By Arab News
Ever since it was formed in May 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been evolving gradually although the pace of that evolution has at times seem painfully slow.
So much so indeed that, for many, the organization was seen more as an aspiration of unity among Gulf states — its ultimate aim seemingly years away from realization. That is no longer the case. The two-day GCC summit in Riyadh this week may very well prove to be a watershed in the organization’s 30-year history.
The unity issue that dominated this week’s final communiqué from the GCC’s Supreme Council is clearly the next step in the organization’s evolution. The initiative by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to move the six member states toward union and into a single powerful regional entity received unanimous backing.
A panel of 18, consisting of three representatives from each member state, has been set up to undertake preliminary work on a union. The first report is due to be delivered next March.
No one should pretend that this is a task that will be easy. Each member state will quite rightly be concerned over issues of sovereignty and the impact of closer union on their people. One has only to look at the continuing spats in the European Union to realize how sensitive these issues can be. Moreover, we have already seen how tensions can arise in the GCC, for instance when Kuwait pulled out of the monetary union project, in part because it had wanted the central bank for the planned single currency to be located somewhere other than Riyadh.
Yet while the details of a final agreement will undoubtedly prove challenging, there is an over-arching imperative for our region of over 40 million people to provide a powerful international voice and a more integrated and effective economy. That means drawing closer together. There is strength in unity.
Just as a regional trading bloc, the GCC has everything to gain from a fully-fledged customs union and from the removal of fiscal and legal barriers to cross-border trade and financial flows. The 1,940-kilometer Gulf railway, with its high-speed trains, will be a physical manifestation of the stronger ties that will bind the GCC together.
The 2017 opening-date is probably now optimistic but the planning and surveying phase will be pushed on as a result of this week’s meeting. Work is also continuing on a project to link the power grids of member states.
In tandem with economic integration, the evolution of political union will give member states a stronger voice in international affairs. The GCC is already displaying greater confidence here.
The Supreme Council was unequivocal in its condemnation of the Syrian government’s “killing machine” and in its demands that the Assad regime stop the terrible violence and begin talking to opposition protesters. A further manifestation of unity came with the support given to Kuwait for the construction of the new mega port at Mubarak Al-Kabir, in the face of continuing protests from Iraq. Baghdad has still not abandoned its claim to the territory.
It also insists the port will strangle its shipping lanes in the narrow Khor Abdullah waterway, which separates the Iraqi and Kuwait coasts off Bubiyan Island. The GCC has demanded Iraq normalize its relations with Kuwait in line with UN Security Council rulings.
No less forceful was its demand that Iran cease meddling in the internal affairs of member countries in an attempt to stir up sectarian strife.
Looking back on this highly significant summit, it is important to appreciate that the wide level of agreement was not simply achieved at the meeting itself. The summit indeed was also the culmination of many months of extremely hard work by the GCC secretariat, under Abdullatif Al-Zayani. His officials have criss-crossed the region, working up all the agreements that were inked this week. This is surely a sign that the organization is coming of age and deserves to be regarded with renewed respect.
The summit has pointed convincingly toward an exciting new regional future. Everyone involved should be congratulated.