GCC’s remarkable commitment that could reflect new thinking
Riyadh hosted the 39th summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Sunday. Like clockwork, GCC summits have been regular events every year since the organization was established in 1981. Although this year’s summit was held in Riyadh and chaired by King Salman, Oman assumed the GCC presidency immediately after it was concluded. The sultanate will chair GCC meetings until the next summit, which is expected near the end of 2019. Then, the UAE will assume the GCC presidency for another year.
Some say that the mere fact the summit was held at all and that all six states were present makes it successful, considering the challenges facing the region, which has been in crisis mode. But, in fact, the summit produced several important outcomes in the political, economic, social and military areas, while also addressing some internal issues.
When addressing regional hotspots, the summit supported political solutions in Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, while expressing support for UN mediation.
The GCC summit made several statements about Iran in its final communique. First, it urged Iran to adhere to the principles of international law and the UN Charter, which call for good neighborliness between UN member states, respect for sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, without use or the threat of force. The GCC also rejected sectarianism and called on Iran to refrain from supporting sectarian militias and terrorist groups.
While the GCC has called for the peaceful resolution of the conflict with Iran, it expressed full support for the US strategy toward Tehran, whether in regard to its nuclear program, ballistic missiles program, destabilizing activities in the region or support for terrorism. The GCC supported US moves against Hezbollah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Houthi militia and other terrorist groups.
On the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the GCC expressed support for Saudi Arabia, praising its efforts to establish the truth of what happened and its commitment to “the rule of law, principles of justice, and to following all legal procedures to hold those involved in this crime accountable.”
The Riyadh Summit Declaration, the other document issued together with the final communique, expressed the GCC’s determination to fight terrorism and extremism through “emphasizing the values of moderation, tolerance, pluralism, human rights, and commitment to the rule of law and principles of justice.” This is quite a remarkable commitment that could reflect new thinking and a new direction for the organization and the region.
On security, the heads of state endorsed a recommendation of the GCC chiefs of staff to appoint Gen. Eid bin Awad Al-Shalawi as Commander of GCC Unified Military Command. His appointment is the final step in a five-year project to establish this command, which is based in Saudi Arabia and engages all military services in all six countries, with its own chain of command.
GCC military cooperation is based on a mutual defense treaty that was reached in the early days of the organization. It is bolstered by working with strategic partners such as the US and UK. This week, and the following weeks and months, will witness significant GCC-US military meetings on ballistic missile defense and cybersecurity, together with multi-discipline security meetings on Iran and countering terrorism.
More than other recent summits, a lot of space in the communique was dedicated to the GCC’s foreign partnerships, reflecting the organization’s growing regional and international role. Reference was made to bolstering partnerships, of differing degrees and writs, with the US, UK, China, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa, the EU, and many others.
On the intra-GCC crisis, the heads of state expressed gratitude to the emir of Kuwait for his mediation between the member states involved in the rift and his efforts to “mend the strains” between them. They expressed support for those efforts to continue “within the unified GCC household.”
The summit produced several important outcomes in the political, economic, social and military areas.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
On economic integration, the GCC renewed its commitment to achieving full economic union by 2025. It specifically called for solving the remaining steps in the completion of the customs union, which was officially introduced in January 2003 but has had a few outstanding issues, such as that the customs points between member states have remained, albeit with a significantly reduced role. Most of their responsibilities have been taken over by external points of entry, i.e., with the rest of the world. Tariffs are collected at those outer ports, not at intra-GCC crossings.
The common market, which was officially launched in January 2008, still has to be completed as there are some sectors that are not open to GCC investors. The problem is mainly that of uneven implementation by member states; hence the communique and the declaration were quite forceful in calling on member states to fully and speedily implement all GCC resolutions.
As part of its routine work, the summit adopted about a dozen new laws and regulations on economic and social issues, taking another step toward completing the body of GCC laws needed to harmonize the business environment in the six countries.
In this and previous summits, there have been serious challenges of managing the expectations of ordinary citizens, who are frequently frustrated with the slow pace of integration due to red tape and the resistance of some business sectors to deeper integration. Comments by heads of state urged the various GCC bureaucracies to move faster toward achieving the goals of the charter of 1981, which specifically states that the final objective is unity between the six states.
The GCC has the opposite problem of that which the EU faces, where average Europeans are opposed to rapid integration. Brexit was the outcome of one severe case of the jitters regarding ever-expanding European integration. It is quite the opposite in the GCC, where it is the people who are clamoring for more integration.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1