Friday, June 1, 2012

Is It Time For An Arab Gulf Union?

Potential danger for the Gulf lies in the evolution of US policy. America shows signs of tiring of Middle East conflicts

By Patrick Seale

Prompted by the Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, the six member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are considering establishing closer ties. A project on the agenda is the possibility of advancing from a mere regional bloc, which the GCC has been since its foundation in May 1981, to some form of confederation or political union.

This difficult and highly controversial subject is expected to be debated at the highest level when the GCC Supreme Council meets in Riyadh in December. In the meantime, all six governments will be giving careful attention to a report on the subject prepared by a committee of experts.

The objections to a union are readily understood. Each state is clearly anxious to retain control over its finances, and over its foreign and domestic policies. Each state will be reluctant to yield to others part of its sovereignty. Earlier projects for a single currency and a customs union never saw the light of day. They were put on one side, even if not discarded altogether. It was evidently felt that the time was not ripe. The subject, however, is now being revived.

The ambitious confederation project was expected to be discussed at the recent GCC meeting in Riyadh on May 14. Not all the GCC states were represented by their heads of state.

What is driving the GCC to consider closer ties? What is the motivation behind the union project?  Evidently it is the realisation that the region is entering a period of great uncertainty and potential danger. Proponents of the union – the Saudi King first among them – clearly believe that union would give the Arab Gulf a stronger voice and greater weight in international affairs, and would thereby strengthen its capability to defend itself and its interests in a hostile world.

The most immediate danger to the rich Gulf States may lie within the Arab world itself. The uprisings of the past year have dealt damaging blows to several Arab economies, those of Egypt and Yemen in particular. Tunisia has seen its income from tourism collapse. Syria is in the deadly clutches of a destructive civil war. Jordan has been spared an uprising but is in great need of help. Poverty and over-population are the key problems of many of these countries, where a substantial slice of the population struggles to survive on less than $2 (Dh7.34) a day. In great contrast, average per capita income in the GCC last year was $33,005, while the GCC’s combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was no less than $1.3 trillion.

This huge disparity between rich and poor in the Arab world is potentially a source of great danger. If much of the region sinks into post-revolutionary chaos and violence, the Gulf will not escape the backlash. Individual Gulf States already help out their poorer Arab neighbours with bilateral aid programmes. But it may be time for the GCC as a whole to set up a well-funded Arab Bank of Reconstruction and Development dedicated to rescuing weaker Arab economies. The model is there in the shape of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which helped revive Eastern Europe and Russia itself, after the collapse of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Another potential danger for the Gulf lies in the evolution of American policy. The United States shows signs of tiring of Middle East conflicts, which explains its profound reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria. Increasingly, it is turning its attention to the Asia/Pacific region in order to contain what it sees as the rising challenge from China. As a result, it may be unwise for the Gulf to rely unduly on American protection.

America’s priority today is to protect Israel, not the Arabs. The reason is simple. While Israel and its American friends exercise great influence in Washington, Arab influence is waning because the US is becoming less dependent on Arab oil and gas. Rising oil production in Brazil, Canada and in the US itself is changing America’s perceptions of where its interests lie. The Arabs should not be surprised if, over the coming years, the US were to reduce its military presence in the Gulf. Even today, if something like the 1990 Kuwait crisis were to occur, would the US be willing to deploy 500,000 men to resolve it? After the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and in today’s harsh financial climate — the US and its European allies would not have the will or the means to intervene to protect an endangered Arab Gulf state as they did in 1991.

So long as the Palestine problem remains unresolved, Israel will remain a major threat to all the Arab states – the Gulf States included. Israel’s current policy is to colonise the West Bank and deny the Palestinians statehood, while at the same time retaining and reinforcing its military dominance over the entire region. In pursuit of this latter objective, Israel — and its neoconservative American friends – pushed the US into invading and destroying Iraq, a country Israel saw as a potential threat. Israel is now pushing the US to weaken and destroy Iran, together with its nuclear programme, which it sees as a potential threat to its own regional monopoly of nuclear weapons. How does this affect the Gulf?

Any military strike against Iran by Israel or the US could have disastrous consequences for the Arab Gulf since it could find itself in the line of fire. Rather than fearing a US-Iranian agreement on the nuclear issue, the Arabs should welcome any such deal as it would remove the threat of an Israeli attack.

These are only some of the many threats facing the Arab Gulf. The increasingly destructive civil war in Syria; the deepening sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites; the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region are other potentially destabilising trends which could affect the stability and security of the Arab Gulf.

Faced with these formidable challenges, King Abdullah is certainly right in thinking that the GCC needs to tighten the bonds between its members, pool their resources, coordinate their strategies, streamline their aid to bankrupt Arab countries and improve the joint effectiveness of their armed services in order to present a strong and unified face to the world.

-This commentary was published in Gulf News on 01/06/2012
-Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire

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