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Frankly speaking: groundwork laid for Gulf economic union by 2025, says GCC chief Nayef Al-Hajraf

DUBAI: The Gulf Cooperation Council is moving forward with plans for an economic union among its six members in just four years, despite a “very difficult” timetable, the GCC secretary general told Arab News.

Nayef Al-Hajjraf, who took over as head of the organization in 2020, said last week’s GCC summit verdict was conclusive. “The guidelines or decisions taken by the Supreme Council are very clear – this has been set as the 2025 deadline. There is a lot of work going on. We are working on the customs union, we are working on the common market, and we are also removing any barriers that might lie between the two. “

He added: “I know 2025 is fast approaching. There is a lot of work to be done over the next four years. We have to stress that we are not starting from scratch, there is a tremendous amount of work that we have done and in fact completed in the last 20 years since the customs union was announced in 2003. “

Al-Hajjraf highlighted the GCC’s commitment to unity on “Frankly speaking,” the series of video interviews with key regional and global policymakers. He was speaking after the 42nd GCC Leaders’ Summit in Riyadh last week.

In a high profile interview, he also touched on the possibility of further political integration in the GCC, the need for a unified rate of value added tax across the organization, l ‘opportunity for a special “business visa” to assist trade and the GCC’s commitment to mutual defense security.

He also promised the GCC to work towards a full-fledged economic and political union, an ambition defined by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and reinforced by King Salman in 2015. “We are fully determined to implement what was adopted by the vision of King Salman. in 2015, ”Al-Hajjraf said.

Al-Hajjraf, Kuwait’s former finance minister, praised the “fundamental achievements, milestones” of the GCC unit, and said issues that had been controversial in the past, such as the location of a central bank of the GCC and a common currency, were “technical problems” which could be solved because “the political will is there and the direction is very clear”.

He said VAT rates, which currently range from zero to 15 percent across different GCC countries, could eventually be unified. The global pandemic has had a “significant impact” on VAT policy, he said.

“This is the reason why some countries have increased their VAT to 15% – it is in Saudi Arabia, for example – and to 10 recently in Bahrain, while in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, they maintain the 5 %, and in Qatar, they have 5% for excise duties. but no VAT. In Kuwait, they are still working with the National Assembly to get approval for VAT and excise duties, ”he said.

“I think within a period of time it should be unified. This will be discussed for the coming period and we hope that we will reach the unified percentage, ”he added.

Al-Hajjraf also raised the prospect of introducing a special visa for business travelers in the GCC to facilitate cross-border trade.

“It’s a good idea. It’s on our agenda. This was discussed last year in several meetings and we hope we will conclude this soon.”

He added: “You know this requires a lot of approvals from different government agencies in the six member states. It has been discussed and hopefully we can wrap it up and then announce it when it is finalized. “

Regarding the possibility of an enlargement of the GCC, Al-Hajjraf said the plan was to “intensify” relations with non-GCC countries such as Jordan and Morocco, both mentioned as potential full members. previously by King Abdullah.

“At the moment, this type of strategic relationship is very important for the GCC, as well as for Jordan and Morocco, and we intend to intensify this type of relationship because we firmly believe that we have a role to play. to stabilize not only the region. , but also to be the voice of wisdom in the Arab world, ”he said.

Egypt will also play an increasingly influential role in regional affairs and in relations with the GCC, he said. “Egypt is at the heart of the Arab world and has a historic role. The GCC is also a stabilizer and fulfills its objective of civilizing and maintaining peace and security in the region. So getting together is just something we do all the time. We must see that this relationship takes an institutionalized path.

The summit reiterated its support for UN resolutions recognizing Morocco’s right to Western Sahara and the country’s need for “security, stability and territorial integrity”, even at the risk of alienating neighboring Algeria. “It was our point of view and our belief from day one,” he said.

The 42nd summit also reaffirmed its long-standing support for the Palestinians and their rights to a two-state solution within the 1967 borders, although two GCC members, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, normalized their relations with Israel.

“Even though two countries signed a peace accord with Israel in accordance with the Abrahamic Accord – which were sovereign decisions that we respect very much – the two-state solution is our take on how to resolve this conflict of long-lasting, a conflict that doesn’t help anyone. I don’t think the Palestinians or the Israelis benefit from maintaining the status quo, “he said.

The GCC was awaiting a response from the Israelis on the two-state proposals, but Al-Hajjraf said the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital were essential elements of any peace initiative.

The GCC Common Defense Treaty, which specifies that a military attack on one member is an attack on all, was also highlighted at the recent summit. Al-Hajjraf said it would continue to be a “binding” agreement, as it had been when Iraq attacked Kuwait in 1990.

He condemned Iran’s continued military support to the Houthi militia in Yemen, which he said was worsening the situation on the ground and causing unnecessary civilian casualties, and added that the GCC fully supports the envoys’ peace efforts. US and UN specials. on Yemen, as well as the role of Oman.

The position of the Emirati islands in the Gulf which have been occupied by Iran for the past 50 years must be resolved through dialogue, negotiation and through international tribunals, he said.

The GCC should be more involved in the negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear plans, he said, adding that the forum should be expanded to include discussions on Tehran’s aggressive expansionist policies in the region.

“It should be one package. The Vienna talks should not be limited to the resumption of the JCPOA at all, but should cover the whole package in one fell swoop. We have also expressed our request to be there at the negotiating table because we firmly believe that Iran’s nuclear program will not affect Washington, which is 10,000 miles from the region, but it will affect us – we are only ‘within 100 miles of their nuclear capabilities. or facilities, ”he said.

Al-Hajjraf reiterated the GCC’s support for the Lebanese people, but criticized the influence of Hezbollah and Iran in the country’s internal affairs, and the neglect of the country’s political elites. “They have to start by thinking about how to help themselves and then look for help outside,” he said.

The AlUla summit in January 2021 marked the end of divisions and divergences within the GCC, he said, and a “new start” for the organization, cemented by the regional tour of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ahead of last week’s summit.

“These are very important milestones and we are very happy that it has passed behind us and we are looking to move forward,” he said.