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Debate: The GCC should move towards greater union | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Omani Oil Minister Mohamed bin Hamad Al Rumhi (far right) poses for a group photo with colleagues at a meeting of Gulf Arab oil ministers in Riyadh September 24, 2013

Many have questioned the idea of Arab unity and its prospects for success, especially after the failure of several pan-Arab projects and the unfulfilled hopes of these movements would help the Arab world overcome the great challenges it faced during the Cold War. Despite this, there has always been a move towards coordination and integration, specifically between Arab states that share similar political, economic, social and cultural systems, as well as comparable rates of growth. This vision ultimately resulted in the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The GCC was established in the early 1980s through an initiative led by the United Arab Emirates, and supported by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in particular. Since then, Arab citizens have learned a number of things from the experiences of this peerless organization.

First, that the dream of Arab unity is today more distant than at any time before. Second, that the safest path towards this desired unity is through coordination and integration between states that share geographic, historic, political, economic, social and cultural bonds. And third, that ideological divisions were the final straw for the Arab nation-state project.

However, the most important lesson we have learned is related to the threat represented by radical slogans inciting the destruction of the foundations of the Arab nation-state for the sake of an illusionary Arab Umma or united Islamic state.

The GCC, contrary to similar cooperation councils that quickly disintegrated, has managed to hold on for three decades, confronting all the crises, conflicts and conspiracies that have been mounted against it.

Unfortunately, and for the first time, the GCC is currently witnessing a state of unprecedented divergence in the policy of its member states towards a number of intertwined foreign and domestic issues. If this issue is left untreated, it may worsen and, God forbid, lead to the end of the GCC.

The source of this divergence is not border disputes, sensitivities surrounding sovereignty or wealth, or attempts by the elite to preserve their privileges, as was the case in the past. Rather, it is a combination of new factors stemming from accelerating regional and international changes and their repercussions on domestic scenes, and thus on inter-GCC relations.

We cannot talk about this inter-GCC rift without reference to American and European interventions in the Gulf’s affairs, the policies of an expansionist Iran that is increasingly interfering in the region, the fraying of the social fabric within a number of GCC states due to the insidious spread of sectarianism, and the role of Islamist political groups that oppose the idea of a pan-Arab state to begin with inciting tensions against the ruling Gulf regimes. This is not to mention the return of radical jihadist groups that adhere to the ideology of Al-Qaeda and aim to create an environment of chaos that serves their dark agendas.

So, if asked whether the GCC should impose a mechanism to resolve the different and divergent views among its member states and move the organization as a whole towards closer union, the answer must be a resounding “yes.”

No regional or international organization can expect its members to share the same position on all issues. In other words, an organization such as the GCC may reach general consensus on a broad mechanism to address certain problems or crises, implement a given joint venture, or deal with other parties—but this does not prevent members from developing reservations or adopting dissenting positions on specific GCC resolutions, something which may bring with it the seeds of future conflict and tensions hindering collective action. For this reason, most charters of regional or international bodies require a majority vote to issue resolutions or adopt political positions, giving them a certain degree of flexibility. This stands in stark contrast to Arab blocs, such as the Arab League or the GCC, whose charters require unanimity.

In fact, the 10th article of the GCC charter explicitly calls for the establishment of a “Commission for the Settlement of Disputes” under the umbrella of the GCC Supreme Council in order to to deal with this issue. At the time of its establishment, this commission’s main goal was to help find acceptable compromises and solutions to longstanding border conflicts between member states. However, this commission failed to accomplish anything, for the simple reason that it was never formally established. It remained nothing more than ink on paper.

So long as this provision exists within the GCC charter, and so long as there are disputes that require settlement, why shouldn’t the GCC establish a commission to do just that? You can call this body whatever you wish, so long as it works to meet the needs of the Gulf people and leadership, namely the move towards greater union.

The GCC must urgently coordinate, cooperate—and yes, unify—to address the dramatic changes that are taking place in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in terms of security and defense policy and foreign affairs. There must be a mechanism to quickly and automatically reconcile GCC members, even over the smallest disagreement or dispute. It should be possible to deploy this mechanism without waiting for annual GCC summits and meetings or for mediators to shuttle between one capital city and the next. (The longer it takes for a dispute to be resolved, the more it will fester.)

Only then will the GCC be able to move towards the union it needs.

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.