x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Success of GCC union requires moving slowly

For all the sense that more GCC integration makes, the challenges to a European Union-like structure is fraught with questions, challenges and potential pitfalls.

When leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council meet in Riyadh today, they are likely to discuss a Saudi proposal for closer integration of the GCC into a union, potentially starting with Saudi and Bahrain.

This latest proposal, details of which are still vague, would likely target plans for future integration of economic and foreign policies among Gulf Arab states, especially in the wake of the Arab uprisings that have shaken the region for over a year.

The idea of a closer union amongst the existing GCC countries makes sense: the six countries share similar histories and language, broad political and economic systems, and have a similar sense of identity and common security concerns. There is already close coordination is some matters, mainly defence. For now, the idea of mutual security rests on a shared view of Iran as the biggest risk to the GCC region. And each, with varying degrees, believes the best thing for Syria is for Bashar Al Assad to go.

And yet, for all the sense more GCC integration makes, the challenges to a European Union-like structure is fraught with questions, challenges and potential pitfalls.

The biggest logistical issue facing integration is the sheer size and political weight of Saudi Arabia compared to other GCC nations. Saudi Arabia has, by a long way, the largest population, economy, land area and army. Any discussion of closer ties must take into account what that would mean for the other members.

Regional threats are likely to change over time. While today Iran may be the most pressing challenge, the region might one day diverge on security views. Saudi shares long borders with Iraq and Yemen, both potential sources of future instability. An integrated GCC would necessarily focus on challenges to its largest member. As such, smaller but ascendent states, the UAE and Qatar among them, may find that in a closer union their individual voices are weakened.

Social changes would also pose a challenge. What would closer integration mean for the expectations of citizens? And how about economics? The failure to implement a Gulf monetary union, not to mention the EU's own economic woes, are cautionary examples of how unions can fail.

The UAE has spent many years forging an independent stance in world affairs. Closer integration with its neighbours is welcome, but not at the expense of losing the country's unique influence. Whatever comes out of today's GCC meeting, cautious progress on further integration will be the only way forward.