To put it mildly, thanks to the current high oil prices, the Gulf states are in the super-wealthy league. The six monarchies continue to enjoy relative calm within their own borders, proceeding with what is probably the greatest real estate boom a region has seen in history despite the proximity to international flash points.
Yet nothing hits home like the tragedy that is Iraq. Bordering the biggest – and by far the richest – country in the GCC, Saudi Arabia, it is a nation that has been torn to the core for the past five years. Regardless of who is to blame (though most people would point the finger at a certain outgoing president and an ex-prime minister of a European country), the fact that today 30 million people are being terrorised by a few thousand thugs and criminals who call themselves jihadists is abhorrent in its own right.
While their rich neighbours continue to flaunt their lavish lifestyles, projects and achievements on free-to-air television channels that are directly beamed into Iraqis’ living rooms, they must be wondering why their affluent neighbours aren’t more sympathetic to their plight. Out of all the GCC states, in the five years since the fall of the former dictator, it was only the brave Foreign Minister of the UAE, Sheikh Abdulla bin Zayed, who despite the personal tragedy of losing a brother in the same week, carried on with his mission to visit the terror-stricken nation and offer support.
This is especially alarming considering that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both of whom share porous borders with their northern neighbour, will be at the forefront of dealing with any repercussions should the situation in Iraq degenerate into total civil war.
The matter has taken an increased sense of urgency as the prospects of a Democratic win in the forthcoming US presidential elections looks more and more likely. According to his colourful website, Barack Obama promises to “have all of [the American] combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months”. Should he win, the GCC will be facing the nightmare scenario of dealing with the Iraqi crisis on its own as early as June 2010.
The GCC is unlikely to be prepared for such a scenario as its parliaments in states such as Kuwait are obliviously occupied with the issue of banning women from working after 8pm; or deciding in the Saudi Shura council whether cinemas are haram (forbidden under Islamic Law); or, as in the UAE’s Federal National Council, continuing with its debate on inflation.
Saudi Arabia, at an area larger than the size of Western Europe, will be unable and possibly unwilling due to the risk of sectarian sensitivities to spare even a small number of its 200,000 troops to maintain peace in Iraq. The Gulf states’ joint Peninsula Shield troops number a meagre 10,000 – the size of a single American brigade that Mr Obama says he will withdraw every month after taking office. Not only are our own troops inadequate in size, they are inadequate in peace keeping experience.
The Gulf states may continue to lament the fact that Iran is interfering in the internal issues of Iraq as they persist with their policy of two steps forward, two steps back. In fact, it is only natural that Iran steps up to assume a role in its western neighbour that is at risk of falling apart to its detriment. The GCC countries must immediately awaken from their state of suspended animation as individual countries and, as a united block, mobilise their enormous wealth to launch a major Iraq rescue plan.
What is urgently needed is a massive UN peacekeeping force funded by the GCC and drawn from neutral countries such as India, China and from the African continent along with a major investment drive to create hundreds of thousands of jobs within Iraq to stem the number of Iraqis joining militants, as well as a serious attempt to secure Iraq’s borders.
In addition, hate-spewing TV channels that are based in the GCC and funded by some governments and individuals must be restrained if these countries wish their economic boom to endure and the peace within their borders to continue.
For those of us who cheer the possibility of Mr Obama moving into the White House next January, a word of caution: be careful what you wish for, you might actually get it.
Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai and has recently been elected as Chairman of the Young Arab Leaders in the UAE.