In a speech delivered at a conference in Riyadh in early May 2012, Abdul Latif bin Rashed Al Zayani, the secretary-general of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf – otherwise known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – addressed the numerous changes that have taken place in the region in recent years. “The new political, security and military challenges, at the regional and international levels, as well as the insecurity in the Arab region and the changes in the regional and global forces of power demand that we look into developing the GCC,” he 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 serve to highlight the central role that the council has played in the development of the region over the past three decades. Indeed, since the organisation was founded in late May 1981 the region’s GDP has expanded exponentially, from $192bn at the end of 1980 to around $1.56trn at the end of 2012, according to the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and the IMF. The GCC is currently among the wealthiest regions in the world, with a 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, member states – which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – currently face a number of serious challenges. These include a wide range of security issues, which cover the ongoing tension with Iran, continuing instability in Iraq and the impact of the Arab Spring, among others. Qatar has been at the forefront of these new developments. Gerd Nonneman, the dean of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, told OBG, “Politically, Qatar emerged as a major regional player during the Arab Spring because there was a power vacuum. … Qatar has a small, coherent leadership that has been action oriented. They perceive opportunities and go for it.”
On the economic front, an ongoing reliance on hydrocarbons-related income is considered to be a long-term liability. Finally, the region faces a number of pressing environmental challenges, including a water shortage, which is also expected to be a major issue moving forward. The Gulf states have implemented several new regional programmes to address these and other issues, primarily in the context of the GCC as a whole. Indeed, since it was first established the council has become one of the most influential supranational organisations not only in the region but around the world.
The formation of the GCC in 1981 was widely considered to be the logical outcome of years of cooperation and mutual support among the nations of the Arabian Peninsula. The countries that currently make up the council are linked by a shared history, culture and religion. The area that currently includes the GCC has been home to various civilisations for thousands of years. In the 3rd millennium BCE, for example, the Dilmun civilisation covered an area that now includes parts of Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia. By the time the Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 CE, the Gulf had been a major trading centre for millennia.
Over the next 200 years, early Islamic caliphs and other regional leaders were responsible for spreading the nascent religion over a wide geographical area, from Central Asia in the East to what is now southern Europe in the West. The Arabian Peninsula – and particularly the cities of Mecca and Medina – remained at the centre of the Islamic world for the next 1000 years. During the medieval period a number of other urban centres throughout the greater Middle East assumed the mantle of global Islamic capital, including, at various times, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad. Beginning in the 1300s the Ottomans took control of the region. During the Ottoman empire, which lasted until the early 20th century, Istanbul served as the de facto centre of the Islamic world.
The Arabian Peninsula, as the historical home of Islam, continued to exert considerable influence throughout the Middle East during this period as well. 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. 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 all 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. In 1961 Kuwait declared independence from the UK. Nonetheless, the British remained the primary power in the Gulf until the late 1960s, when the UK revealed that it planned to quit the region entirely by the early 1970s. Over the next few years the other countries that would form the GCC came into their own. In 1971 Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE all became independent nations.
Formation Of The Regional Bloc
Taking this shared history into account, not to mention the strong familial relations among the six states’ populations, the creation of the GCC a decade later was in many ways a “continuation, evolution and institutionalisation of old prevailing realities”, as the council’s own website says. With this in mind, the GCC Charter, which was issued on May 25, 1981 at a meeting of the leaders of the six member states in Abu Dhabi, aims to further strengthen the existing situation. The document calls for further integration and coordination in “economic and financial affairs; commerce, Customs and communications; education and culture; social and health affairs; information and tourism; and legislative and administrative affairs”.
Furthermore, under Article 4 of the charter, all GCC member states must commit “to stimulate scientific and technological progress in the fields of industry, mining, agriculture, water and animal resources; to establish scientific research; to establish joint ventures and encourage cooperation by the private sector for the good of their peoples”. Since its formation the GCC has made progress in most of these areas. Economic cooperation and integration has improved considerably since the council was launched, for example. The GCC has been especially active in terms of military cooperation. The Peninsula Shield Force (PSF), which was officially established in 1984, serves as a joint military force for the region as a whole, and has played a central role in a number of conflicts, including the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq in 1991. As of early 2013, the PSF boasted more than 30,000 troops, up from around 5000 when it was established.
In addition to economic expansion and the PSF, the GCC has launched or plans to launch a number of other regional initiatives in recent years. The GCC power infrastructure project, which was started in 2001, sought to connect the six member states’ power grids to one another, thereby enabling electricity sharing throughout the region. The first phase of the project, which connected Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar (the north grid) at a cost of around $1.2bn, came on-line in July 2009. Phase two of the project, which involves linking the UAE and Oman (the south grid) to one another, was launched in 2011 and is currently nearing completion.
The final phase of the project, which will connect the north and south grids to each other, is also currently under way. The project is expected to save the GCC region an estimated Dh18.4bn ($5.04bn) in electricity costs on an annual basis, as countries will be able to move electricity supply around the region based on demand. Additionally, in conjunction with the World Bank and the Arab League, the GCC has carried out a handful of studies on the topic of eventually linking the grid with Europe and Africa.
The $15bn GCC rail project, which is in the early stages of development, will eventually link all six GCC member states by rail. The project, which has been under discussion among GCC governments for at least a decade, is expected to be up and running by 2018. According to a late 2012 report released by the GCC’s General Secretariat, detailed engineering plans are expected to be completed by the end of 2014 at the latest, at which point construction is expected to begin. Indeed, some countries have already begun laying track. In late 2013 Qatar released details regarding the construction of an overland high-speed rail line to Saudi Arabia, including maps and a timeline. The planned 40-km-long Qatar-Bahrain Causeway is also expected to include a passenger railway line, in addition to four lanes for vehicle traffic.
The governments of the GCC member states are also working together on developing unified Customs policies for passengers and freight moving around the region by rail. Other initiatives currently under way or under discussion in the GCC include a water production and use rationalisation project; a regional food and drug authority; and a centre for public health.