By Arab News
These are fast changing times in the Middle East — politically of course, but also economically, socially and in terms of security as well as what people can see, read and think.
These are also unpredictable times. Can anyone put his hand on his heart and say with full honesty that he knows what will be the outcome of the crisis in Syria or Yemen? Can he predict where Egypt is headed politically? Does anyone outside the regime in Tehran really know whether its nuclear intentions are peaceful or military? These are just a few of the questions that now hang over the region like a latter-day Sword of Damocles.
For the Gulf region, these uncertainties make planning for the future more complex but all the more imperative. This is, after all a region that because of its abundant natural resources invites the avid interest of the rest of the world; if we do not make plans for our security and stability, the danger is that others will make them for us.
In a speech earlier this week in Riyadh, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to Washington and now chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, called for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to have a more vigorous role in defending the six member nations’ interests and promoting their voice in the world. Among the specific proposals he made were far greater military union and a move away from individual sovereignty to collective sovereignty.
There are those who see the GCC as a Gulf equivalent of the European Union. The parallels are obvious and neither has reached their final form. But while the Europeans started with specific economic aims and implemented them, first as the European Coal and Steel Community, then as the European Economic Community, followed by the European Community, and then became an increasingly political union as the EU, the GCC started with a full basket of economic, political, social and military objectives. Most, however, still remain on the drawing board.
For example, although there has been a degree of standardization throughout the GCC and a Gulf common market now exists with full mobility throughout the region of all Gulf nationals and companies, the plan for a full customs union remains incomplete and that of a common currency has stalled.
Nonetheless, the GCC will continue to develop and grow. That development will be driven as much by necessity as by grand vision. For example, in March this year, it was the GCC which started the ball rolling over Libya by demanding a no-fly zone because there was an urgent need for action there and then. The demand was presented to the Arab League which then took it to the UN. It was the same in October when the GCC called for Arab League action against Syria, again because of the immediate need.
Necessity is certainly there in the case of defense as well as in ensuring stability and security both within the GCC area and in the wider region. These two are inseparable; there cannot be GCC stability and security without regional stability and security.
The GCC already has a military wing – the Peninsula Shield Force. Made up of some 10,000 men from the armed forces of all six countries, it has served the GCC’s needs adequately until now. But in the changing regional circumstances and where the future is far from clear, it makes sense to review needs and strategy. The simple question is this: is the Peninsula Shield enough for future security considerations?
The counties of the GCC are sometimes accused of being more reactive than proactive, responding only after events have happened. They cannot afford such luxury. They must be proactive, planning for every eventuality.
It makes sense to pool military resources. Other countries are doing so. Even before their joint intervention in Libya, the UK and France had agreed to closer military cooperation — and that despite the fact that they remain fiercely competitive in the military sphere — far more competitive than any members of the GCC. In the Anglo-French case, cooperation is more about saving money. That is not the big issue for GCC members. More important is the need to pool skills and competencies.
But a common GCC military command should not be the only immediate issue for consideration. The common currency and customs union need to be put back on track. They make sense. With almost all the Gulf currencies already pegged against each other and against the dollar, there is already some kind of unity. As for fears of a euro-type crisis one day hitting a single GCC currency, they are unwarranted. There is none of the massive deficit spending in Gulf states so prevalent in some of the euro-zone states. Moreover, as the GCC’s $20-billion aid package to Bahrain and Oman this spring shows, the financial needs of one member already have an automatic call on the pockets of the others. That is perhaps because at the end of the day, there is already a deep sense of unity among GCC members, one that has existed long before the present states of the peninsula came into being. Europe is many nations; the GCC is not. It is one nation, divided in many states.
A stronger, more integrated GCC makes sense. There is safety in greater unity. There is also strength in greater unity. In these uncertain times, these are the driving forces that will extend the scope and action of the GCC.