The Gulf Cooperation Council consists of a region of some of the most formidable economies in the world that enjoy vast oil and gas reserves which have brought them immense wealth. The GCC have combined oil reserves of about 497 billion barrels which is 34% of the world’s supply, according to King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center. However, these countries also share similar problems, which have become increasingly apparent with the fluctuation and gradual decline in global oil prices as well as the impacts of climate change. Since gulf countries share similar economic issues, it means that they should take collaborative efforts to curb these problems as well. Enhancing regional connectivity is one way to achieve this. It will help improve the economies of all GCC member states in the future and allow them to connect with larger markets.
Over the years, several steps have been taken by gulf countries to improve regional connectivity. For instance, since 1980s, there have been plans and several attempts to create a common GCC currency termed as Khaleeji or Dinar. The currency is expected to be valued at around 1 USD = 1.984 KHJ. Although since then, Oman and the UAE have withdrawn from the plans until further notice, this idea still enjoys popularity and GCC governments are still considering it. The region already meets many of the necessary criteria for a common currency as all seven of the countries have very similar economies, values, cultures, and histories. A common currency would bolster trade flows between the countries by removing border barriers, which will result in cheaper goods and services, particularly of healthcare, tourism, and education, and economic well-being of all the countries involved as a result of increased regional connectivity. A common gulf currency would also reduce exchange-rate uncertainties. Tourists and citizens would not need to constantly exchange currencies when visiting different countries in the region. A common currency will also reduce barriers for the transfer of people between gulf countries which will make it easy to exchange skilled labour, thus decreasing unemployment overall and also producing more opportunities for highly educated domestic workers being produced every year. It will also lead to greater economic integration in the GCC as regional connectivity grows stronger.
GCC countries have also begun to seriously explore strengthening transport links. After careful thought and deliberation, gulf countries have agreed to build a 2177km GCC railway in 2009 stretching from Kuwait, entering Saudi Arabia, connecting Bahrain as well as Qatar, then moving through the UAE and ending in Oman. The railway will also connect vast networks of existing and planned railway networks in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Oman, further improving regional connectivity in the gulf. The project is expected to be completed by 2025 and is expected to drastically improve trade costs, travel times, and connectivity between ports and cities. It will boost trade flows across the bloc and attract foreign direct investment. The GCC also aims to establish a common market and joint Customs union to further strengthen regional connectivity, which will result in greater economic growth and integration. The Saudis have already started expanding their already vast network of railway tracks. They have completed the al-Qurayyat station which connects Riyadh to Jordan and the rest of northern Saudi Arabia, stretching across 1215km. Moreover, the kingdom completed the Haramain speed train at Rabigh Station which connects the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah through a 450 km track. The UAE has also expanded its existing railway infrastructure, especially with a national rail network connecting 11 cities with trains travelling 200km per hour. Moreover, the Qataris have also built an extensive railway network as part of their efforts to organize the FIFA World Cup last year which consists of 26 projects. These railway lines will be connected with the GCC railway and they will boost regional connectivity in the region, facilitating the transport of people, information, and goods.
Other measures that the GCC could take to enhance regional connectivity would be to take steps to incorporate long term strategies of each member. All GCC member states have similar long-term goals as outlined by Saudi Vision 2030, Bahrain Vision 2030, Kuwait Vision 2035, UAE Vision 2030, Qatar Vision 2030, and Oman Vision 2040. The crux of these plans is to rid GCC states of oil dependence, combat climate change, and increase tourism and entertainment for more economic diversification. Integrating these efforts will increase collaboration, which will duly increase regional connectivity, resulting in more efficient execution of these plans. Moreover, other approaches include easing or eliminating border restrictions to enable free movement between GCC states for citizens and tourists. A major factor limiting trade is border restrictions as trade is less likely to happen if there is a border in between, even if the distance is negligible. If border restrictions are eliminated, then trade will become more frequent and there will be greater regional connectivity between adjacent countries. Furthermore, tourists will also be able to easily access other GCC member states and hence spend more money, cross border competition between markets would also increase, leading to more competitive prices, and finally, it will also reduce price differentials for people who live in areas that are near borders.
For this to happen, GCC countries need to improve diplomatic relations among themselves. This is particularly true after the diplomatic tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia between 2017 and 2021 which had forced the GCC nation to seek reroute flights and vessels. Such diplomatic crises will harm prospects for regional connectivity in the GCC and therefore need to be avoided. Moreover, the GCC’s economic growth is expected only at 3.2%, which is much lower than the 7.3% figure estimated in 2022. The figure is also a decline from the 5.8% growth in 2022. Furthermore, oil prices had been declining since many years, which poses a danger to the economies of the GCC. Although a cut in output by OPEC+ member states will boost oil prices in the short-run (they already helped oil prices cross $80 per barrel), this is not sustainable for the GCC economies. Therefore, GCC countries face a range of serious challenges when it comes to regional connectivity. However, the opportunities far outweigh the challenges and the GCC enjoys potential to become an economic powerhouse in the region.