At a conference in Riyadh in May 2012, Abdul Latif bin Rashid Al Zayani, the secretary-general of the GCC, addressed the numerous changes that have taken place in the region in recent years. “The new political, security and military challenges – as well as insecurity in the Arab region and the changes in the regional and global forces of power – demand that we look into developing the GCC,” Al Zayani said. “We need to reset the GCC priorities and strategic objectives to empower them to match the changes and events that we are witnessing today.” Al Zayani’s remarks highlighted the central role that the council has played in the development of the region over the past three decades. Indeed, the GCC is among the wealthiest regions in the world, with per capita GDP in excess of $30,000 at the end of 2011, compared to a global average of around $10,000.
While the GCC has seen unprecedented economic expansion over the past 30 years, its member states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – face several challenges. These include security issues that range from ongoing tension with Iran, continuing instability in Iraq, internal conflict in Syria and the impact of the Arab Spring.
On the economic front, reliance on hydrocarbons-related income throughout the area is considered to be a long-term liability. The region also faces various environmental challenges, such as a water shortage. The Gulf states have implemented a number of regional programmes to address these issues.
The GCC’s formation in 1981 was seen as the logical outcome of years of cooperation and mutual support between the nations of the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, the countries that currently make up the council are linked by a shared history, culture and religion. The Arabian Peninsula, as the historical home of Islam, has often exerted considerable influence throughout the Middle East. In the early and mid-19th century, many of the sheikhdoms in the Gulf signed maritime treaties with the British empire, which was considered to be a major defeat for the Ottomans at the time. Indeed, by the early 20th century the British had concluded agreements with most of the local tribes and other authorities in the Gulf, shoring up their influence over a wide area that today includes all or part of the six GCC member states.
In September 1932, after 30 years of expansion and consolidation in central Arabia, the Al Saud family announced the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While Kuwait declared independence from the UK in 1961, the British remained the primary power in the Gulf until the late 1960s, when the UK revealed that it planned to quit the region by the early 1970s. Over the next few years the other countries that would eventually become members of the GCC came into their own. In 1971 Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE all became independent nations.
In addition to economic expansion, the GCC has launched or announced plans for a number of other regional initiatives in recent years. The GCC power infrastructure project, which was launched in 2001 and completed in early 2012, effectively linked the power grids for each of the GCC’s six member states. The first phase of the project came on-line in July 2009 and connected Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar (the north grid) at a cost of around $1.2bn. Phase II of the project involved linking the UAE and Oman (the south grid) to one another. The final phase of the scheme saw the connection of the north and the south grids. The project is expected to save the GCC region an estimated BD1.9bn ($5.01bn) in electricity costs on an annual basis, as countries will be able to move electricity supply around the region based on demand. Furthermore, countries with high electricity generation costs, such as Oman, can import relatively cheap electricity from elsewhere in the GCC. Additionally, in conjunction with the World Bank and the Arab League, the GCC has carried out several studies on the topic of eventually linking the grid with Europe and Africa.
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