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Volume 41, Number 4July/August 1990

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The Next Decade

Written by John Christie
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

In 1984, writer John Christie and illustrator Norman MacDonald surveyed for Aramco World the early years of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Now, as the GCC moves towards its second decade, they review the organization's progress so far and its prospects for the future.

Late last year the expressways of Muscat, the capital city of the Sultanate of Oman, were decked with the national flags of five of the country's Arab neighbors, and with portraits of the sultan and the leaders of the countries of the Arabian Gulf. At night strings of colored lights outlined major buildings along the city's thoroughfares, and floodlighting of Muscat's historic forts and modern public buildings emphasized the festive appearance.

There were good reasons for the city's hospitable and decorative aspect. Oman was playing host to the 10th summit meeting of the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the six-nation organization which groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

As well as celebrating 10 years of successful existence, this GCC summit was the second to be held under the aegis of the 1988 ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war. In previous years, the search for a peaceful end to the conflict had been a major preoccupation of the GCC. But now, with that threat to regional security much diminished and the international political climate greatly improved, the GCC leaders were able to focus their attention more closely on the promotion of the organization's long-term aims and objectives.

In his welcoming address at the opening session of the summit, Oman's Sultan Qaboos spoke of the rapid and fundamental changes taking place in the international arena. The GCC, the Sultan said, is "acutely aware of the new era which the world is witnessing at this time, and the momentous political and economic developments which are taking place." He continued, "Our council must have a progressive role and an effective presence in this changing world". The summit's final communique reiterated the point, stating that the GCC "follows with profound interest the developments and events taking place in the world" and expressing the hope that such developments will lead to better international understanding and to just solutions to regional conflicts, especially Middle Eastern issues.

As it moves into its second decade, the fundamental concepts of the GCC remain the same as at the organization's beginnings (See Aramco World , January-February 1984): the strengthening of close cooperation between the six states in social, economic and political affairs and the reinforcement of the common cultural, religious and social links they already enjoy. The GCC charter does not define the organization's ultimate goal, nor does it lay down any limits to the kinds or degrees of cooperation that may be reached. Senior GCC officials have talked of the grouping adopting a confederal status of some kind, but there is neither urgency nor compulsion to reach that objective.

In April 1985, Prince Sa'ud Al Faisal, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, said in an address to a meeting of the Arab Thought Forum in Riyadh that if the GCC had a role to play in the achievement of Arab unity, then the essence of that role would be to provide a model for imitation. Since Prince Sa'ud delivered that speech, two new Arab groupings, both patterned on the GCC, have come into being. A four-country ministerial meeting in Baghdad, Iraq, in February 1990 signed a treaty forming the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), an association linking Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and North Yemen. Since the unification of North and South Yemen shortly thereafter, the ACC has announced that the new Yemeni Republic will take North Yemen's seat in the organization. The aims of the ACC are largely economic, looking to establish a common market among its members.

At almost the same time, a meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, created a third Arab cooperative grouping in the shape of the Arab Maghrib Union (AMU). This brought together the North African states of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. The GCC warmly welcomed the formation of both organizations. Among them, the GCC, the ACC and the AMU comprise 15 of the 21 member countries of the Arab League, whose charter specifically encourages regional cooperation, represent an overwhelming majority of the total Arab population, and easily account for the bulk of the Arab world's economic capacity. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the GCC can take the creation of the ACC and the AMU as a compliment.

An undoubted strength of the GCC lies in the continuity of the leadership of its member countries. Five of the present-day heads of the GCC states were at the inaugural meeting in Abu Dhabi in 1981: Shaykh 'Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, Emir of Bahrain; Shaykh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait; Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman; Shaykh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar; and Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, President of the UAE. The sixth, King Fahd ibn 'Abd al-Aziz Al Sa'ud, King of Saudi Arabia, acceded to the Saudi throne in 1982, and has attended all the summit meetings since that year. The same kind of continuity in office applies to the GCC foreign ministers, who form the organization's ministerial council.

An agreeable touch at the 10th summit was the first award of honors to GCC citizens who have made outstanding contributions to their countries. At a ceremony at al-Bustan Palace, all six heads of state took part in presenting the medals to 80 personalities from all walks of life -among them rally driver Said Rashid al-Hajry from Qatar, Dr. Ridha Obaid of Saudi Arabia for services to science, Yusuf bin Issa al-Falaij of Kuwait for charitable work, Bahrain's Ibrahim al-Urayidh for poetry, Dr. Mohammad Hadi Amiri of the UAE for his contribution to industry and Olympic sportsman Mohammad bin Amor from Oman.

The common heritage and the shared culture of the people of the region is basic to the cooperative thrust of the GCC. A Saudi Arabian visitor to Kuwait, for example, would feel far less of a foreigner than a German in France or some other country of the European Community. Equally significant is the similarity of the systems and forms of government in the six GCC countries, a characteristic unique to the group.

The Secretariat General is the engine room of the GCC ship. From its newly-built headquarters in Riyadh, it has much the style and scope, on a smaller scale, of the United Nations Secretariat General. With a staff of less than 300, the secretariat is responsible for drafting legislation and regulations to implement the measures agreed by the Supreme Council. It initiates studies of projects and produces reviews and reports on actual and potential areas of cooperation. The GCC's many committees, which meet at regular intervals to consider new fields of coordination and make recommendations for action, are served by the Secretariat, which also produces a steady flow of reports and information for consumption outside the GCC, in Arabic and other languages. Its budget, remarkably modest for an international organization, is 78 million Saudi Riyals ($20.2 million), with costs shared equally by the member states.

The first, and so far the only, holder of the office of GCC Secretary General is Abdullah Yacoub Bishara, an ebullient and articulate former diplomat who was Kuwait's ambassador to the United Nations. His two assistant secretaries, responsible, respectively, for political affairs and economic matters, are Saif bin Hashil al-Maskari, an Omani, and Saudi Dr. Abdullah Ibrahim al-Kuwaiz.

Six years ago, most of the GCC's projects and planned developments were, as Bishara said at the time, "still on the drawing board". Some still are; but the GCC's progress in implementing its policies has been consistent and steady. The notices saying "GCC Nationals" above immigration desks at the international airports of the six member countries are one small indication of new intra-GCC laws and regulations which give GCC citizens complete freedom of movement, without need for visas or permits, among the six countries.

The ministers of industry form the Industrial Cooperation Committee, which drew up the principles of a long-term strategy for uniform industrial development in the region. In meetings since 1984, the ministers have formulated a strategy to optimize the competitiveness of existing local industries and drawn up plans for the establishment of viable new and jointly-integrated industries which avoid regional duplication.

The GCC agricultural sector has a similar strategic plan for a joint agriculture policy, which the six agriculture ministers administer. The region is now self-sufficient in wheat and even exports the grain outside the Middle East, due to huge increases in wheat production by Saudi Arabia in recent years.

The GCC's regional planning also covers more visible infrastructure schemes, including road and rail networks and public utilities. The Gulf Highway, running along the eastern length of the Arabian Peninsula, is already a reality, as was demonstrated by Shaykh Jaber al-Ahmad when he traveled to the 10th summit by automobile. His journey from Kuwait to Muscat covered more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and took him down the east coast of Saudi Arabia, past Bahrain and Qatar; his motorcade then traversed the United Arab Emirates and entered Oman via the historic Arabian crossroads of the Buraimi Oasis.

A priority objective for the GCC is the establishment of an economic common market among its member states, similar in many ways to the European Economic Community. Its keystone is the Unified Economic Agreement, first approved by the six heads of state in 1981, many of whose articles have been implemented. The Gulf Investment Corporation (GIC), the GCC's $1.2-billion industrial-financing institution, has evaluated some 72 regional projects, of which 19 are under development, five are about to be implemented and 14 others are under active consideration. GIC investments include major dairy projects in Qatar and the UAE, a steel-wire products plant in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and a sophisticated factory in Bahrain to produce 45,000 tons a year of titanium dioxide, a pigment used in the manufacture of paint, plastics, paper and textiles. The GIC is also actively involved in a $1.6-billion project to link the six member countries in an integrated electric-power grid.

Although the final communique of the Muscat summit noted the considerable progress made by the GCC over the past 10 years, the emphasis was on the future. The references to the GCC's progressive role in a changing world were firm pointers to the direction of the organization in its second decade. The visions espoused give first priority to the continued development of the GCC countries and confirm that, as Secretary General Abdullah Bishara once said in a speech to the American-Arab Affairs Council, what the GCC has achieved so far "is an indication of our determination, but it is not an illustration of our ambition."

Those words still hold good today. The 1990s will show how the GCC will utilize its past achievements to meet the challenge of its ambitions.

John Christie, OBE, has retired from the British diplomatic service and is the editor of Gulf States Newsletter, which covers Arabian Gulf affairs.

This article appeared on pages 32-37 of the July/August 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1990 images.