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Qais Ghanem, MD Headshot

If the Europeans Can Make a Union Work, Maybe the Arabs Can

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In the past couple of weeks, there have been numerous articles written about the proposed union of the Arab Gulf states, with a spectrum of opinions about the desirability, feasibility and survivability of such a project. One more, I thought, would do no harm. I felt that I had an interest in the issue: partly because my country of origin, Yemen, is next door, and partly because I spent a few years of enjoyable employment in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar back in the 1980s, where I was shown kindness, hospitality and respect. I have continued to observe the region on my return trips there, including this year.

It is no secret that the idea of amalgamating into a single country, which was farthest away from the minds of the rulers of these countries, was only contemplated as a direct result of the Arab Spring which toppled several Arab dictators who were thought to be completely invincible. "Who will be next?" the rulers must be wondering, especially given the serious uprising taking place in Bahrain -- too close for comfort.

The total amount of people who might claim to be citizens of a union of Arab Gulf states, comprised of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, would amount to about 30 million, just a little more than the population of Yemen -- a much smaller population than Iran, with its 80 million citizens and a GDP per capita of $12,000.

It makes a lot of sense, therefore, to form a united Arab Gulf state out of these six countries. They certainly have a lot in common, including ethnicity, language, traditions, culture, dress, climate and Islam, although the Sunni-Shia rivalry is apparent in some communities. They also enjoy similar wealth, something that clearly separates them from destitute Yemen, with a per capita GDP of $2,500.

You would think that such a union would be easier than the one between Egypt and Syria which failed; or between Egypt and Sudan which was talked about many years ago, or even between north and south Yemen, which is currently hanging by a thread. Why would it not work, then?

What stands in the way of this is what Arabs have suffered from since the two World Wars: autocratic, usually hereditary, governments which have gone unchallenged ever since. And if they ever were challenged, they managed to nip resistance in the bud by whatever means necessary. Not only that, but in the case of Bahrain, the emir was not content with his title and all the trappings and authority that went with it; changed his title to that of "king," a title which he may have to shed, because there can only be one king in the new state or federation, and that king can only be Saudi. That of course applies to all the other current heads of state who do not have to report to anyone above.

There are also other differences which will make it virtually impossible to form a union. We need only compare the modern westernized UAE and the Wahhabi to see the glaring incompatibility of the two systems of daily life for people on the street. Is alcohol going to be banned in Dubai, or is it going to be licensed in Riyadh and Kuwait? Are women in Dubai going to have to stop driving, or are Saudi women going to rejoice in their newly found freedom behind the wheel. Are women going to require a muhram (a male family member companion) wherever they travel in Abu Dhabi, or are the Saudi mutawwa's (morality police) going to be retired en masse? I am certain that the idea of a rotating presidency will come up, but can anyone see the KSA being ruled by the Emir of Qatar, even for a rotational period of six months? Is there going to be one single armed force, and if so, under whose command?

It is of course in the interest of the smaller nations, especially Bahrain, to rush into such a union, but only to preserve some of the authority of the ruling family there, where the ruling minority must have realized that the status quo cannot last forever. Reuters reports political activist Abdulnabi Al-Ekri as having said "This is an attempt to escape a political resolution by putting Bahrain under the hegemony of Saudi Arabia, which wants to show it is the big power in the region. I think it will be a failure."

On the other hand, it is not in the interest of the ruling families of the UAE to do so, given their obvious stability, and their genuine popularity amongst their subjects, which I have personally observed. This goes without mentioning their economic prosperity as well as the open choice of living a secular, or at least progressive way of life, especially in Dubai and Sharjah. Furthermore, in 2009, the UAE withdrew from a monetary union over Saudi insistence that Riyadh host the central bank. It is also not in the interest of Qatar with a per capita GDP of over $100,000 to share that wealth with the less affluent Omanis. For its part, Oman said that it would not join the single currency project.

Finally, if the whole idea is to have closer cooperation than currently, then the system already exists, and could be fine tuned further. But if internal issues will be dealt with by individual governments, then why was the military help of Saudi Arabia necessary in confronting the revolution in Bahrain? And if it was by invitation, then how often is this invitation going to be issued by the different countries in the group.

Unfortunately for Arabs in the Gulf, any comparison with the European Union will raise eyebrows, if not derision; given that the European Union is the coming together on the basis of many interests of fully democratic countries with highly educated populations who insist on human rights, the rule of law, and strict separation between church and state. Yet these populations have different languages and religions and histories. The glaring difference is of course that of democracy, which recently smoothly removed Sarkozy and installed Hollande as president.

Would it not make sense then, for the governments from the Gulf to read the writing on the wall, and gradually offer their citizens small incremental, yet genuine, steps to democracy, starting with the Kuwaiti model, and progressing over a defined and declared period of time into full democracy, which can also incorporate a British style constitutional monarchy, or even one closer to that in Morocco? I believe the pragmatic and peaceful Arab citizens of the Gulf will greet such changes with effusive enthusiasm and great gratitude, because they have seen what happened in Yemen and what is happening now in Syria. They would rather not go that path, I would imagine.