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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

A Union of Gulf States could be a regional force for good

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© Shutterstock

When our Arab World is trembling from violent shocks, this is the moment for Gulf States to assert themselves as a united force for good. This has been my message to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders for several years and so I was pleased to hear Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah urging his GCC counterparts “to move from a phase of cooperation to a phase of union within a single entity” to better overcome challenges and stave off growing threats. It’s encouraging that the initiative has been welcomed by Gulf States, which will form a committee tasked with its study.

Personally, I would like a future union of Gulf States to have one leader – perhaps appointed on a rotating basis - with full command over such union’s army, navy and air force in both defensive and interventionist capacities. In this ever-more dangerous neighborhood, we can either decide to become players or we will end up being played.

The biggest threat to our region is the devious way that Iran is disseminating its ideology which it uses together with its oil wealth and weapons to divide the region and attract proxy states and actors. Now that the last US combat troops have been withdrawn from Iraq it won’t be long before Iraq fits neatly into the Iranian sphere of influence especially when the loyalties of senior Iraqi government figures lie with Tehran or the Iranian Ayatollahs. Trouble is already looming. In past days, the major Sunni bloc has boycotted Parliament and the pro-Iranian Prime Minister has authorized an arrest warrant in the name of the Sunni Vice-President Tareq Al-Hashemi.

I wouldn’t be surprised that in the future, Iran and Iraq formed some kind of political and military union – perhaps even a federation - that would leave Gulf States vulnerable and under siege from all corners.

The window of opportunity for the GCC and its allies to keep Iraq from Persian claws is narrowing which is why Gulf leaders should support patriotic Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite loyal to their Arab heritage and Iraq’s autonomy, to ensure Baghdad never takes its marching orders from Qom. We can’t allow an enemy to form on our doorstep; we must place the security of our countries as top priority overshadowing diplomatic niceties and the pretence of warm relations. In short, Gulf States must unite and act to avert such a scenario before it can manifest.

In a perfect world, the role of protecting Arab states and interests should fall to the Arab League but, unfortunately, this body has a history of being ineffective and is even more so today when so many of its member countries are torn from within especially with Egypt in the intensive care. I used to have great hopes for the Arab League but as we see with its handling of Syria, it is too hesitant and weak to make a real difference. The Arab League is expert at holding summits and coming up with suggestions but as long as it doesn’t wield a fist its efforts are wasted.

The Arab League’s representatives have been urging the Al-Assad regime to stop imprisoning, torturing and killing and to allow-in impartial monitors for months without success and hasn’t managed to take a unified, tough position on Syria. Prior to the recent meeting between the League and the GCC in Cairo, I asked two senior GCC leaders what is it that the GCC needs to do in order to save the Syrian people from their own president and his cohorts. I was told that Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq are putting-up obstacles to the implementation of hard decisions.

Lebanon can be partially forgiven because it’s a tiny country bordering Syria and has a government dominated by one of Syria’s proxies. Likewise, Iraq borders Syria and its Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is under orders from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to keep Al-Assad’s government afloat. Khartoum has military ties with Tehran and is currently seeking closer cooperation. I am, however, surprised at the stance adopted by Algeria. President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika lived and enjoyed the UAE for 6 years – and now he stands against those who once supported him who are keen to show solidarity with their Syrian brothers and sisters.
As long as Iran pulls the strings of some Arab League members the organization is unable to do its job. It’s taken the organization months to get Al-Assad’s signature on a piece of paper promising an end to the crackdown on an unarmed and defenseless population, political reform and permission for Arab League peace monitors to enter the country. But on the same day the agreement was signed with great fanfare some 150 Syrians were killed.

Clearly, from the Syrian government’s perspective, this agreement is nothing more than a time waster, a sham designed to keep the League from making good on its threat to send the Syrian file to the UN Security Council. It was disappointing to hear the Prime Minister of Qatar say Al-Assad’s tenure is a matter for the Syrian people. Al Assad has lost all credibility when more than 6,000 have been killed, over 100,000 are behind bars and so many men, women and children have been tortured - and when mercenaries are flooding into Syria from Iran and Iraq and the government is using Shabiha militias to ruthlessly murder its citizens irrespective of gender or age. In any case, the large demonstrations all over the country show that the Syrian people have already spoken.

This is an emergency. If the Arab League doesn’t make good on its threat to send Syria to the UNSC, then the GCC’s rapid reaction force partnered with the Jordanian military should ‘encourage’ President Al-Assad to step down.

We the descendents of Abu Bakr Al Siddiq, Omar ibn Al Khattab, Othman ibn Affan, Ali ibn Abi Taleb and Khalid ibn Al Walid have a duty to make a stand against repression and injustice. We’ve been bystanders in our own neighborhood for too long. We must lose our attitude of w’ana mali? (What’s this got to do with me?). We should feel repelled by the sentiments encapsulated in the Arabic saying “If my camel and I are safe, I don’t care about my friends”. We must remember the days of Jamal Abdul Nasser when Arab honor and dignity was paramount. If the GCC transforms into a union of Gulf States, it will be powerful enough to protect its own as well as to shine its light throughout the entire Arab world.

To the leaders of GCC States I would say just one thing: Join your hands together and make your people proud!

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