Sunday, January 14, 2007

Gulf Countries Face Closer Regional Cooperation

A western journalist asked us, a group of citizens from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries: “Is Arab nationalism still alive? Is regional grouping a realistic alternative or a step on the road to Arab unification? Are you today more or less committed to your national unity, and why?”

These are loaded, thought provocative questions. They show the level of curiosity and anxiety many feel in the West about our future stability. They ponder over the possibility of civil wars in the oil-rich region that may endanger the Western-allied governments. With Lebanon in the verge of a civil war, and Iraq in the middle of another, their worries are understandable, if not justified.

The answers to the journalist questions varied, but they can be summarized as follows.

Before the Iraq invasion, some groups and individuals, residing in and out of their countries, working above and under ground, were aspiring to certain rights and privileges. Their aspirations include more religious freedoms, as well as political and civil rights. Some radicals went further to call for some sort of independence or self-governance. Others hoped for more association and stronger relations with foreign countries, like Iran.

All Gulf citizens are Arabs, but some come from non-Arab origins, such as Persian, Indian, and black African ones. While most demands and complaints today are religious and political, ethnic issues may lay ahead. In some Gulf states, as much as 80 percent of the population is composed of foreigners, mostly from India and Iran. If even a small percentage of them became citizens, they would make a sizable non-Arab minority who might call for more consideration for their heritage and identity.

Today, the nationality rules are strict toward foreign residents in GCC countries, even those with long-term residency. The regulations are even stricter for non-Arabs. But these rules are not acceptable to the World Trade Organization and will have to be streamlined along universal standards.

All GCC countries are members of WTO and Saudi Arabia was the last of the six countries to join the organization at the end of 2005. The Bahraini labor minister recently warned his GCC counterparts that if they don’t limit the number of years foreign workers are permitted to reside, GCC countries will soon face the prospect of de-Arabization of their demographics and culture.

Existing borders among the council members are not ancient; some are not even finally drawn. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were each united from different parts. Most, including, the Emirates, were British protectorates up to the 1960s when they were granted independence. Except for the Omani Almahara region that rebelled in the seventies with the support of its communist neighbor, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, no region in the Gulf has seriously sought independence.

Apart from Saudi Arabia and Oman, all are geographically and demographically small states that can’t afford to get smaller. Most citizens are committed to the unification of their countries. Many aspire to even larger entity, in the form of United Gulf States — a dream that was born a quarter of a century ago, with the creation of the GCC.

After the Iraq invasion, and with the civil war there now being fought along mostly religious, but also ethnic lines, separatists are having a second thought. Who would want to end up in such a mess? Life is too precious to be wasted in bloody fights, especially when engineered and administered by foreign powers.

There was a brief and rare moment of Islamic solidarity after the Iran supported Hezbollah stood up to Israel and its backers. But then the sectarian government of Iraq wasted all the credit and sympathy Hezbollah had earned for the Shiites and Iran. With stupid actions and policies, like the circus trial of Saddam Hussein and his hanging by radical Shiites, and the accompanying irrational reactions from the Sunni fundamentalists, we are back to religious suspicion, hatred and rivalry.

In such an explosive atmosphere, it is inconceivable for any religious minority to raise divisive issues. While some may think that with Western support this is the time to redraw the maps and regain certain authority and rights, most are calling for the healing of wounds, division bridging, and national and regional unity. The Gulf governments are now more aware and worried about foreign schemes to divide their nations under the cover of human rights. In response, they are taking serious, if slow and cautious, steps towards political reforms to insure the satisfaction and loyalty of their minorities.

As for Arab nationalism, most of us think it is a passé doctrine. More relevant and fashionable is the dream of the Muslim Caliphate. As a response to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arabism, Saudi King Faisal campaigned for Islamic unity. In recent years, this noble cause was hijacked and taken over by radical groups. They have given it a bad name. However, most people today are realistic. While we aspire to some sort of political and economic cooperation, we don’t hold our breath for the Islamic Union or the United Arab States. Our priorities are more mundane: Developing our nations in vital areas of education, economic, science and technology, as well as solving crucial issues of unemployment, crime, pollution, radicalism and terrorism.

In conclusion, both division and pan-Arab unification are far-fetched. More likely in the foreseeable future of Gulf countries is closer regional cooperation that aspires but is not able yet to reach the European Union level — not too bad for tribal based societies.

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