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Studies 23 February, 2015

Confronting the Challenge of Political Reforms in GCC States: Domestic Transition via Regional Integration


The term ‘region’ describes a physically contiguous and proximal geographic area, but it also refers to an area that shares similarities of culture, ethnicity and social systems. Political analysts Graham Evans and Richard Newnham in “The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations” have used the term to describe an area that is homogenous at the social, economic and political levels. In their description, they also noted the possibility of regional integration through multidimensional aspects of a common value system.[1] Jean Grugel and Wil Hout agree, and add in their work “Regionalism across the North-South Divide: State Strategies and Globalisation,” that in the developing world–with its tendency toward overriding factors such as culture, language and tribe—regionalisation or the inclination to form regional organisations becomes the best possible response to globalisation. The authors, who look at political reform, have found that such regional associations help in promoting different types of democratic practice in a region.[2]

The area covered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) thus constitutes a region in the Arabian Gulf, whose nations share common political and cultural objectives. The GCC, made up of the six oil monarchies—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—stands distinct among other regional organisations. This is principally due to their persistent monarchies, and the political normalization of tribal affinities, which have operated within the states for generations. Established in 1981, mainly to deal with security-related concerns mostly associated with the rise of Iranian power, GCC States also share similar political characteristics, and can be described as having similar geographical and economic circumstances. These similarities aided in the formation of the GCC, and also the cooperation between states more generally. Besides adhering to the main objectives of the GCC and working to strengthen political relationship between member countries and enhance economic ties, the GCC has also expanded its remit in recent years. Today, the GCC not only deals with issues of security, but also forms common policy on reforms, culture, trade, customs, legislation, administration, scientific and technical progress in industry and water resources, and recently defence.[3]

With the rapid changes in booming oil economies, traditional politics in the Gulf region have changed considerably over the years, due to factors as diverse as the expansion of societies, elaborate administration systems, diffuse relationships between members of society, and traditional patron-client relationship being supplanted by relationships based on education, occupation, and professional interests.[4] Simultaneously with these social and administrative changes, GCC States –whose populations have a high percentage of youth—are witnessing rampant educational progress, which has accelerated the political consciousness of younger generations. Not only are the youth aware of civic and human rights, but they are also educated with an awareness of global issues. Education also means that youth have greater socio-political aspirations than ever before, leading to demands for participation in the qualitative process of governance.[5] Reforms in GCC countries can be seen generally as a reflection of the wider regional transformations witnessed by each state. These transformations eventually alter the way both any given state and its citizens set about structuring their nation’s political, economic and social interactions. For example, in their confrontations with internal security challenges, each state has worked differently in responding to the aspirations of their people for good governance and political participation, mainly for women.

The demands for reform made by the protesters who took to the streets in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) amid what came to be known as the “Arab Spring” created a sense of urgency to deal with domestic political instability amongst GCC States. The primary avenue for this reform has been through an intensification of regional integration efforts around security interests, principally under the auspices of the organisation of the Gulf Cooperation Council.



Methodology and Objectives


In order to investigate these reforms and the process by which they are being implemented, this article is divided into two parts. The first looks to understand the formation of the GCC, the regional transformations taking place in the Gulf, the process of national political reforms, and the existing political challenges in the region. Building on these findings, the second section examines the need for the GCC to bridge these challenges and sustain internal security mechanisms through internal integration agreements. Looking at developments from the turn of the millennium, the paper will identify the pattern of modernisation. In its analysis, the paper will look in particular at how political challenges in one Gulf country affect not only that state, but also the region as a whole. Analysis of political participation will be studied through the role of the constitutional amendments and political participation of minorities— namely women—in the GCC countries.

The paper maintains that political transition proceeds with the capacity of states to cope with the challenges of globalization and to transform into post-traditional societies. The paper suggests that the GCC, a security community, serves as a platform for collective action that can help to promote long term stability. The GCC has already initiated talks on economic integration in terms of a customs union and a monetary policy. The paper thus aims to explore the importance of regional integration and parallel agreements in addressing political challenges of governance and maintaining internal security. At the moment, there exists only regional cooperation in these fields, and new discourses could further promote domestic transition of political reforms by cushioning future impediments to development. In order to further develop an argument for regional cooperation, other examples of political integrative techniques from regional organisations such as the European Union (EU), MERCOSUR, and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) shall be examined.

A final section will focus on the challenges and drawbacks of political integration. This will be done in order to grapple with the complexity of regional integration, which will be developed here as part of the concept of institutionalisation. In order to proceed with such a process, the complexity of the structural characteristics of the GCC must be taken into account. In addition, to factor this into a discussion of cooperation, the concept of a political confederation will be examined. The paper concludes that integration in a member-based regional organisation will not only help systematically deal with security at the external level, but also internally. The paper finds that regional integration can facilitate political stability through the sustenance of multi-layered institutional structures of governance.


GCC and Political Reforms  

Like economic cooperation, political cooperation in one form or another existed among Gulf Arab states many years prior to the formation of the GCC. This pre-GCC tradition of cooperation greatly facilitated post-GCC activities, especially in non-military fields. During the early stages, internal Gulf security cooperation consisted principally of an exchange of data on the presence and activities of expatriates in member states, and on the presence of militants and any underground organizations.

The effort to create a kind of cooperative framework for the Gulf dates to the late 1960s. Initial efforts were thwarted, however, largely because of differing internal political ideologies, regional rivalry, impacts of globalisation, and the Cold War. Another factor was the relative poverty of the Arab Gulf states up until this period, with economies that ran on primitive forms of agriculture limited by the harsh desert conditions. The main economic activities of the region revolved around fishing, coastal trade, and pearling. However, the introduction of oil economies radically changed the situation. As a result, the six states that today make up the GCC became modern, urbanized, and bureaucratically organized centres of regional and international finance and commerce.

To read this paper in full as a PDF, please click here. This research paper was originally submitted for consideration on the ACRPS' Third Annual Conference of Arab Research Centers, which focused on the Gulf Cooperation Council States.

 [1] Hussein Solomon, ‘Democratization: Some Theoretical Methodological Considerations,’ in Gulshan Dietl, ed., Democracy and Democratization in the Gulf (New Delhi: Shipra Publications, 2010), 16-17.

[2]Solomon, 17.

[3] ‘GCC Digital Library,’ http://sites.gcc-sg.org/DLibrary/index-eng.php?action=Subject

[4] J E Peterson, ‘The GCC states: Participation, Opposition and the Fraying of the Social Contract,’ Research Paper of the Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States, no.26 (December 2012): 4, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/55258/1/Peterson_2012.pdf

[5]Shamlan Yousef Al Issa, ‘The Political Impact of Globalization on the Arab Gulf States,’ in Bassam Tibi, ed., The Gulf: Challenges of the Future (Abu Dhabi: EmiratesCenter for Strategic Studies and Research, 2005), 97.