Bahrain is an integral part of the GCC and experiences many benefits of membership. While all GCC member states have their own foreign policies, they nevertheless communicate closely with each other. It is difficult to find an example where, on important global or regional matters, the members speak with different voices. This is particularly important as we are an intrinsic part of the Arabic and Islamic world, with our home at the epicentre of a turbulent region.
The main challenges we confront are not dissimilar to those faced by most nations and international groupings. Regionally, these include the Middle East peace process and other international cooperation initiatives. Internally, nations face sectarian and employment challenges, particularly among the youth; potential food and water shortages; and the security and conservation of oil and gas resources. These challenges are seen as opportunities and call for focus and the strengthening of cooperation between member states, and between the GCC and other nations and blocs. In particular, our leaders have the political will to rise above the national level.
Our path to achieving this vision is set out across the GCC’s five strategic goals, all of which are interlinked and in some way or another impact on global dynamics. The recognition that security and stability are key to long-term success is reflected in our first strategic goal: to secure the GCC against all threats. This objective addresses threats (intentional malicious acts such as external aggression, terrorism and serious organised crime), as opposed to all other risks, which are covered under another goal.
We regard the threat or use of force against any member state as a threat to all members and we believe that disputes should be settled in a peaceful manner, utilising political dialogue. The key to security is consultation, coordination and cooperation between members and fellow Arab states and allies, including on issues of terrorism and crime; rejection of regional or international control or domination of the Arabian Gulf; and an assurance of free maritime passage, particularly for oil and gas.
Regional uncertainties and terrorism in the recent past have ensured that for military and counter-terrorism issues, the GCC has reinforced and tightened internal liaisons and cooperation with friends and allies. Advice on regional issues is given freely and at times member states have acted as useful intermediaries for discussion between parties. Nor have they hesitated to assist each other, as in the case of the GCC’s moral and practical support for the Kingdom of Bahrain during internal disturbances in early 2011.
While our security is best protected through international links and agreements and we would like to think that unilateral action is unlikely, we nevertheless understand that we must be able to stand on our own in the event that GCC and external interests are not fully compatible. Consequently, steps are being taken to further strengthen joint capabilities such as enhancing our multi-national military formations and ensuring closer coordination over such issues as air space and CBRN protection. Additional measures are being taken to more closely coordinate efforts to counter organised transnational crime and thought is being given to establishing a GCC police force.
Our next strategic goal is to sustain and increase economic growth. There is a huge amount of internal and international cooperation and participation in industry, commerce, finance and many other areas. Fortunately, the GCC has, through joint efforts, demonstrated economic resilience in weathering the global financial crisis and is one of the few economic groupings to maintain healthy growth. For this to be maintained and to preserve wealth for future generations, we must place less emphasis on our abundant – but finite – natural resources, and concentrate more on diversification. We see ourselves moving from being resource-fed economies to knowledge-based economies and welcome the attendant business opportunities for ourselves and our global partners.
As a bloc, we have promoted economic innovation. Internal investment has been encouraged and an easier crossflow of labour and a closer customs union have been provided for. Since the GCC Customs Union was launched in 2003, for example, trade between member states has increased by nearly 200%, or more than 20% per year, from $30bn in 2002 to over $90bn in 2011. Similarly, with the GCC Common Market launch in 2008, investors have equal access to markets across the GCC and have the right to engage in any economic activity within the council. As a result, intra-GCC investments have jumped by nearly 50% and the movement of people between member states has also increased significantly.
Steps have been taken towards creating a tighter market and fiscal union and further integration is provided for through schemes like a trans-GCC railway system and interlinked power grids. We are moving toward achieving GCC economic citizenship.
Our third strategic goal, to encourage and maintain a high level of human development, directly affects every other goal in a social, political, economic and security sense. It covers all aspects of improving standards of living: eradicating unemployment, creating opportunities for youth, and providing high-quality education, health care, housing and community services. Member states aspire to see development processes and political systems which serve to elevate and fulfil the wishes and needs of their people, with citizens from all levels of society feeling that they have been provided with unsurpassed advantages and benefits and a high quality of life.
At the GCC level, under Common Market rules, social and welfare development has been expanded across borders. GCC citizens now have the right to equal treatment in all member states when seeking education and medical care or accessing social services.
It is the human factor, linked to government processes, which often cause the most misunderstandings and questions to be raised. Let there be no doubt that good governance is the top priority of each member state and each, in its own way, has democratic processes which allow the voices of citizens to be heard. With regard to Bahrain, there is optimism that the Kingdom has resumed its upward curve following the initiatives and efforts of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. These include the establishment of an Independent Commission of Enquiry, made up of international experts in human rights and criminal law, the recommendations of which has the full support of the GCC.
The fourth GCC strategic goal is to improve public safety by developing strategies for risk awareness, risk management and crisis management. This goal, through close cooperation with national agencies, is the foundation for providing the bloc with a degree of resilience against all risks. It will be driven by a newly established GCC Emergency Management Centre, which, in addition to coordinating all aspects of risk management will also be responsible for an enhanced programme of GCC disaster emergency assistance wherever it may be required worldwide.
Strengthening the international status of the GCC, which is at the heart of regional and international dialogue and cooperation, is the final key objective. It is through this goal that we hope to show the readiness of the GCC to contribute to solving regional and global challenges. Recent work includes donations for humanitarian and development aid throughout Africa and Asia; relief and reconstruction aid to various countries in the region and elsewhere; and development programmes in Yemen and the Gaza Strip.
I hope that by learning a little more about the GCC, readers will see the present and future Kingdom of Bahrain within the context of broader horizons as a valued and integral member of the council. Whether one is doing business in Bahrain or any other of the member states, it is certain that investments are going toward a stable and growing region – one that gains strength from unity, mutual depth, support, resilience, shared forward thinking and a common vision.