When the UAE and Saudi Arabia agreed in May 2007 to let their citizens visit each other’s country using only identity cards rather than passports, it was a welcome sign of the benefits that closer relations between GCC states could bring.

But in August Riyadh suspended the agreement, because the UAE’s identity cards carried a map that did not conform to the border agreement reached by the two countries in 1974.

The diplomatic row illustrates the difficulty the GCC states have in acting in unison. Bilateral disputes of this kind are frequent among the six member states, while common statements, particularly in the area of foreign policy, are rare and often lacking substance.

The outcome of the most recent meeting of GCC foreign ministers, held in Jeddah on 2 September, is a case in point. A series of statements were issued after the meeting that revealed little about the ministers’ discussions.

Instead, they simply reaffirmed their support for inter-Arab reconciliation, while GCC secretary general Abdulrahman al-Attiyah reiterated the council’s opposition to the building of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Arrested development

For now, the emergence of a unified GCC voice on substantive issues beyond the Arab-Israel dispute is unlikely. “The GCC has not developed sufficiently as an institution” says Christian Koch, director of international relations at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.

The GCC’s General Secretariat, which is responsible for drafting and implementing the council’s decisions, is widely considered to be understaffed, with about 300 employees. This means GCC projects often encounter delays, but the decision-making structure itself also hinders major foreign policy initiatives.

Any significant decisions require the unanimous support of member states, and the national interests of the six members are often a stumbling block.

One area where the GCC countries have found a common interest is in negotiating international free trade agreements with other economic blocs, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Mercosur bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and the EU.

The GCC has had mixed results with these agreements, with progress on a free trade deal with the EU proving particularly difficult to come by. The GCC is the sixth-largest importer of EU goods and services in the world, while the EU imports more from the GCC than any other trading partner.

The two sides signed an economic co-operation agreement in 1988, with a fully-fledged free trade agreement to follow. But despite having annual meetings since then, the two institutions have yet to agree the details of any free trade pact.

In May 2007, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, external relations commissioner at the EU, said she was hopeful of concluding a free trade agreement with the GCC by the end of June that year. But in December 2008, the talks collapsed, and the GCC accused the EU of having little interest in the Gulf’s economic diversification and development.

“This [lack of interest in the Gulf] is illustrated in the limited EU investments in GCC productive sectors and its concentration in the oil sector because they need it,” said the GCC secretariat in a statement released one month later. “They also do not appear to be meant with any effort to facilitate the transfer of technology to the GCC countries and have been dealing with the region as a key consumer market.”

Executive power

While the GCC-EU talks remain on hold, ministers from the GCC and Asean nations met for the first time on 30 June in Manama, Bahrain, where they discussed the possibility of a co-operation framework and a subsequent free trade deal. The two institutions’ secretariats are currently preparing recommendations for a trade agreement, as well as deals on other economic co-operation and development issues.

The Asean meeting followed a meeting in April this year between GCC representatives and the Mercosur trade bloc. Paraguay, which currently holds Mercosur’s rotating presidency, signed a communique at the time promising to speed up negotiations for a free trade deal with the GCC, and Al-Attiyah has said he is confident that the agreement will be signed before the end of the year.

However, the nature of diplomacy in the GCC is such that personal relationships between the six states’ rulers are what matter most. Few decisions are made at the ministerial level, leaving the annual December meeting between the GCC rulers as the only official forum where substantial progress can be made in setting GCC policy.

This centralisation of executive power, coupled with a lack of staff at the GCC secretariat itself, means the development of a common policy for the bloc’s external relations will continue to be done on an ad hoc basis for the foreseeable future.