By Arab News
By Dr. Abdulaziz Sager
The recent visit of GCC Secretary-General Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani to Brussels and to the headquarters of the European Union not only underscored the increased attention that is being paid to the Gulf region by the European Union but also highlighted the recognition that the GCC is gaining as an organization committed and contributing to promoting security and stability both in its immediate neighborhood and the wider Middle East.
The secretary-general and his accompanying delegation were well received and held constructive meetings with European Union Council President Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Baroso, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, new European Parliament President Martin Schultz and other key officials. He also spoke before the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. These meetings, as well as the opportunity to outline GCC interests in front of the parliamentary members, clearly showed that there exists broad agreement between the EU and the GCC on all major issues including the need to bring Iran back to the negotiating table over its nuclear program and the importance of noninterference by Iran in the internal affairs of the countries in the region; the implications of the political developments impacting the entire Arab world; the necessity for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict; the outlook for a political solution and the delivery of concrete development assistance in Yemen; and the utility to closely cooperate on the next steps to resolve the Syrian crisis. Basically, the EU and the GCC states see eye-to-eye.
The GCC secretary-general used the opportunity of a high-profile visit to the European capital to outline the priorities as far as the GCC states are concerned including protecting their countries from external threats, promoting economic growth and ensuring a high level of human development, promoting better safety measures from potential disasters also in terms of integrated crisis management, and situating the GCC in a favorable and structured international position. Dr. Al-Zayani highlighted that the GCC had become a strong and developed bloc that was willing and ready to assume its corresponding regional and international responsibilities. In return, the EU leaders commended the GCC for their leadership on issues such as Yemen as well as welcoming the recent decision for the GCC regional integration process to move forward and in the words of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to take the next steps toward a full-fledged “Gulf Union.”
The visit of the GCC secretary-general was also important as it emphasized that a strategic EU-GCC partnership is an essential element for the promotion of interests of both sides and that through effective cooperation and better widespread coordination, tangible benefits can be achieved. Taking his message directly to Brussels allowed the GCC to not only promote the consolidation of the institutional ties with the EU but it also served as a straight-forward enunciation of GCC interests.
The key will now be on keeping the momentum going and showing what concrete steps can and must be implemented to further boost EU-GCC relations. The visit of the secretary-general displayed a broad political will on both sides to intensify the dialogue and increase cooperation. Such political will should now be put to the test in order to pave the way for the ever-present EU-GCC Free Trade Agreement to come about. Despite the fact that the points of contact, both at the personal and institutional level, have witnessed a significant increase in recent years, in part due to the Joint Action Program (JAP) agreed to jointly at the 2010 ministerial meeting, the big breakthrough on the free trade accord remains a missing milestone. With important meetings taking place in 2012 in terms of completing the Doha round talks on global trade, a regional agreement on free trade would not only have bilateral benefits but would also send an important signal to the broader international community.
Moreover, the intensification of dialogue at all levels between the GCC and the EU, both between individual member states as well as on a multilateral institutional basis, must be maintained, but in particular also expanded as far as political and security issues are concerned.
In areas such as clean energy and the environment, economics and trade, science and technology, and education, semi-regular mechanisms for an exchange of views at the official and nonofficial level exist. These need to be further intensified. At the same time, none of these areas will witness substantial progress or deeper substance if the key sources of political instability and insecurity evident in other areas of the broader Middle East are left unattended and are allowed to foster. With numerous Middle Eastern states consumed by political instability and facing an uncertain economic outlook, the GCC and the EU need to engage in a substantive dialogue over how to ensure that these countries can overcome their present problems and return to a forward path of economic and social progress. Given the two sides’ common assessment of these situations as well as a similar practical approach of how to resolve them, the EU and the GCC should establish a regular and persistent channel of communications to ensure that the commonality of views is maintained and translated into concrete policies.
As the GCC states embark on a new stage in their regional integration path, the knowledge and experience of Europe will be an important guide as how to move forward and ensure that this process delivers maximum benefits to the GCC citizens. With his visit to Brussels and the EU’s reciprocity, an important step has been taken. Such steps need to be repeated and intensified.
— Dr. Abdulaziz Sager is chairman of the Gulf Research Center