The ‘Arab Spring’ is yielding some unexpected and exotic political fruits. The proposal to accept Jordan and Morocco into the Gulf Cooperation Council is certainly among the most intriguing, and it was followed almost immediately by Palestine’s request to join.
GCC Secretary General Abdul Latif al-Zayani announced that the current six members (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) would welcome Jordan and Morocco into the bloc, saying that meetings “to complete procedures” are to be initiated soon.
Given the swift response by an institution not known for the timeliness of its decision-making process, it is likely that there were earlier discussions on this matter at the highest level (although Kuwait, Oman and Qatar reportedly expressed reservations about the move, preferring a limited membership, like that of Iraq and Yemen, confined to cultural and sporting events).
Previously, Jordan had shown interest in joining the bloc, but its requests had been politely turned down. Yemen’s request for membership has stalled for years but the country, though currently embroiled in political unrest, hopes to join by 2016. On the other side of the region, Morocco has apparently been invited to join.
This development could mark the coming of age of an international forum with ambitions to be a sort of Arabian version of the European Union, but which has been marred by a weak institutional framework and erratic procedures. Created in 1981 as a bulwark against a perceived threat from Iran, the GCC’s original agreement was ambitious in scope and covered vital areas with the potential to reshape and modernize the economies of the Gulf, while fostering a common foreign and security policy in a region endemically at risk of destabilizing crises. These included:
- Harmonizing regulations in economy, finance, trade, customs, tourism, legislation and administration
- Promoting scientific and technical progress in industry, mining, agriculture, water and livestock
- Establishing scientific research centers
- Setting up joint ventures
- Establishing a unified military presence (the Peninsula Shield Force)
- Encouraging cooperation of the private sector
- Strengthening ties between populations
- Establishing a common currency by 2010
Within the GCC framework the six countries have undoubtedly made some progress, for example in creating a Customs Union, in freeing the movement of citizens (but not of foreign residents), in establishing a joint military force (which was deployed recently in Bahrain), in cross-border investments and capital movements and in a number of other minor fields.
However, there are two fundamental differences between the GCC and the European Union. First and foremost, the members of the EU have transferred national powers to EU institutions. The most visible, influential and famous of these is the European Central Bank, which exercises its monetary authority in full independence from any political interference, as enshrined in the Amsterdam Treaty.
In several additional key areas member states have devolvedtheir functions to the EU Commission or other supranational bodies:international trade, antitrust legislation, agriculture policy and visaregulation. The EU Commission issues directives through a common legal charter, which can span virtuallyany field, to which all national legislation must adhere.
In case of controversy or lack of compliance with adirective, the European Court of Justice can rule to force national governments to conform to EU legal provisions. Often pieces of national legislation are struck down by the EU Courts, which in some cases can even overturn the verdicts of national Tribunals.
Furthermore, one of the main achievements of the EU, the single market, allows for goods and other services to be traded freely across the EU and removes customs and passport controls between most member countries. One can travel from the Arctic to the Mediterranean without encountering a single frontier post. In essence the EU is a super-state with institutions that exercise powers even against the will of national governments, an elected Parliament and a body of laws and principles (the so called acquis communautaire), which is valid for all citizens and all the 27 countries. More recently the EU has adopted a Constitutional Treaty that establishes the fundamental principles guiding its actions and the decision-making rules.
By contrast, so far the GCC has been mostly a permanent structure of regional diplomacy, facilitating the exchange of views at the highest level. The implementation of decisions made by the GCC is the responsibility of national governments, not of common, independent institutions. The only (limited) exception is the Monetary Council, which is the precursor of the Gulf Central Bank to be established when, or if, the GCC issues a common currency. This will be the first genuinely independent supranational institution in the Arab world. But the plans for the monetary union, which was supposed to go intoeffect at the beginning of 2010, are proceeding slowly, with two countries (Oman and the UAE) out of six having declared their intention not to join.
The accession of the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies to the GCC could help inject new life into the integration project and would mark a historic step forward, so long as it is conducive to an institutional framework modeled on the EU, with a devolution of powers at GCC level.
A major goal could be the establishment of a true single market, styled on the EU, with completely free movement of capital, goods and labor, plus an antitrust authority with pervasive powers.
At present, border controls, trade barriers and protectionist measures among GCC members are still very much in place (even to transfer a used vehicle between two countries requires a dose of patience and money which could be put to better use). This hampers the development of industries and economic activity that could create the several million jobs needed to absorb an increasing youth population, which, as recent events clearly show, is ever more restless and impatient.
On the other hand, the proposed enlargement might turn out to be just a political card played on an increasingly shaky table. It could very well be that the GCC’s newfound hospitality is intended to raise the six nations’ profile in the region and is more of an internal security pact by which member states would intervene in the case of internal unrest. If this is the case, the GCC would merely gain a front row seat to events unfolding in Algeria and Syria (as it already has in Yemen).
But for the GCC to limit itself to merely preserving the political status quo of its member states would be a missed opportunity: United States President Obama delivered a major policy speech on the Middle East last month, which foreshadows an unprecedented involvement in the region outside the security arena, and a clear indication — underlined by the explicit mention of the pre-1967 borders between Israel and Palestine as a natural negotiation platform — that the wind has dramatically changed.
The enlargement of the GCC could either constitute a myopic move for preserving the status quo (and another form of diplomatic jostling) or the means to address the roots of the economic malaise in the region by following a cooperative approach along the lines of the EU. The next few months will tell.
Fabio Scancciavillani is chief economist at the Oman Investment Fund