European Council on Foreign Relations

A Gulf Union to bolster regional security?

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Since 2011, member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have expressed interest in full political and economic integration in a much-touted Gulf Union. As regional organisations are strengthening amidst an increasingly multipolar international order, the move is not illogical. But in the Middle East and North Africa, regional organisations – be they the GCC, the League of Arab States, or the Organisation of the Islamic Conference – have suffered from a lack of vision and coherence. As the GCC itself has witnessed mixed fortunes at best, observers are reminded that regional integration here has been a schizophrenic affair, which begs the question: whether on economics, trade or security, what is a union good for?

Enhancing trade, boosting common security, and projecting power through a stronger foreign policy – the hallmarks and benefits of integration – are not especial priorities or concerns for the Gulf states. At the economic level, gains from integration are marginal. In contrast to other economic blocs such as the European Union, the Gulf countries trade vastly more with other countries and regions than they do with each other and certainly contribute relatively little to developing the infrastructure and institutions of its most important regional body. Though there are benefits to developing a common market with a customs union, unified taxation and regulatory regimes, and free movement of labour, these countries are so rich that seeking financial benefits that might accrue from integration is not a priority.

When created in 1981, the GCC had one acute anxiety that informed its entire raison d'être: the Iranian Revolution. Iran’s demographics and economic power, and its seeming desire to export its brand of political ideology, threatened the Gulf leaderships. But given that the Gulf then and now was afforded the protection of an American security umbrella, the GCC did little more than convene discussions about mutual security. In the intervening three decades, moves towards integration on security have been haphazard and incomplete. Though many of the Gulf states – chiefly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are now among the world's top arms purchasers – have sought to build up their own armies, they conduct neither trainings nor joint military exercises, and at a professional level the capacity of their forces still need time to mature.

Unified military command

In the realms of security and foreign policy remain considerable mistrust and differences of opinions among the GCC states that impede collective decision making. Fair enough – these are questions that create tensions in even the most advanced regional blocs. The EU for one still struggles to set a strong collective policy on security and defence. Accordingly, the decision at the 2012 GCC summit to create  a unified military command in the Gulf cannot be taken at face value. Given bureaucratic and operational constraints and still-limited co-operation between GCC states on defence arrangements, a collective security architecture cannot simply be wished into existence. For the time being this decision can be read largely as sending a message to Tehran—the decision to base the unified command headquarters in Bahrain, the most visibly troubled Gulf country, also sends a wider signal that the GCC will seek security-oriented solutions to political discontent inside its borders.

Discussions in the Gulf also reveal a genuine paranoia about the meaning of the US pivot to Asia. If projecting power in the Far East will be the geopolitical priority of the Gulf’s most important ally, these states feel that they will become increasingly responsible for their own fate. The worry is slightly overblown – so long as the Straits of Hormuz require free passage for a fifth of all global petroleum and gas supplies, the US will retain its strategic presence there. But whether and for how long petroleum and natural gas will remain the Gulf’s liquid currency is suddenly a more uncertain prospect as alternative energies come onstream.

Regional protection

The fears that underpin the Gulf’s considerations are not limited to hard security. The Gulf is both food and water insecure, and one scenario that animates conversations is of a Fukushima-scale disaster that might follow if Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility should suffer earthquake damage and leach radioactive waste into the Persian Gulf, on which several of the GCC states rely for desalinated water supply. But developing strong crisis management systems for these types of disasters require a more functional relationship with Iran, though a collective and less antagonistic relationship between the Persian Gulf states and its neighbour would certainly help.

In watching conversations about a possible Gulf Union, it seems that the real problem that the GCC is trying to confront are threats to the legitimacy and authority of the leaderships in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Certainly this goes some way in explaining the desire to include monarchies outside the Gulf – namely Jordan and Morocco – in the fold. Yemen, a country actually in the Gulf, still remains outside the GCC. Other GCC decisions, such as a recent move to allow for expanded jurisdiction that would permit wanted persons in one GCC country to be detained in any of the others.

This begs a more fundamental question for the GCC states if they pursue more intense regional integration: what role for its citizens? At a time where global trends reveal evermore politically informed citizens, Gulf states should also allow for dramatic projects that transform their political landscapes to support the aspirations of their own people.

This article was first published in "Al Arabiya" on 7 May 2013.

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