GCC’s foreign policy consensus helps maintain peace
Coordination and cooperation in the political and security areas have been part and parcel of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) integration since the bloc’s inception in 1981. Since then, the GCC has worked on parallel tracks — political, defense, internal security and economic integration. This is in marked contrast to the EU, which started as an economic undertaking in the 1950s and only later embarked on the political and security tracks.
The initial priority given by the GCC to foreign policy was needed because the organization was born at a time of severe regional crises; a condition that has continued. In February 1979, the Iranian revolution upended Gulf stability, as the new regime in Tehran started to export its revolution by recruiting, training, arming and funding terrorists from Iraq and the GCC countries. The December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan destabilized another country in the region. In September 1980, the Iran-Iraq war started, making the Gulf a theater of operations, with regular attacks on oil tankers, threatening the GCC countries’ main source of wealth.
The GCC was formally announced in Abu Dhabi in May 1981, in part to deal with these developments. While the region has enjoyed intermittent periods of calm since then, 40 years later the region is still in crisis, which has thrown regional non-GCC countries into political chaos, shattered their peace and security and laid waste to their economic well-being. By contrast, GCC states have preserved their security and stability, and have thrived economically. There should be no doubt that the GCC states’ harmonized diplomacy and foreign policies have contributed greatly to sparing them the fate that has befallen their neighbors.
Foreign policy harmonization takes place within the GCC bodies set up by the 1981 charter. The Supreme Council, composed of heads of state, usually meets twice a year and has the final say on foreign policy. It is assisted by the Ministerial Council, composed of the foreign ministers of member states, which meets more frequently, at least four times a year. To prepare for these meetings, senior officials from the GCC foreign ministries debate and evaluate policy proposals about positions on regional and international issues. Once agreed, those policies are encoded as written directives issued by heads of states, from which public declarations are derived.
In addition to the directives adopted in Supreme Council meetings, the Ministerial Council adopts additional, intersessional directives to cover emerging issues. These directives are adopted by consensus. Throughout its history, the GCC has succeeded in adopting common policies on most regional and international issues. When differences in views arise, the regular meetings provide useful venues to manage those differences and, in most cases, arrive at an operational consensus.
Other regional blocs have different mechanisms to coordinate their foreign policies. For example, during its formative decades, the EU was focused on economic integration. For political and security coordination, it relied on NATO. However, the Balkans crisis in the early 1990s underscored the need for the EU to develop new methods and tools to respond collectively in the foreign policy area. So, in 1993, the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) was agreed, under which member states adopt common policies, undertake joint actions and pursue coordinated strategies in the areas in which they can reach consensus. Previous EU attempts at political integration did not always succeed due to member states’ concerns about sovereignty and different foreign policy prerogatives.
Throughout its history, the GCC has succeeded in adopting common policies on most regional and international issues.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The CFSP process is dominated by the member states and usually requires the unanimous agreement of all national governments, but it does not preclude individual member states from pursuing their own national foreign policies or conducting their own national diplomacy. There is, nevertheless, the expectation that member states need to ensure that their national policies are in line with agreed EU strategies and positions (imposing sanctions on a particular country, for example).
The CFSP remains a work in progress. Although the EU has made considerable strides in forging common policies on a range of international issues, the CFSP’s credibility is too often called into question because of the bloc’s inability to reach consensus, as was the case with the 2003 Iraq war, for instance. In addition, the failure to follow through or ensure compliance by member states contributes to the skepticism.
The Lisbon Treaty, which became effective in 2009, sought to bolster the CFSP by increasing EU visibility on the world stage and making the bloc a more coherent foreign policy actor. It established the office of high representative for foreign affairs and security policy to essentially serve as the EU’s chief diplomat or foreign minister. The Lisbon Treaty also transformed former EU “external relations” bureaucrats into a diplomatic corps (the European External Action Service) to support the high representative.
In recent years, European leaders have spoken about the need for “strategic autonomy” — i.e., to become a more assertive and robust global actor. Concerns about the future of EU-US relations, especially during the Trump administration, led to further calls for the EU to become more independent from the US and NATO.
As a union of 27 sovereign countries, it is not always possible for the EU to forge a unified foreign policy on some key issues. Differences in views are inevitable among EU member states, which still retain different approaches, cultures, histories, relationships, and often different national interests when it comes to foreign policy.
Although less formalized, the GCC’s foreign policy-making process is in reality similar in the final outcome, by debating and managing foreign policy issues and seeking to adopt common views.
At the GCC’s AlUla summit in January, the heads of state endorsed an array of directives submitted by the Ministerial Council on all the important issues. Discussions took place over several days of virtual and in-person meetings until consensus was reached and encoded in detailed directives on a wide range of foreign policy issues. The real proof of the value of these exercises is evident in the final communique that was signed at the summit, presenting a common position on regional and international issues. The Ministerial Council subsequently met in March and June to discuss new developments and go through a similar process of consensus-building.
As in the EU, sovereign nations can have diverse views on foreign policy developments. The role of regional integration bodies is to seek to bridge the gaps and achieve consensus either immediately or over a relatively short period of time, while managing differences if they persist by building on common interests and preserving cohesive harmony between their members.
- Dr. 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