First Word: Collective Questioning

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Editor’s Note: Salman Shaikh was speaking with Jennifer Gnana of The Gulf Magazine. This interview was originally published in the August 2014 issue.

Jennifer Gnana: Has the GCC taken logical steps to counter the threat of radicalisation?

Salman Shaikh: Some countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have good anti-terrorism laws in place, and others, such as Kuwait are lax. Then, there is the whole issue of political Islam more generally, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has divided the Gulf states. We saw different Gulf countries supporting different governments and they would say they were trying to support the Egyptian people. But I would contrast it to how western Europe reacted when there was change in eastern Europe, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a concerted effort by western Europe to finance and work with the newly emerging actors in eastern Europe. Imagine the potential there is if the Gulf states were to pool their resources to focus simply on one thing – averting economic collapse in Egypt and assisting in a well-planned and well laid out economic reform effort.

Gnana: What are the prospects for collective GCC political and economic engagement with Iran, given the recent visit of Kuwait’s Amir and gas supply agreements with Kuwait and Oman?

Shaikh: We don’t see it yet, and of course Saudi Arabia is key here. I believe we are on the eve of a great transformative era in Persian-Arab Gulf relations, but it has to be worked on. That’s why the visit of Kuwait’s Amir is a good thing – to try to build greater understanding and communication. We know Oman has traditionally played that role and is a very valuable actor. Iranian energy is meeting a certain need and if it does lead towards greater energy co-ordination and security, that is a good thing. The whole issue of relations with Iran has to be managed well, and therein lies responsibilities for the Iranians, the Gulf states and major western powers such as United States and Europe in managing that change.

Gnana: GCC states have been trying to strengthen unity through a security pact, for instance. What is the future of the alliance?

Shaikh: The future is one of great potential. The problem is that we could have said that five years ago – some potential has to be realised. So as the Iranian situation and conflicts around the region unfold, Gulf states should work in a more integrated and co-ordinated fashion. I’m not necessarily advocating a Gulf union – that’s for others to decide – and certainly no region or sub-region prospers today without greater integration or co-ordination. Western Europe is a model for that even if it’s going through difficult times. Similarly, we have seen ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] as an economic union coming on in leaps and bounds, and this is where I think the GCC must go.

The GCC also has to answer one fundamental question of itself. What are we? Are we a security-orientated organisation, which is how it started (particularly after the threat posed by the Iranian leadership after the Iranian revolution). Or is it now aspiring to be an economic and commercial union, and can it aspire to common political positions as well? This question has to be more sharply defined in this transformative era.

Gnana: In what ways have recent leadership changes in the Gulf affected GCC policy on regional conflicts?

Shaikh: The US stepping back has meant a greater role for Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in Syria. That may be changing. I start to see much more of a US leadership role, which is what the Gulf countries have always wanted when it came to Syria and are now demanding in many cases, both at political and military levels. The Gulf states are remarkably stable. In Qatar we saw a very smooth transition to a new leadership, which was well co-ordinated and known to its Gulf neighbours and we can see that from those who came to the inauguration from the region.

Gnana: Do you see emergence of constitutional structures in the GCC?

Shaikh: There probably is a need to continue to modernize relations between rulers and citizens, and we have seen that in various guises. We have seen that in the UAE, which has had Shura Council elections; in Qatar couple of years ago to a certain degree and with the abdication of the Amir and the emergence of a new leadership; and of course in Kuwait we have seen probably the most open political process, which has led to rivalries. The most important thing is that the rulers and citizens chart a course together, which produces the kind of stability and prosperity I think every Gulf citizen wants, even above the kind of representational systems we are now seeing developing in places like Tunisia.