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The Middle East's survival

Publication Date : 18-05-2012


The six-nation grouping of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has agreed to move closer than ever before in their security and political cooperation. In a recent meeting in Dubai, the grouping managed to overcome its own mutual distrust and suspicions over some bigger threats including the influence of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, as well as from the streets of the members' own major cities.

The GCC has normally been dominated by Saudi Arabia, the biggest and richest member. Whatever Riyadh says and advocates usually gets onto the agenda of the GCC's meetings. Other smaller member countries - Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar - often have to comply with what the Saudis want.

The decision to forge a closer political union, especially on security and foreign policies, stems from the adverse effects that have resulted from growing public discontent with the iron-fisted rule of Middle-Eastern dictators and monarchs.

Saudi Arabia has dispatched security forces to help Bahrain crush a pro-democracy movement. As pro-US allies, they seem to have got away with this for the time being.

The GCC will have to become a closer political entity to be effective because Iran has emerged as the real power in the Middle East.

Teheran's Shia tradition and radicalism do not fit in very well with the Gulf States. Their leaders want to maintain the status quo and continue to rule in authoritarian ways with minimum public protests.

But the world has changed. The Arab Spring has spread far and wide and has affected the politics of almost the entire Middle East. These rich Arab monarchies are entrenched and dictatorial even though they try hard to please their peoples with all kinds of economic handouts and incentives. But like people in the rest of the world, the citizens of the GCC countries want a bigger democratic space.

It is worth noting that Thailand and Bahrain have enjoyed close relations. Ousted former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has established a long-standing friendship with the rulers of Bahrain.

They also have close financial cooperation. Bahrain has also helped to minimise criticism against Thailand within the Organisation of Islamic Conference regarding the ongoing Malay-Muslim insurgency in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand. But the commonalities between the two countries stop there.

At the end of last year the GCC snubbed Asean by postponing indefinitely the GCC-Asean ministerial meeting, because of Asean's lack of consensus in supporting the Palestinians' bid for statehood. Thailand backed the resolution in the end after a long-delayed decision was vetted and passed by Parliament.

If there are lessons that the GCC can learn from Asean, they are in the area of democratic reform. Look at Burma, which has managed to turn things around since the Nay Pyi Daw government decided to initiate political reforms, even though its military apparatus still maintains strong control.

If the GCC decides to forge a closer union only for its members to tighten control over their populations, it will lead to even more turmoil. It is one thing to want to counter Iran's growing influence, but it is another to fight one's own people, who are simply demanding more freedom.

The countries of the Middle East share similar political symptoms caused by despotic dictatorship, and this is contagious even though in each country it is manifested in different ways.

Ultimately, the Gulf leaders are thinking only of their own survival. Their increased mutual cooperation is a strategy for survival. This game will be determined largely by the people of those countries, and whether they are happy with the status quo or want to see real changes.


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