When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was founded, 40 years ago this week, it filled a security vacuum created by Britain’s withdrawal from the region.
After more than 200 years of being the main security guarantor across most of the region, the British decided to exit the Gulf in December 1971, four years after leaving South Yemen in 1967.
The withdrawal prompted Gulf leaders to seek alternative security frameworks through consolidations and new alliances. Shortly before Britain terminated its military presence in the Gulf, the UAE was established as a union of seven emirates. By 1976, the proposal for the establishment of what would become the GCC took shape and discussions accelerated to find the right format.
Also in the 1970s there was a tenfold increase in the price of oil, and with this came a dramatic rise in the fortunes of oil producers along with the need to manage this new wealth to fund the sudden national transformations that followed. Most government institutions were not equipped for these new tasks without seeking help from neighbors and outside partners, thus making the case for a regional economic project to exchange the best rapid development practices.
The Iranian revolution in February 1979, the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by terrorists in November that year and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December underscored the emerging threats facing the region and accelerated the search for a new security framework.
The formation of the GCC was announced during a meeting of the heads of state of member nations on May 25, 1981 in Abu Dhabi, where its charter was adopted. It outlined the nature of the new organization as a platform for “coordination and integration between member states in all fields, leading to their unity.”
This reference to unity as a goal was important, to help guide the work of the new organization. The reference to “all fields” in the charter provided the impetus for the formation of institutional structures dedicated to various branches of integration, including political, economic, cultural and security.
The GCC is overseen by its political leadership. The heads of state meet once or twice a year to consult and adopt measures to further the group’s integration aims. Recently, a high-level commission was set up for economic and developmental affairs.
The foreign ministers of member states meet four times a year to vet integration measures and coordinate their approach toward regional issues, assisted by the Secretariat and countless ministerial and technical committees that deal with the details of the integration process.
The Secretariat, which employs more than 1,000 staff from all member states, hosts the main divisions of the organization. Its work is aided by many specialized entities that deal with specific issues, such as standards, patents, intellectual property and investment, as well as military and security organizations.
Since its inception in May 1981, the GCC has undoubtedly accomplished a lot of what it set out to do four decades ago.
Economic tools — such as the free trade area that was set up in 1983, the customs union launched in 2003, and the common market introduced in 2008 — have created fruitful synergies between member states that have led to improved efficiencies and dynamic markets.
In 1981, the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of the six member states was just shy of $200 billion, and most GCC states were performing poorly in terms of economic and social indicators. Today, combined GCC GDP is about $1.6 billion — representing eightfold growth. Other achievements include the establishment of the Unified Military Command in November 2018 and the GCC Police in 2014.
However, much remains to be done. The 41st GCC Summit, held in AlUla in western Saudi Arabia in January, identified several priorities for enhanced action. GCC leaders stressed the principle of collective security and mutual defense; that is to say, that the security of member states is indivisible and that any attack or threat against one member is an attack on all members, as stipulated in the GCC Charter and the Joint Defense Treaty.
The summit also adopted a common position on the threats emanating from Iran, including its nuclear proliferation, nuclear safety, ballistic and cruise missile development, drones, and destabilizing regional behavior.
On the issue of future international negotiations with Iran, the GCC made clear its firm belief that the scope of the talks must include all of these issues and that the council must participate in such talks. The summit also highlighted the common positions of members on other regional issues, including the Palestine question, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and Libya.
The leaders endorsed several directives on economic and developmental integration, including a new consumer protection law and an agreement to connect payment systems between member states.
The summit also stressed the need to enhance the instruments of good governance, transparency, accountability, integrity and fighting corruption. It urged that all directives issued by, and all agreements reached within, the council be faithfully implemented according to specified timetables.
The GCC has survived many challenges since 1981 and emerged stronger as a result of them. The most recent is the COVID-19 pandemic. Health organizations at the national and collective levels, including the Gulf Health Council, have been challenged to work around the clock to coordinate their response to the health crisis.
Informed by this recent experience, the GCC summit in January approved the establishment of the Gulf Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Such a center was proposed by Saudi Arabia in December 2015, but delayed and then expedited in light of the COVID-19 experience.
Guidelines for early warnings about public health, and a framework for public health preparedness and the response to health emergencies were also approved.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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