The rise of Iran, just a stone’s throw from the Arab Gulf countries, combined with the fall of oil prices which pressures those countries to diversify their economies, and the threats of regional instability, all this together is destined to leave an impact on the cohesion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Recently, the Foreign Minister of Oman, Yusuf bin Alawi, criticized a country he did not name when he said to the Russia Today TV station last month that “It is unacceptable that an Arab country engages in problems and crises then asks us to help to get it out of its impasse.” While the Minister gave the example of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, social media commentary insists he meant Saudi Arabia.
What is needed is a structural analysis not only of the principal challenges facing the GCC in the next few years, but also the effects of the fact that those challenges are emerging simultaneously to enhance and reinforce each other.
The current security environment in that part of the world is threatening in and of itself, just as it is threatening in its consequences within the GCC. It is known that not all members of the GCC see eye to eye in all the twists and turns that confront the group today. To what extent could that also be a dangerous security and political challenge? And how are internal differences likely to evolve in the new unstable regional environment?
The combination of Iran’s breaking out of its isolation and the need for economic and political reform seem to be the main aspects that will define the course of the GCC in the next couple of decades. The effects of regional instability are ultimately an auxiliary factor that depends in effect on the internal cohesion of the GCC. In other words, while regional stability enhances the GCC immune system, this system is primarily a function of the stability and strength of the GCC itself.
In the first challenge, which is Iran’s rise as regional power, the consequences could be seriously divisive if looked at from the various views within the GCC. Some countries in the group have had thriving traditional trade relations with Iran for decades. Iran does not see unity within the GCC as a particularly positive feature. It is expected that Tehran will not pull any trick to spread disunity with the Arab group.
The problem here is that no one in the region trusts the Iranians, and in fact, no one should. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) has a long record in tactics used to erode the national unity of any country it targets, let alone the unity of a group of countries. The choice would be to either engage in wider trade relations with a sanctions-free Tehran or keep a distance from Iran.
But any collective approach to deal with Iran should be structured in a way that accommodates the views of all members of the GCC. It is not only Iran that may play a divisive role, it is also any attempt from within the GCC to impose a policy devised from the perspective of one member and offered as a de facto collective policy. Imposing one point of view on all members is an easy road to weakening the GCC from within.
This choice should always be concluded by strengthening the GCC as a prior step before anything else. A stronger GCC is different than preserving the GCC. For it is difficult to conceive of a break in this group. But just preserving it in appearance is different than giving it a vibrant and dynamic quality. The group should move towards consolidating its unity productively with more vigor in regard to the potential threats faced by all members and by wide scaled internal talks to define an area of compromise and build a joint policy accepted by all members.
Even if it is certain that a detente with Iran is bound to happen at some point in the future, it is clear that this point will be reached sooner if the Iranians face a solid unity on the other shore of the Gulf.
Therefore, strengthening the GCC is a precondition not only for enjoying an independent trade policy with Iran but also for seeking a regional security arrangement that puts all regional governments on the same page in terms of preserving stability and security and achieving the economic development required.
An Iran free of sanctions will represent a temptation to reduce progress towards economic integration among GCC countries. This should be avoided. The goal of economic reform transcends any other issue if looked at from the point of view of future GCC stability.
The most reasonable agenda for the GCC members in the current delicate juncture, as one hopes to see, may include the following points:
Individual economic reform carefully measured not to cause any security risks or social backlash. A phased–out welfare state is possible if based on long–term (two to three decades) calculated steps. Economic reform must also be structured with an eye on inter-GCC trade.
- Enhancing GCC economic integration not only to facilitate economic reform but also as a strengthening factor for the unity of the group.
- In cases of differences in policies, which is natural and sometimes even healthy, transparency is the order of the day.
- No country should imagine that the others are less important. The GCC is like a puzzle board made of several pieces. Without any, the puzzle is not solved.
- Approaching Iran, whatever the selected approach, must always be a collective and jointly agreed-upon step. The policy towards Iran in particular must be collective. It should be debated within the GCC and possibly with global allies. But at the end of the day, it must be signed by all members.
- Collective defense is already there, but there is still room for many instrumental improvements.
The GCC can turn into the locomotive of economic development in the Middle East if it transforms its economies to self-sustaining economies regardless of oil prices or with minimal ties to the ups and downs of energy markets. The UAE has already gone a long distance on that road and the Saudis are heading the same way.
But at all moments no one should forget that the GCC is like a boat. None of the group’s members can claim his corner as his own property and pierce a hole in it while saying that he is free to do whatever he pleases in his own sphere. For if the boat sinks, all passengers will perish one after the other, starting with whoever sank the boat in the first place.
The GCC is faced with a tough juncture and mounting challenges. Either the members let it weaken in content (as it is unlikely that we shall ever hear that it has ceased to exist), or strengthen it even more. The prudent policy is to reinforce the cohesion of the forum. This will enhance the security of all members and affirm the leading role of the group in a region passing through one of its most critical moments for decades.