed, common political goals may help building the future, but it is always recommended to focus on common economic interests, because they are the basis of any future common policies, not the other way around. After all, we can still learn from failure as we learn from successful experiences. Unfortunate past experiences include: United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria (1958-1961) and Federation of Arab Republics initiated by Egypt, Syria and Libya (1971-1973) and Arab Co-operation Council initiated by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and North Yemen (1989 – 1990). The only successful regional project, from that period, preceding the GCC, has been the United Arab Emirates (1971).

So far, with the exception of the UAE, the Arabs failed to hold any union project for enough time to build structures and issue legislations implementing efficient measures. The reason has been explained and analysed thousands of times: former Arab union projects started with a “political goal,” based on a political conjuncture, without true vision of  the means able to cement such a project. As political conjunctures are always variable and limited to a period of time, whenever a change occurs on the political map (a leader who disappears, a reshuffle or a shift in government, etc…) the project of union becomes part of the past. Let us not forget that the Arab League itself, though from its inception a non-hegemonic project bearing the old dream of Arab union, has become over the years the object and place of tensions, expressing dissensions among its members more than agreements. With its old structures, the Arab League is still condemned to be inefficient and even ineffective regarding the issues that are most important to the Arabs today.

Take another example of failed integration: the Union of the Maghreb states. This was also an old dream for those countries since the inauguration of the Bureau of the Maghreb countries in Cairo during the Second World War. The project has been re-launched after the independence in the Conference of Tangier (1958). Nothing happened. Many years later, in 1989, the Union of the Arab Maghreb was created, with five members (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania), following several aborted unions: between Libya and Tunisia (1974), Libya and Algeria, and Tunisia-Algeria-Mauritania (1983), Libya and Morocco…etc. Today, the project is still as it was many years ago: the tensions between the member-countries have been sometimes muted; but as soon as a situation emerges, the shadow of conflict hovers over the heads.

The good news for the GCC is that the economies and the societies bear more elements of integration than any other region in the Arab world. Their differences may become mutual enrichment. However, they need to make more efforts on the corporate and societal level of integration, in order to issue appropriate legislations, helping their transition from cooperation to union. 

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