The stakes of the GCC summit

Sunday 11/12/2016

The strategic challenge for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coun­tries lies not in strengthening post-oil infrastructures but in strengthening and defending the position of the Gulf amid various regional and international schemes. To do that, there must be in place a realistic minimal level of common Arab concerted effort.

Despite the difficult times it faced the last few years, the GCC’s capacity to survive and maintain its cohesion is truly remarkable. The GCC has been in place for 35 years while similar experiments in forming regional Arab organisations have withered away. The Arab Union, for example, disappeared in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Arab Maghreb Union, created in 1989, has been frozen because of the conflict between Algeria and Morocco.

In the short run as well as in the long run, the GCC remains a necessity for the region. This is why it would be useful to examine its history to be able to think about its future.

The GCC was founded in 1981 as an answer to the security threat to the Gulf countries created by the war between Iraq and Iran and by Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime. Subsequent events in the region, particularly the wars of 1990-91 and of 2003 against Iraq, proved that the alliance was crucial to the Gulf countries economically, strategically and in terms of security.

While it was natural for the rich countries of the Gulf to come together in the face of external threats, a full economic and political complementarity between these countries remains out of reach because of what Western circles have described as “the fear and precaution of the small Gulf states from the older Saudi brother and its leading role”.

Nevertheless, the political leaderships in the Gulf consider it essential to coordinate their efforts when it comes to crucial issues while still accepting each other’s right to differ and be different — witness for example the differences in positions with respect to the “Arab spring” revolutions, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The GCC has, indeed, elaborated a strategy based on remaining effective regionally for the longest term possible, which enabled it to prevent Bahrain and, by extension the other Gulf states, from being swept by revolutionary winds and to heavily weigh in saving the Egyptian state in 2013.

New challenges, however, are pushing the GCC countries to lay out effective strategies in tune with rapid changes regionally and internationally. The conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq and the recent difficulties with Egypt call for a wider and deeper coordination with other Arab countries and possible alliances with other Muslim states, especially Turkey and Pakistan, in the region, in addition to clarifying relations with the international powerhouses on the basis of mutual interests.

Given the deteriorating conditions in parts of the Arab world, the Gulf countries have become weary of their strategic vulnerability created by, on the one hand, the rise in regional power and importance of Iran, Israel and Turkey since the 2003 war on Iraq, and, on the other, by the switch in the United States’ support during the Obama administration.

With the eastern Mediterranean and the eastern Red Sea coming into the equation, the strategic security space of the Gulf extends from the Levant to Bab el Mandab strait and Djibouti. This is reason enough to salvage Saudi-Egyptian relations regardless of the countries’ differences regarding the situation in Syria.

With the United States, US-Gulf relations will remain vital economically and strategically despite US favouritism towards Iran and the rise of Russia’s role in the region. It is best, therefore, not to wait for US President-elect Donald Trump’s version of the US strategy in the Gulf and the Middle East and proceed with drawing up a Saudi and Gulf vision of relations with Washington based on fighting terrorism, limiting Iran’s expansionism and returning to King Abdallah’s initiative for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Given their strategic position in a fast-changing region, the GCC countries must move quickly on two major parallel tracks. The first concerns strengthening their capacities in all fields, not just militarily, and focusing on fighting terrorism and other threats to their national security. The second track regards fixing the flaws in the composition of their populations.

Of course, other factors, such as quickly responding to changes in US and European policies in the region as well as strengthening relations with Asian and Islamic countries to counterbalance the role of Western powers, remain no less important.