For those of us that have crossed the age threshold of 30 years, one is quite aware of the changes in life. If you are not doing what you desire at that age, you ought to be. If you are content with your life to date, one then might ask “is there more?”
That is where the Gulf Cooperation Council is at this juncture – 30 years on and counting. Undoubtedly, the annual meeting was overshadowed by the year-end crisis management techniques in the UAE, specifically Abu Dhabi stepping in at the 11th hour to inject $10 billion into neighboring Dubai. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the UAE President H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan wanted to get that mopped up before travelling to Kuwait for the GCC Summit.
The council of six countries was created during the tensions of the Iran-Iraq War to create a common economic and security policy; they are, as we find out from the European example, tightly linked.
The GCC is eager to create a single currency, a la the Euro, next year. We know already that two of six countries, the UAE and Oman, will not join the party at the start. It is not clear after this most recent summit whether that union will proceed as planned and also whether the long-coveted dollar link will survive. There are more opinions about that than there are countries in the Gulf.
During a panel I chaired at the Arab Thought Foundation annual FIKR (meaning thought in Arabic) conference in Kuwait, we had a healthy debate about the key ingredients for unity. Two of the European panel members pointed to security and transportation.
They recalled the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe that also anchored Germany to the West. It was the beginning of a 40-year process that eventually led to the European Union, which now has 27 members. During that reconstruction effort, roads and rails were built right across Europe – the essential arteries to trade and the movement of people and goods.
Our two Arab members of the panel were in complete solidarity with this premise and hoped that the Gulf War would have brought not only the Gulf countries closer together but the broader region as well. That has happened to a certain extent, but old rivalries and national priorities have certainly carried much more weight than the collective good of the next generation which vitally needs to see the benefits of oil and gas wealth.
There was also agreement that the most pressing issue is youth unemployment, which, most outside the region do not know is more than a quarter of the population between 15-30 years old. Unemployment will surge with the highest birth rate in the world right now.
Five years ago, the region signed onto a regional trade agreement to lower barriers amongst the 20-plus countries of the region. In actual practice, businesses complain about the non-tariff barriers to commerce. Waiting times at borders within the Middle East can range from five hours to 50 hours – that is no joke – and we are talking about that level of delays even within the six Gulf States.
It goes back to the original premise, why 30 is not only an important threshold for the GCC and the region in general, but those who may be frustrated because they want to fulfil their dreams. A vision has been conveyed and step by step, the hurdles need to be crossed for a single market, a common currency and most importantly a common goal to create opportunity to those who most need it.
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