Tuesday, July 17, 2012

United States of Arabia

In the early 1980s, I attended the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Bahrain, as a reporter. It was my first visit to a Gulf country. Hopes and expectations of the council, born in Riyadh in 1981, were sky high. The peoples of this region are united in all aspects — geopolitically, historically and socially. All I heard at the summit, however, was political and media talk.

Suddenly the silent majority spoke. I was trying to stay a couple of days longer in Bahrain. The flights were fully booked. An elderly Bahraini lady was behind me in the line and heard the travel agent telling me the bad news. Without hesitating, she said: “My Saudi son wants to stay a few days longer, how can we deny him such a wish? Please give him my seat. I will wait and celebrate his visit.”

I kissed her head and could not but accept her gift. In my final report about the mega event for my magazine, Iqra, I relayed the story and announced: “My Bahraini mother said it all much better than any politician, writer or poet could: We are all one family.”

The moral of the story is that the Gulf Cooperation Council is all about people. It is fine to do all the necessary government to government cooperation, but if citizens cannot feel it in their day to day life, it won’t matter much.

Thirty years later, so much progress has been made. Not yet as much as the European Union, but better still than similar efforts and projects in modern Arab history.

Sentimental unifications like the Egyptian-Syrian United Arab Republic in the 1960s, and the unity project between Egypt and Libya, in the 1970s, ended in disaster. The Arab Cooperation Council that embodied Egypt (again!) and Iraq, Jordan and Yemen, in the late 1980s died, soon after, with the Iraqi invasion of  Kuwait, in August 1990. The Maghrib project of Libya, Algeria and Morocco, in the 1980s, suffered from the uncompromising rivalry between Morocco and the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria. It didn’t help to have “Malcolm in the Middle”. Muammar Al-Qaddafi would not accept less than a total unity, if not among Arabs, then with African nations.

To its credit, the GCC has survived a lot of bad weather — externally and internally. Its wise conservative leaders have managed to smooth out their differences, and stand together against political, economic, social and military challenges. Their support of Bahrain and Oman, last year, with prompt and strong security and financial aid, helped these governments weather the worst of the Arab Spring challenges.

The GCC could do even better with closer cooperation, and more solid steps on the road toward some sort of, possibly federal, unification.

However, before we go further, let’s go back to my Bahraini mother and what Gulf unity really means. The United Arab Emirates project is the most successful model in Arab history. The seven emirates have been federally united, since 1971. Yet, two geographically connected, Dubai and Sharjah, can have different regulations regarding anything from tobacco sales to rules governing foreign investments.

Following the same model, we could have the more conservative integrate socially and economically with the more liberal. States could keep their unique governing systems, while acting as one in strategic foreign, military and economic issues.

A citizen-centered United States of Arabia, which includes Yemen as a strategic partner or non-voting member, would well serve an already united Muslim Arabian Gulf family.

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