Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Jordan And The GCC, Some Remarks

By Hasan Abu Nimah
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 18/05/2011

The Gulf Cooperation Council leaders’ welcoming last week Jordan’s request to join their regional organisation came as a very pleasant surprise to both the government and the people of Jordan. The instant euphoria, however, has led to much confusion. Was the surprise message from the Gulf a signal of approval of membership or of the Jordanian request to join? Obviously it was the latter, but that should not detract from the significance of this decision, which marks a sudden change in an otherwise reluctant if not directly rejectionist reaction to previous Jordanian feelers.

Talk of the possibility of Jordan joining the council has been going on for years, but the possibility of realising this objective has always been considered practically remote. Despite the fact that there are significant factors in common between Jordanians and their Gulf neighbours, other than geographic contiguity, the Gulf states clearly wanted to preserve their special character.

During King Hussein’s reign, the relationship of the Hashemite Kingdom with many of the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia in particular, was really special.

Following the rise of “Nasserism” in the second half of the last century, and when the so-called conservative countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia were under intense “revolutionary” pressure from the Arab states whose regimes were overthrown by military adventurers, the two countries stood hand in hand in the face of the challenge. And when, in the early 1960s, Iraqi coup leader Abdul Karim Kassim threatened to annex the state of Kuwait on the basis of the claim that it was part of Iraqi territory, Jordan participated militarily in the Arab League force that was sent to Kuwait to confront the Iraqi threat.

Saudi armed forces were also stationed in Jordan to provide military support for the country following the simultaneous June 1967 Israeli attack on Egypt, Syria and Jordan. And until this pattern of cordial and varied committed cooperation was briefly shaken in 1991, when the Jordanian position was perceived as wavering with respect to the Iraqi aggression, Jordan used to receive substantial financial assistance from some Gulf states.

On top of all that, the Gulf region was a convenient market for Jordanian labour. Hundreds of thousands of Jordanian medical doctors, engineers, technicians, businesspeople, bankers, investors, teachers, advisers and many others offered valuable services to host Gulf countries. The remittances Jordanians sent annually home have been a steady and a substantial financial asset to the country’s often strained economy.

These are just a few examples of long-term and quite close cooperation between Jordan and the Gulf states.

To compliment a long history of close partnership establishing formal connection now should not therefore be seen as unusual. What may be unusual though is the rushed handling of the potential plan.

If the two sides have reached the conclusion that the right time has come for the Jordanian relationship with the GCC to be formalised, the process should take its normal course, which is inevitably slow, needing patience and fraught with tough hurdles.

Haste should be avoided. It is wrong and quite condescending on the part of some Jordanian analysts to oversimplify the gesture and to read in the Gulf leaders’ step a panic call for security assistance and to expect instant substantial economic benefits in return. It is also wrong and ill-advised to prepare for plucking the fruits even before the tree has been planted. This trend should be discouraged in favour of a more sober and dignified approach that would allow the process to mature naturally and correctly.

The last thing to be allowed at this very initial stage should be to reduce this grand project to a straightforward mechanical exchange of short-term urgent benefits, rather than a major potential step towards the long cherished Arab aspiration for total unification.

Even if the Gulf leaders’ decision had been to accept Jordan’s membership right away, prolonged negotiations to set the terms, which already apply to current members, would have taken years. Time would also be needed for prospective new members to adjust to the regional organisation’s circumstances.

Jordanians should indeed look forward towards the day when they become permanent members of the Gulf council. This will open vast economic opportunities for both sides, and it will also enlarge the space for movement of people and goods. It would activate mutually desired cultural and human interaction of peoples who naturally belong to the same mother nation.

Why should there be border restrictions for tens of thousands of holidaymakers who head northto spend the summer months in Jordan or further on in Syria and Lebanon? And why should the desire of the people of the northern countries to move south for pilgrimage, exploration or tourism be restricted by complex visa processes and border delays?

If Arab countries have now started to realise the value of togetherness, we should try to make the best out of this historic opportunity. We should see the European example as the right model for gradual unification. It took Europe over half a century to reach the advanced stage of unification it witnesses today, and the process is still far from complete.

We, in the Arab world, have more in common than Europeans do. The barriers that have been separating us could not hold the strong trends of people to interactively communicate nor their eagerness for linkage. The trend is against barriers and we should start to prepare for a fast globalised, borderless world community. We need also to comprehend the meaning of the Gulf offer that, apparently, is not limited to Jordan but includes distant Morocco as well. One hopes the circulating explanation that the offer is deliberately made to monarchies is incorrect. The last we need is to divide the Arab world into monarchies and others. Such approach would make of the Gulf offer a divisive rather than a constructive step towards more unification.

When the Gulf Cooperation Council was created three decades ago, there were serious concerns that the step would weaken, even undo, the Arab League. Such concerns were further enhanced by the creation, the following years, of two more Arab regional groupings. One was the Arab Cooperation Council made up of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Yemen, which quickly fell apart with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The other was the Maghreb Cooperation Council, which barely exists in theory.

While it may make some sense for the countries that are geographically connected to seek unification as an initial phase within a larger scheme towards total unity, it sounds unrealistic to ignore geography and compatibility.

Apparently, it was not only Jordanians that were taken by surprise by the Gulf leaders’ offer; Gulf countries and peoples were stunned as well.

The controversy is fast picking up and so is the debate. Even before the envisaged formal negotiations have the chance to start, manifestations of discontent are apparent in some Gulf countries.

The road ahead looks long and bumpy. The end result is by no means certain. It may be tempting to be optimistic at a very promising prospect, and yet it may be wise to match optimism with some caution.

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