Shared interests dictate a careful regional strategy

Big organisations like the Arab League can be ineffective, but smaller, more focused forums for cooperation offer valuable ways to ensure regional teamwork on vital issues.

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The Arab League, the African Union and, to some extent, the Gulf Cooperative Council. All three were founded with laudable goals, but too often have been characterised by crossed purposes and policy that has been ineffective. In recent months, the GCC has adopted a stronger unified foreign policy - a good example being the proposal for political transition in Yemen - but this is just a beginning.

There are undeniable shared interests. From chronically unstable states such as Yemen and Somalia, and from the uncertainty left by revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, neighbouring countries inevitably feel the shock waves of social and economic turmoil. At the opening on Monday of the Summit on the Global Agenda, Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed emphasised the shared threats of piracy, terrorism and extremism that thrive in conditions of chaos. As we have argued often on these pages, these are symptoms of political and economic problems that have to be treated along with the security threat.

For decades, the military option has proved ineffective by itself. One need only look at the disastrous US intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s, or the millions in military aid delivered to Yemen, to see that a new approach is needed. Half a solution is often not a solution at all.

A new approach must come from within the region and, because of shared interests, must be multilateral. That is why the record of the Arab League and African Union is so distressing - because they are so needed. There are other models, however. Narrowly tailored on specific issues, groupings like the Nile Basin Initiative (based on resolving conflicts over water rights) and Friends of Yemen (intended to help development efforts) have demonstrated more effective problem-solving mechanisms. Cooperative efforts are rarely easy, but these forums have focused both attention and solutions.

Since this year's uprising, Friends of Yemen has unfortunately been relatively quiet. The GCC is playing an important mediation role in Yemen, but even given the challenges of the unstable political and security situation, chronic economic weaknesses must not be ignored, or in the long term they will undermine any progress made.

The Arab League and African Union, indeed all multinational groupings, are easy targets - precisely because effective multilateral action is so hard to achieve. But the GCC and the region have overwhelming reasons to do so. In a time of uncertainty, countries have to find the political will to identify the solutions on which they can cooperate.