MANAMA // As its nears its 30th birthday, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) is ready to expand its horizons. The GCC foreign ministers' meeting this week in Manama discussed a proposal by Bahrain to strengthen co-operation among the GCC's six member states - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE. The foreign minister of Kuwait, Mohammed Sabah al Sabah, called the discussion of the plan "very constructive". The proposal will be reviewed again by the foreign ministers at a future meeting before it is submitted to GCC leaders at their summit later this year in Abu Dhabi.
Details of Bahrain's proposal have not been made public, but officials attending the Manama gathering were clear about one thing: the future of the regional organisation lies partly to the east. "One of the things we agreed upon was enhancing economic co-operation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [Asean]," Mr al Sabah, told reporters in Manama on Tuesday. The secretary general of the GCC, Abdulrahman al Attiyah, concurred, saying the Bahraini proposal revolved around not only expanded trade with Asean but with Asian countries in general.
The foreign ministers also reached a tentative consensus on the Bahraini proposal for greater GCC military and security co-operation, Mr Al Sabah said. Well-informed sources said the plan called for establishing a joint naval force and unified defence umbrella. It also urges the strengthening of "Peninsula Shield", the GCC joint intervention force based at Hafar al Batin in Saudi Arabia. The force, established in 1984 during the Iran-Iraq war, is believed to be incapable of defending any of its member states on its own. It has been mostly viewed as a symbol of the desire by the GCC states for a common defence, rather than a realistic military tool.
Recently, however, the ground for improved co-operation has become more fertile. Joint radar and military telecommunications networks have been established by the GCC countries at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Also, the navies of the region have gained valuable experience through joint anti-terrorism operations with the US navy's fifth fleet, based in Manama. The foreign ministers' deliberations on security reflected the current political climate in the Gulf, said Ibrahim al Rumaihi, the former executive director of the Bahrain Institute of Political Development.
"The war in Iraq, the recent situation in Yemen, tension over the Iranian nuclear programme, the sanctions against Tehran, and the Iranian naval exercises - all present a security challenge to the GCC," Mr al Rumaihi said. Even as the Bahraini proposal recommended the establishment of a special joint fund as a way to ensure the GCC's financial stability and growth and deepen economic collaboration, the creation of a single currency continued to be a nagging issue.
Talking to reporters, Mr al Sabah insisted that delays in creating a single currency did not mean that plans for it had been scrapped. "The steps we make in that direction must be calculated, solid, and based on what we have learnt from others' attempts. The ultimate goal is to achieve complete economic integration," he said. The economic problems facing Europe are instructive, the foreign minister said. "What we have learnt from the current financial crisis in Europe and the challenges facing the euro is that for a unified currency to be successful, a sound monetary and fiscal policy must be first in place. You cannot just have a strong monetary policy agreement and relatively loose fiscal agreement."
Despite pledges of unity and co-operation, the GCC has the usual share of institutional tensions that accompany any large organisation. Bahrain's initial nominee to succeed Mr al Attiyah as the GCC's secretary-general, Mohammed al Mutawa, was opposed by Qatar over actions he allegedly took as Bahrain's minister of information during a flare-up over disputed Gulf islands. Later, it was agreed that Dr Abdul Latif bin Rashid al Zayani, a former head of public security in Bahrain, would take over next April.
Although not surprising, these internal rivalries and the lack of progress on a single currency are two reasons why the GCC has not emerged as a stronger force in the Gulf even almost after three decades, Mr al Rumaihi said. "Unity among the Gulf states, despite all that the Gulf states have in common, is still far from being achieved. It needs time," he said. @Email:email@example.com