The Confederation Question
Some Arab leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may not find the idea of a central authority very appealing but having a strong presence on the world stage is an incentive attractive enough for the GCC to move ahead with the proposal for a confed
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), formally known as the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG), is an intergovernmental union of six Arab states, including Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Bahrain. These states are also members of the Arab League while the first four hold the membership of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as well. The GCC was created in 1981 in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia with the objective to enhance cooperation and connection among the oil-rich Gulf States and to bolster regional defense in the face of internal and external challenges.
In 2012, Saudi Arabia came up with the proposal for the formation of a closer union in response to the Arab uprisings and what was seen as Iran’s growing threat – an attempt to redefine and renew its commitment to the region. Saudi King Abdullah cautioned about “the challenges that require vigilance and a united stance.” At the time, the original six agreed to discuss and evaluate the proposal later because the idea of a confederation was difficult to grasp for the Arab monarchs. It is evident from the comment of political analyst Johann Weick, who writes in his analytical piece ‘GCC States Remain Split over EU-Style Union’: “EU, one law, one strong and unchecked power capable to legislate, to execute and to enforce its will on your country, even if your government says no?”
However, faced with greater uncertainty and shifting alliances, the need for presenting a united front in the form of a confederation has became an urgent issue. The idea of a ‘united stance’ also makes economic sense. Despite its susceptibility to rising conflicts, the Gulf has some of the fastest growing economies in the world due to the vast oil and natural gas reserves. The regional funds of the GCC countries are worth billions of dollars. A proposal for a joint currency named ‘Khaleeji’ has also been proposed, but not without resistance from Oman and the UAE who object to the designated location – Riyadh - of the central bank. If materialized, Khaleeji would be the second largest international monetary unit in the world.
The GCC has fared well for over three decades because of the somewhat similar political, religious and cultural identities of its members. Yet, internal issues continue to bring forth new challenges. As the GCC seems poised to accept Jordan and
Morocco into its fold, Qatar has always pursued its own foreign policy, many times in conflict with the wishes of the rest of the members. Its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a group other members view with suspicion, has caused serious concern in the organization. In reaction to this clear violation of GCC policy of noninterference, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar early this year.
This situation underlines the need for member states to consider carefully who they accept into the organization. Extending the GCC membership to Jordan and Morocco to form a confederation would help strengthen economic, political and security cooperation among the Gulf States. Both countries enjoy good global standing and their addition to the GCC would bring more authority and credibility to the grouping internationally, while offering strategic and political depth. Morocco has never previously shown interest in becoming a part of the GCC, but Jordan has applied for membership twice – in the 1980s and in 1996 – and was rejected both times. Understandably, the Saudi Monarch, King Abdullah’s invitation has been received with much enthusiasm. Jordan’s economy is largely dependent on external aid and GCC membership promises generous rewards in aid and investment. In return, Jordan would be a valuable member to the GCC, offering security support through its military, police and intelligence services.
The GCC’s proposal for a Joint Military Command with Jordan and Morocco, aims to effectively manage the region’s internal issues of violence and insecurity as well as to discourage external intervention. Military analyst Matthew Hedges writes that aside from the obvious reasons and closeness of these two countries, “the Jordanian armed forces are the most professional military force in the Arab world while the Moroccan military has been involved in security training operations across the GCC with many governments and have a long history of cooperation.” According to a report of the Saudi Foreign Ministry, the Joint Military Command would have up to 100,000 troops under the Council, a substantial number of which will be from the two countries in exchange for substantial financial support to their economies.
Apart from Jordan and Morocco, another country that has long aspired to join the GCC is Yemen, but several factors have hindered a positive response to its requests. The instability and unrest Yemen has seen over the years, the growing influence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s support for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, internal corruption resulting in mismanagement of resources and foreign aid, low literacy, high unemployment rate, extreme poverty, extensive food insecurity and water shortage etc., all contribute to the challenge the GCC members see in Yemen’s inclusion in the alliance. The Shi’ite rebels in the country’s areas bordering Saudi Arabia, allegedly receiving support from Iran, have also been of serious concern for the Gulf members and provide the GCC enough reason not to open its doors to Yemen.
Despite their apprehensions, the GCC members do not plan to abandon Yemen, and are constantly exploring ways and means to support its development and security concerns. Saudi Arabia pledged $1.25 billion to Yemen in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. This was in addition to significant monetary and military support from other GCC members. A GCC office was also opened in Sana’a in October 2012 to explore options of effective aid disbursement as a show of the GCC’s commitment to regional security and development.
To its credit, Yemen has traditionally provided a ready supply of low-skilled workers for Arab countries while its strategic location provides a link to the Suez Canal that could be a safer route for the oil-exporting GCC countries. The GCC recognizes the fact that providing support to Yemen for its economic and social development as well as for a peaceful political transition is directly linked to regional and global peace and security, and remains committed to stepping in if needed.
The Gulf States have much in common and the idea of a confederation might work well, even if an EU-style union is not immediately possible because of the inherent authoritarian character of the Arab world. The benefits of finding a unified voice in the global arena might soon tip the scale in its favor, however. The far-reaching implications of going forward with the proposal and adding new members require not only thorough examination but also a strong commitment based on realistic expectations.