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Coming of Age

Reflecting on the GCC at 40

by Matthew Robinson

This week the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) turned 40. Commentators have tended to look at the Council’s soft-spots and vulnerabilities rather than its tremendous achievements, its current trajectory and its international impact. This tendency is a reflection of the GCC often being compared to the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) sans context. The two pillars of transatlantic and European economic, political and military stability came out of the brutality of World War Two and the Soviet Union’s occupation of Central and Eastern Europe—and its threat to gobble-up more European territories. So, it took open warfare, the death of some 60 million people and the USSR’s expansionism to create the European Communities and NATO.


Thankfully, the Arabian Peninsula states have not had to go through total war, the piecemeal destruction of their societies or post-colonial foreign occupation. Instead, the six GCC members — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — choose to cooperate. External events may have sped-up the process of alliance, but the main driver behind GCC unity is that all six states share important familial ties, language, religion, cultural traits and heritage. There are differences of course. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is largely self-defined by centuries of resisting Ottoman dominance, culminating in the 1913 Arab Revolt, and the struggle for statehood in the 1920’s just as Bahrain — the ‘land of two seas’ — is the only Arab island state and its cultural openness stems from that geographic trait. Qatar, as a peninsula on a peninsula, has a unique world view as does the UAE (formerly the Trucial States of the Coast of Oman) owing to its long heritage as a sea-faring hub. Kuwait was, and remains, a key node in land-sea based trade and links inland cities, like Aleppo, to the coastal towns of the Gulf while the rise and gentle contraction of the Omani empire continues to inspire its national culture. So, yes, the GCC is not a monolith with a singular story-line that dances across the wadis and oases. Each state has a unique historic, geographic, economic and demographic reality that informs their identities. Yet there is more that binds than divides.


Far too many experts treat the GCC as an alliance of fate based on the many crises and conflicts that lap the Gulf shores. They look at the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Operations Desert Shield (1990), Storm (1991), Fox (1998) and Iraqi Freedom (2003), the use of the GCC Peninsula Shield Force in 2011 (Bahrain) and the two Qatar crises (2013/14 and 2017/21) and suggest that it is strictly deterrent-focused: meant to signal collective action to Tehran and Baghdad. Others, more interested in economic questions, wonder why the GCC has not fully implemented a currency or customs union and become a single, integrated, supranational, trading bloc like the EU. But the GCC is neither the EU nor NATO. It is a unique Arabian Council with a twist and is, by far the most influential diplomatic, economic and strategic organisation in the Middle East.


What the future has in store for the GCC remains guesswork and nothing should be taken for granted. However, the organisation has survived many internal and external crises because the members have prioritised cooperation more than anything else. Even the most recent Qatar crisis did not fully paralyse the GCC, which continued to operate at the technical level throughout. And, with a single Summit — this time the Al Ula Summit — unity was back on the table. The GCC remains the best hope for a stable and prosperous Arabian Gulf future.

28 May 2021

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