Daunting challenges await incoming GCC secretary-general

Daunting challenges await incoming GCC secretary-general

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Dr. Nayef Al-Hajraf is the new secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). (AFP)

On Feb. 1, Dr. Nayef Al-Hajraf will take over as the new secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at a time when the region and the organization face great challenges. The recent GCC summit, which appointed Al-Hajraf, also gave him directives for speedy movement on the political, security and economic tracks. The heads of state also stressed the need for reform of the organization itself.

The new secretary-general’s start coincides with a major change in the EU, the GCC’s role model and inspiration. On Jan. 31, the UK will leave the EU, 47 years after it joined the organization’s predecessor. Brexit may trigger additional defections from the EU, as some other member states chafe under Brussels’ tightening grip, which they see as intrusive. While the new EU leadership grapples with the repercussions of Brexit, it is expected to review some of the difficult issues its previous leaders dealt with, including EU policies in our region and especially its relationship with Iran.

The GCC-EU relationship is important for both sides. While there are differences over political issues, the two blocs would benefit greatly from a closer engagement during the new GCC secretary-general’s term. Without Britain, the EU will lose its privileged position as the GCC’s No. 1 trading partner, which it has enjoyed for decades. China will then be the GCC’s top trade partner and the two sides are about to conclude a free trade agreement, which would further bolster their economic ties. This development should prompt the EU to redouble its efforts to rejuvenate economic ties with the GCC. For that to happen, the EU in particular should demonstrate more flexibility in trade negotiations. Its previous one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it approach could delay trade integration with the GCC bloc.

The 40th GCC summit, which was held in Riyadh in December, charted in some detail the path its member states wanted the new secretary-general to follow to achieve the key objectives of the organization. In addition to dozens of internal directives, two key public documents came out of the gathering: The detailed 14-page joint communique, which spelled out the leaders’ positions on a wide range of issues, and the shorter four-page Riyadh Declaration, which focused on the governance of the organization and innovation in the marketplace. 

Both documents stressed the need to preserve GCC unity and strength, and strengthen its leading role as an “oasis of stability, security, economic prosperity and social cohesion.” But they also acknowledged that “emerging and future challenges” required enhancing the roles of women and the private sector, and equipping the youth with the tools needed to face those challenges. The leaders also stressed that meeting those new challenges required the upgrading and reform of GCC integration implementation policies.

In a leading paragraph of the communique, the leaders directed the GCC Secretariat to speedily complete the implementation of King Salman’s GCC vision, which was adopted enthusiastically by other heads of state in December 2015. The slow pace of implementation of this vision and other integration projects has been at the root of popular frustration with the GCC. The sluggishness with which the GCC moved to implement this rather realistic vision can be attributed partially to external factors, but the inner workings of the organization are also to blame. 

The Riyadh Declaration referred to this problem in its last section on “reform of joint action mechanisms.” It stated that achieving GCC objectives, as spelled out in the GCC Charter, required the organization to learn from successful integration models around the world and adopt instruments that have proven effective elsewhere. It also called for sticking to strict timetables for the implementation of all integration steps and candidly addressing the challenges facing them — something that the organization has not observed in recent years.

Then, in unprecedented fashion for the GCC, the Riyadh Declaration called for enhancing “the mechanisms of transparency, accountability, and administrative and financial governance,” to enable the Secretariat to shoulder its responsibility for implementing leaders’ directives. The instructions are clear: After nearly 40 years, reform is urgently needed to make the organization more agile, dynamic and capable of meeting renewed challenges. The reforms should include merit-based hiring and promotion, transparent financial and personnel decisions, as well more effective oversight, evaluation and monitoring mechanisms.

After nearly 40 years, reform is urgently needed to make the organization more agile, dynamic and capable of meeting renewed challenges.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The Riyadh Declaration also referred to another major source of bureaucratic inertia that has slowed the pace of GCC integration: The GCC system has about 30 specialized agencies spread out throughout the Gulf. Some of these organizations were established decades before the GCC itself was established in 1981 and may have outlived their usefulness. They today appear to duplicate what other GCC entities do. Repeated attempts by other summits to streamline the work and governance of these entities to make them consistent with King Salman’s vision of 2015 and other directives have not fully succeeded. Some of these organizations have complied, but others have resisted the attempts to improve governance. As the Riyadh Declaration made clear, the new governance structure for those remaining organizations, which was adopted in 2015 and 2016, needs to be fully implemented to reduce waste and improve performance.

The new GCC secretary-general’s orders were made clear in the December summit. The challenge now is how to effectively carry out those orders, given the state of affairs in the region and in the GCC bureaucracy.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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