Gulf security depends on the prosperity of its neighbours

The challenges to the GCC countries' security do not just come from Iran but also from poverty in Egypt and Yemen, writes Faisal Al Yafai.
Chuck Hagel has urged Gulf countries to unite for security. But security is not merely about force of arms. Mandel Ngan / Reuters
Chuck Hagel has urged Gulf countries to unite for security. But security is not merely about force of arms. Mandel Ngan / Reuters

Europeans are voting this week for the hundreds of representatives to the European parliament. It is, like the recently concluded Indian elections, a huge exercise in democracy. And, as was the case in India, much of the politics is local.

Europeans have a surprisingly wide range of problems with the concept of “Europe”, especially given that it has existed for more than 60 years.

Germans worry about shouldering the debt of more profligate countries like Greece. The Greeks are angry at austerity being imposed on them over the heads of their elected representatives. The Brits, meanwhile, always lukewarm about their continental cousins, worry among other things that many of these cousins want to live in their country.

There is, certainly, a democracy deficit in Europe. The idealism of Europhiles for an even closer union has shattered on the rocks of nationalism. But not on nationalism alone. There is an economic imbalance at the heart of the idea of a European super-state – and it is a challenge that the Arab world would do well to recognise and confront today.

Like Europe, the Arab world seeks ever closer union. It isn’t expressed like that, of course, but the trend is clear: apart from the experiments at union between various Arab countries over the decades, there is the push for closer ties among the GCC, policies to create free trade areas across the Arab world, and even talk, now muted, of a union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

The shadow of Arab nationalism plays a part, of course, but Arab nationalism itself grew out of a widespread feeling that the division of the Arab world into nations was often arbitrary. That feeling has resurfaced after the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. Old, colonial lines in the sand seem to exacerbate rather than reduce tensions.

But although the era of Arab nationalism has passed, the idea of closer union has not, and, I suspect, never will. The Arabs have too much in common for that yearning to be one nation not to surface in some form.

Indeed, there is something of an inevitability to closer ties, if not closer union. Already citizens of the region move between countries, usually for work, but sometimes for family. Mostly this traffic is in one direction, towards the growing economies of the Gulf. Most of the Arab republics don’t have enough jobs for their own citizens.

Closer ties are already happening. As well as the customs union of the GCC, within which Gulf nationals have free movement, there is also GAFTA (the Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement), signed by 16 Arab countries and now in force. This is not a common market – there is no free movement of people between member countries – but there is of goods. The direction of travel is clear.

It is in this light that comments by US defence secretary Chuck Hagel last week about the Gulf co-operating should be read.

Mr Hagel, speaking in Jeddah, said that the GCC should unite to face the threat of Iran, the Brotherhood and the spillover from Syria. He was talking about political will and military strength. Not for nothing are the countries of the GCC purchasing sophisticated weapons.

Military security is vital for the GCC – I’ve argued before that a regional security framework is needed. But security has other aspects to it as well. It is not merely by force of arms that the Gulf must defend itself.

This is the economic lesson of Europe that the Arab world, particularly the Gulf, must absorb. That having poor states or failed states right on our borders is seriously detrimental to our long-term security. There are no walls high enough to keep desperate people out.

The security of the Gulf, therefore, lies in the prosperity of its neighbours.

Having two big, poor countries close by in Egypt and Yemen will, eventually, become a problem for the Gulf states, because it is to this region that these people will look. The same applies to Iraq and Syria: the exodus from the chaos of those countries will reach the shores of the Gulf.

In Europe, the big problem that the European Union has is that it attempted to stitch together in economic union countries with very different economies. Unsurprisingly, given the chance to move to a richer country, many took the opportunity.

That will happen in the Arab world, if not sooner, then later. Whether there are large movements of people because of a union – even a regional one like the GCC or the defunct Maghreb Union – or because of people leaving struggling states, the problems of poorer countries will reach the richer ones.

To stave off that reality, the Gulf countries would be well-advised to put part of their substantial resources into improving the economic situation in big, underdeveloped countries, thereby improving conditions and making it less likely that many people will seek to move. It goes without saying that, additionally, economic development across the board will benefit cross-country trade.

The Gulf has certainly already spent a great deal of money on humanitarian aid to Yemen and Syria. But these countries, as well as Egypt, need to be viewed as strategic risks. Only then will the GCC mobilise the necessary resources today to stave off collapse tomorrow.

Security through arms is necessary because there are military threats to the Gulf. But the best regional security is regional prosperity.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: May 19, 2014 04:00 AM


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