According to a popular saying, a man was once eating dates with his son when the latter found a worm in his food. He screamed to his father, “The date has a worm in it!” The father answered firmly, “Turn the light off and eat the date”.
Twenty five years after the inception of the Gulf Cooperation Council, decision makers continue to tell their people, “Turn the light off and eat the dates.” This is an easy slogan; why preoccupy ourselves with examining mistakes? Isn’t it easier to simply disregard these errors and problems and deny they ever existed?
The Abu Dhabi summit, held in a luxurious palace, a quarter of a century after the GCC was established, was distinctively a summit of “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” Silence reigned to the extent that, when I spoke to a high-ranking official and asked him, “Satellite channels are reporting vast disagreements between leaders”, he answered, with a sad tone, “If only, at least that would indicate action. The first closed session took place and no one discussed internal Gulf problems. In the next session, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen were debated and the biggest absentee was Gulf issues.”
Our people are used to comparisons: comparing the bad with what is worse. I spoke to a Gulf official, on one occasion, and criticized the performance of the Council and the sluggish pace of decision-making. I told him all leaders repeated in their addresses that what has been achieved so far was below expectations so why did the state of affairs remain the same year on year? Astonishingly, he replied that the GCC was the most successful pan-Arab organization. “What has become of the Egyptian Syrian Union? Or the tripartite union between Iraq, Egypt and Syria? What of the Maghreb Union? Or the Damascus declaration? All these bodies are no longer functioning, except for the GCC. Praise be to God we are still alive.”
Of course, I also praised God we are still alive. However, it is sad that someone could be content by lavishing praise on His creator. The incapacitated are indeed alive but can a nation aim to remain active without posing questions on the nature of life, happiness, achievements and progress, industrialization, investment and the information revolution?
This is an essential question, given the disagreements between member states and unresolved issues and bilateral disputes. We all recall how the Kuwaiti Prime Minister, who headed his country’s delegation to the consultation summit in Riyadh, a few months ago, demanded honesty. He admitted essential differences remained between GCC member states. Other leaders concurred and requested he visit Gulf capitals. His efforts soon reached a dead end. The media campaigns Gulf channels carry out, whose sole aim is sabotage, pose another considerable problem. There are some who claim these channels follow their individual judgment and not formal instructions. But these channels are staffed by foreigners and no one would dare to resort to oral weapons of mass destruction without prior consultation.
The summit’s ostentatious headlines included the demands of the Gulf common market, which will become a reality in 2007, the necessary steps preceding the creation of a monetary union and the adoption of a common currency by 2010, the common identity card (smart card), in addition to the plan to link water and electricity, increasing health coverage, developing education and encouraging military and security cooperation, the discussion of the latest negotiations with international bodies on free trade agreements, in addition to a debate on Labor Ministers’ recommendation that the residency of foreign workers be restricted to six years.
The reality, however, is very different. Issues such as the transportation of gas have yet to be resolved. The building of bridges is obstructed. Parties are accusing each other other of interfering in internal affairs and disagreements have exceptional levels.
Amid all this, it appears that the citizens of GCC member states are badly informed about the Council’s activities. A few years ago, I asked a number of university students to fill a questionnaire on the politics of member states and leading figures. I was surprised to discover that many were unaware of the names of ministers, except those of foreign ministers. No one knew the name of the Minister of Education, or Industry, or Commerce in his own country. The Abu Dhabi summit provided an explanation. The GCC meeting was preoccupied with Iran’s nuclear weapons, the elections in Iraq, the situation in Syria, the relation between Yemen and the Council and even whether to extend Amr Musa’s mandate as Secretary General of the Arab League.
This type of behavior resembles that of revolutionary and totalitarian regimes. Nasser fought in Yemen, supported the people of Iraq and Palestine and coined the slogan, “From the Gulf to the Ocean” but neglected economic development, personal liberties and the creation of a strong state. Iraq was absorbed in its wars against the Kurds and the “heathen” Persians and later the invasion of Kuwait but did not fight for growth, progress and freedom.
It is worth considering that no united and specific decision was taken even in the case of foreign issues which leaders added to the agenda. For example, Iranian nuclear activities were discussed at length but the concluding statement failed to mention Iran, despite earlier predictions that the final communiqué would specifically mention Tehran’s nuclear program. The Abu Dhabi declaration reiterated a previous proposal to turn the region into an area free of weapons of mass destruction.
All the public debates about GCC concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, given that the six countries are closer to the Busher nuclear reactor in Iran than Tehran itself, which puts them in great danger in case of an accident, and the proposal for an agreement between all parties worried about Iran’s nuclear program, were reduced, in the final communiqué, to general statements on a Middle East free from nuclear weapons and a call for Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and open its nuclear facilities to inspection. Iran was not specifically mentioned.
Officials refrained from explaining this oversight. However, one official, on condition of anonymity, said this was because the GCC wanted to keep diplomatic channels open. “They opted for diplomacy so as not to alienate Tehran”. A similar treatment was reserved to the Syrian issue. A number of leaders expected, prior to the summit, a strong Arab position on Syria, in order to close the door for foreign pressure on the country. Yet, the statements in the final communiqué on Syria were vague and no specific position was included.
Even so, some people will say, and they are partially correct, “Why do you demand that a meeting of leaders be one where decisions are taken? Political summits are always a celebration where leaders bless what the technical committees and ministerial meetings have accomplished. In the case of the GCC, more than 400 meetings have been held between the last two summits, where ministers and technicians discussed numerous details. They were meant to prepare documents to be ratified at the summit.”
If this were true then what has been accomplished during the summit? All those who attended the meetings we spoke to said “nothing”. Critically, a proposal to delay one of the most important crucial decisions, the custom union, until 2007, instead of its original date, was put forward. Some say the aim behind GCC gatherings is to clear the air between leaders and solve unresolved issues but the remarkable observations in the Abu Dhabi summit is the small number of meetings between leaders.
Most leaders arrived between 2pm and 4:30pm on the opening day. The following day, the morning session was held at 11 am and the final session at 3pm. Those who condemn this propose, instead, that summits be held in a retreat where leaders would spend several days together and discuss unsolved issues in peace and quiet.
Twenty five years after the GCC was established, the summit was held without dynamism and excitement, amid popular apathy. The capabilities are many and the achievements modest. New problems are not addressed. In the current state of affairs, one prefers to solve the problems of others before those of the GCC. The summit’s preoccupation with foreign affairs was an inadequate attempt to run away from facing itself.