Friday, September 30, 2011
Gulf Takes Advantage Of Middle East Policy Vacuum
Political confusion following the Arab Spring has allowed the GCC states to maintain leadership role in the region
By Francis Matthew
After some years of taking the lead in Arab affairs, the Arab Spring seemed to be about to push the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) back to their traditional secondary role in regional leadership. But six months after uprisings started, the political excitement of the early days of the Arab Spring has given way to confusion as neither reformers nor Islamists have clear political manifestos.
Both groups have failed to move on from their previous mindset of resisting the former dictators to developing new popular appeal and working to attract a following in the emerging democratic process, and the military establishments are stuck grappling with their interim responsibilities and have not been able to look outside their boundaries at what is happening in the region.
Historically, the Arab world was led by the large states of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. But the Camp David peace treaty isolated Egypt from the rest of the Arab world and forced it into persistent pro-Israeli and pro-Washington positions, the fall of Saddam and the ensuing civil war stopped Iraq from offering any authority, and Syria got stuck in its alliance with Iran. This situation offered the Saudis the opportunity to exercise more regional leadership than ever before, and they did a remarkable job.
Although the GCC as an institution was (and is) incapable of offering much leadership, individual member states like Saudi Arabia have succeeded in some startling initiatives: the Taif Accord ended the Lebanese civil war and remains the basis of Lebanese politics to this day; and the Abdullah Plan became the Arab Peace Initiative which is still the core of the Arab offering to solve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute; and although the 2008 Saudi effort to reconcile Fatah and Hamas failed, it laid the ground work for the eventual 2011 reconciliation.
Early this year, the uprisings of the Arab Spring took the political initiative back to Egypt (and Tunisia), and then to Libya, Syria and Yemen. But as these events still unfold, the leadership gap has offered the GCC a second chance to maintain its strong position in the Arab world. One example is how the UAE backed the idea of intervention in Libya, and led the GCC to formalise its support, which in turn pushed the Arab League to make a statement, which offered the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) necessary regional support for its actions in Libya.
The GCC's present strength is not just due to the failure of initiative from other Arab states, but is also due to its own strengths. The GCC states have come through the year's ferment relatively unscathed, as the traditional leaderships in the six GCC states work hard to keep in touch with their populations, and are skilled at massaging policy to meet popular demand, even if they lack the formal trappings of democracy.
Some GCC states have not succeeded in fostering this social harmony, most obviously in Bahrain where its unique demographic mix of Shiite and Sunni combined with economic discontent has caused serious trouble, and in part of Saudi Arabia where poverty remains an issue, despite the huge wealth available to the state. But overall, the GCC governments seem to have the confidence of their people. The mass uprisings and marches which dominated the political landscape of the Mediterranean Arab countries did not happen in the GCC states, with the exception of Bahrain earlier in the year. And the six states have a solid track record of sponsoring Arab cooperation, and open-market economic policies.
As the GCC states resume their regional leadership in 2012, they face a problem of what to do with this responsibility. There are some obvious challenges coming their way, for which they will need to prepare. The simmering clash between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran and the US will almost certainly heat up since Ahmadinejad could do with another bruising round of confrontation to strengthen his supporters' position in the 2013 presidential elections, and Obama will want to show how tough he can be. In addition, the continuing failure of the peace talks in Palestine will need some kind of response, which will require the GCC states to distance themselves from Obama's administration and its pro-Israeli stand.
But probably the most difficult of the challenges will be to work out how the GCC can answer the desperate appeals of the new governments emerging in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and possibly also in Yemen and Syria. They will be looking for political, but also financial support, the GCC has already offered in Iraq.
Iraq and Libya have substantial oil wealth of their own, so they will not need the vast investment that the others will need to restart their economies after 40 years of economic drifting. But the emerging governments in all the new Arab states are bound to be some kind of coalition of various forces, all of which will need the added confidence of clear regional support to carry their message back to their people and create the necessary confidence that things are moving in the right way. The GCC cannot help decide the make-up of these governments, but it will have to be ready to deal with who ever emerges.
This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 29/09/2011