What international association brings together 18 countries straddling three continents thousands of kilometers apart, united solely by their sharing of a common body of water?
That is a quiz question likely to stump the most devoted aficionado of global politics. It’s the Indian Ocean Rim Countries’ Association for Regional Cooperation, blessed with the unwieldy acronym IOR-ARC, perhaps the most extraordinary international grouping you have ever heard of.
The association manages to unite Australia and Iran, Singapore and India, Madagascar and the United Arab Emirates, and a dozen other states large and small — unlikely partners brought together by the fact that the Indian Ocean washes their shores. I have just come back from attending the association’s ministerial meeting in Sanaa, Yemen. Despite being accustomed to my eyes glazing over at the alphabet soup of international organizations I have encountered during a three-decade-long UN career, I find myself excited by the potential of IOR-ARC.
Regional associations have been created on a variety of premises: geographical, as with the African Union; geopolitical, as with the Organization of American States; economic and commercial, as with ASEAN or Mercosur; and security-driven, as with NATO. There are multi-continental ones, too, like IBSA, which brings together India, Brazil and South Africa, or the better-known G8.
Even Goldman Sachs can claim to have invented an intergovernmental body, since the “BRIC” concept coined by that Wall Street firm was recently institutionalized by a meeting of the heads of government of Brazil, Russia, India and China in Yekaterinburg, Russia, last month. But it is fair to say there is nothing quite like IOR-ARC in the annals of global diplomacy.
For one thing, there is not another ocean on the planet that takes in Asia, Africa and Oceania — and could embrace Europe, too, since the French department of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean, gives France observer status in IOR-ARC, and the French foreign ministry is considering seeking full membership.
For another, every one of Samuel Huntington’s famously clashing civilizations finds a representative among its members, giving a common roof to the widest possible array of world views in their smallest imaginable combination (just 18 countries). When IOR-ARC meets, new windows are opened between countries separated by distance as well as politics.
Malaysians talk with Mauritians, Arabs with Australians, South Africans with Sri Lankans, and Iranians with Indonesians. The Indian Ocean serves as both a sea separating them and a bridge linking them together.
The potential of the organization is huge. There are opportunities to learn from one another, to share experiences and to pool resources on such issues as blue-water fishing, maritime transport and piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia, as well as in the Strait of Malacca.
But IOR-ARC does not have to confine itself to the water: It’s the countries that are members, not just their coastlines. So everything from the development of tourism in the 18 countries to the transfer of science and technology is on the table. The poorer developing countries have new partners from which to receive educational scholarships for their young and training courses for their government officers. There is already talk of new projects in capacity building, agriculture and the promotion of cultural cooperation.