The withdrawal of the Saudi, Bahraini and UAE ambassadors to Qatar has thrown the Gulf Cooperation Council into deep crisis
Since its inception on 25 May 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has encountered difficult challenges that were instrumental in obstructing the realisation of unity, a goal that remained an aspiration of GCC members even if it had not been stated in black and white in their charter. The organisation’s goals, as defined by its charter, are “to achieve coordination, integration and interdependence among member states and to deepen and strengthen the bonds, ties and forms of cooperation existing between their peoples in all fields.” The document remained shy of a wording that would call for a unification formula higher or closer than cooperation and coordination. The founders were also clearly determined to obviate an expansionist concept that could bring on board other Arab states. GCC membership is closed; it cannot be extended to any other state or states. Also, under the charter, each member state has the right of “veto”, which effectively strips resolutions adopted by the council of any binding force, rendering them mere recommendations. In addition, the GCC’s Supreme Council, which consists of the heads of state of the six member nations (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE), has not appointed a president. Rather, there is a system of an annually rotating chairmanship, the authority of which is limited to presiding over the organisation’s summit sessions.
A LONG HISTORY OF DISPUTES: There are reasons for the foregoing. The rivalries among the six member nations have always been intense and the balance of powers has always been skewed in favour of Saudi Arabia. There is a long history of border disputes and problems that date back to the era of the British occupation. As part of their policy of splitting up the Arab region, in the Gulf area in particular, colonial architects drew up boundaries that ultimately generated a plethora of sources of tension and conflict.
Such were the factors that would subsequently account for the reluctance of the five smaller nations to enter into a joint regional security system with Saudi Arabia since the first and last ministerial conference for the “Regional System of the Arab Gulf”. Held in Muscat in November 1976, the conference was attended by the foreign ministers of the eight Gulf states: Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. After it failed to obtain its objective, the six countries that would later go on to form the GCC continued negotiations aimed at creating a regional joint security framework for themselves. But nothing evolved, not only because of the aforementioned causes but also due to a range of other important regional and international factors. Prime among these were:
The constant meddling on the part of the two regional powers Iran and Iraq in relations between Saudi Arabia and the five smaller Gulf countries which, in turn, saw in Tehran and/or Baghdad a key to leveraging themselves with respect to Riyadh.
The fact that all these countries possessed huge oil and gas reserves and were, additionally, located in an area that was strategically vital to world trade and security. They were therefore a focus of major concern to international powers, which readily offered them sufficient protection to enable them to dispense with the need to enter a security and defence pact with Saudi Arabia.
All the above factors combined propelled against the creation of a regional security order in the Gulf during the five years that followed the collapse of the ministerial conference in Muscat, even if all the smaller countries, apart from Kuwait, entered into bilateral security agreements with Riyadh that were chiefly concerned with internal security matters. However, the overthrow of the Shah in Iran and the establishment of the Iranian Islamic Republic (on 11 February 1979) triggered alarm among the six Gulf states in view of the declared intention of the new rulers in Tehran to “export” their Islamic revolution. The fears were heightened with the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran War (in September 1980) the potential repercussions of which galvanised the leaders of the five smaller Gulf states into joining Saudi Arabia in the creation of the GCC.
We can therefore say that the GCC was born weak, as the majority of its members were driven to join it more by the perceived need to counter looming dangers than by the prospect of potential gain. As an organisation, it is also structurally weak. As the member states were determined to retain their full sovereignty and independence, the GCC as a “subsidiary regional organisation” was given no authority above that of its member states and its decisions are “advisory” rather than “binding”. Such structural deficiencies combined with ongoing rivalries and disputes continued to prevent the creation of a joint regional security order and the evolution of the GCC into an economic, political and security bloc capable of offsetting the weight of the two major regional powers in the Gulf, Iran and Iraq. Then, as of the outset of 2011, the shockwaves of the Arab Spring revolutions began to hit. The most affected by the repercussions were Bahrain and Oman, aggravating the causes of disputes that soon escalated into tensions and that began to jeopardise the continued unity of the GCC and its aspirations to develop into a Gulf Union.
THE PROBLEM OF CREATING A GULF UNION: GCC governments, and Saudi Arabia in particular, reacted quickly in order to contain the fallout from the wave of Arab revolutions and uprisings. Firstly, Riyadh injected huge sums of financial aid ($5 billion) into Bahrain and Oman so as to address the economic and social problems that lay at the root of discontent and unrest in those countries. A more significant development was the direct military intervention on the part of the GCC’s “Al-Jazira Shield Forces” to curb the deterioration in the state of security in Bahrain. Then Saudi King Abdullah Ben Abdel-Aziz proposed inviting the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco to join the council. The proposal was roundly rejected by the other members, firstly because of the closed membership stipulated in the charter, and secondly, because they feared that relaxing this stipulation would pave the way to the inclusion of the three neighbouring countries — Iraq, Iran and Yemen — that had also been keen to join the GCC.
However, the most significant development occurred in the organisation’s summit in Riyadh in December 2011, when the Saudi monarch aired the call to transform the GCC into a “Gulf Union” along the lines of the EU. The idea was raised again in the consultative summit in Riyadh in May 2012, but discussion was deferred until the ministerial meeting scheduled for September that year on the grounds that it required more comprehensive study. Then the subject was supposed to head the agenda of the last GCC summit in Kuwait (10-11 December 2013) but — due to reasons pertaining to Omani opposition to the concept — not only was discussion deferred, the subject was taken off the agenda.
The tensions over this issue could jeopardise the future of the Gulf organisation. In the annual “Manama security dialogue”, Omani Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Youssef Ben Alawi Abdullah openly noted the existence of strong differences between GCC members of proposed projects concerning the foreign and defence policies of the council. He went on to state that his country refused to be a member of a Gulf Union project, a subject scheduled for discussion in the summit.
The Omani minister’s statement was a response to the earlier speech by his Saudi counterpart Nazar Madani who, in the Manama dialogue, which had been given the title “Regional Security, Conflicts and the Great Powers”, said that transforming the GCC into a union was “an urgent necessity compelled by security, political and economic changes”. Madani stressed that GCC members needed to work together to turn the Arab Gulf region into “a major strategic power zone”. He urged members to be “cautious and alert” in handling foreign interventions and “to reach collective understandings on the importance of an agreement on a unified framework for responding to the challenges and threats that loomed over the countries of the council”.
Ben Alawi’s sudden, frank and vehement response may have come as a shock to the participants in that conference. But it was not spontaneous; it had been carefully studied in advance. He made it explicit that his country was prepared to withdraw from the GCC should its members choose to pursue the idea of a Gulf Union. “If they create a [Gulf] union, we will not be a member of it,” he stated, adding, “we will not prevent the creation of such a union, even though we could since GCC decisions are taken by unanimous vote.” He also made it clear that Muscat opposed a regional joint security and defence pact. “If there are other or new [security] arrangements among the GCC countries as the result of currently existing or future conflicts, we are not and will not be a party in them.” He cautioned on the need for GCC members “to stay clear from regional and international conflicts” and went on to state: “We believe that, in the GCC and outside of it, power does not necessary mean that people have to militarise in order to enter into conflicts.”
Some Gulf officials who took part in the Manama dialogue responded to the Omani minister’s threat to withdraw from the GCC with remarks such as, “may they leave in peace.” Fortunately, the participants preferred to sustain the unity of the organisation by shelving the Gulf Union project, at least temporarily. However, neither the dismissive sneers of some of the participants or the inclination to sweep the subject under the rug will solve the GCC’s dilemma. This dilemma — indeed, crisis — is the lack of consensus over collective strategies in foreign policies and security and, to be more specific, strategies with respect to Iran. Some believe that Tehran has an expansionist agenda and regard it as a major regional threat. They are therefore pushing for the creation of a regional military bloc strong enough to counter Iranian military might. Among these are some who see Iran as the chief threat or the foremost strategic enemy, and believe that the only way to counter it is to do battle with it to the end, in the Syrian arena above all.
Oman is adamantly opposed to such thinking. It refuses to deal with Iran as an enemy. In fact, Muscat’s attitude towards Iran remains largely unchanged since the time of the Shah: it regards Iran as a strategic partner. Therefore, not only is it opposed to transforming the GCC into a military pact with the aim of doing battle with Iran, it favours promoting “Iranian partnership” with the GCC.
Since the departure of the British from the Gulf, Oman has developed its relations with Tehran (both under the Shah and then the Islamic Republic) as a counterweight to enhance its leverage with Riyadh. More importantly, however, Muscat has been determined to prevent the Gulf from becoming embroiled in avoidable conflicts. Therefore, unlike the governments of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries, Oman moved to defuse the confrontation between Iran and the “P5+1” (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) over the Iranian nuclear programme. It was Muscat that hosted the secret US-Iranian talks (in which the UK participated at some junctures) aimed at reaching peaceful resolution to that crisis. The negotiations, which began in March 2013, led to the Geneva Interim Accord, a development that cast a shadow over Muscat’s relations with some other GCC governments that continue to regard Tehran as a primary source of threat.
QATARI REBELLION BRINGS GCC TO A CROSSROADS: Before the GCC could absorb the shock from the discord that led to the shelving of the Gulf Union project, the organisation was struck by the greatest crisis in its history. This took the form of the joint ministerial statement issued by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on 5 March 2014 announcing their decision to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar. Riyadh then followed through on this unprecedented measure with another stinging blow, which was to declare the Muslim Brotherhood along with a number of jihadist and takfiri groups terrorist organisations and to prohibit any Saudi citizen or resident in the country from affiliating or dealing with these organisations.
In justifying the decision to withdraw the ambassadors, the joint ministerial statement explained that GCC states had exerted considerable efforts at numerous levels to persuade Doha to adopt a mode of behaviour consistent with the GCC charter and the agreements signed between member states, inclusive of the security agreement, and to abide by the principles in those charters. Those principles are to refrain from intervening, directly or indirectly, in the domestic affairs of any GCC member state; not to support, directly or indirectly, any individual or group that threatens the security and stability of a member state; and not to support a hostile media.
These efforts had led to an agreement signed by the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Ben Ahmed of Qatar and all other GCC heads of state in accordance with which Doha pledged to conform to the abovementioned principles. The agreement was signed following the summit that was held in Riyadh on 23 November 2013 and attended by the Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed. However, according to the joint ministerial statement, during the subsequent three months, Doha failed to abide by the agreement, which prompted the heads of state of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to instruct their foreign ministers to alert Qatar to the danger of its behaviour. The ministers issued this caution to Qatar in a meeting that took place in Kuwait on 17 February 2014 and that was attended by Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed of Kuwait, Sheikh Tamim Ben Ahmed of Qatar and the GCC foreign ministers. In that meeting, it was also agreed that the foreign ministers would set into motion a mechanism for monitoring the implementation of the aforementioned Riyadh agreement.
Several weeks later, on 4 March, the GCC foreign ministers met in Riyadh and attempted to prevail upon Qatar the need to take the necessary measures to put the Riyadh agreement into effect and to agree upon the monitoring mechanism. However, as Qatar during that meeting showed no willingness to comply with these demands, the governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain felt that they had no alternative but to proceed with that unprecedented step in the history of the GCC.
The subsequent Saudi decision to enter the Muslim Brotherhood on the list of terrorist organisations has further aggravated the crisis that now threatens the GCC. Qatar is faced with two choices. The first is to bow to the wishes of the other GCC members and cease its support for terrorist organisations and relinquish its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. The second is to persist in its current policies and alliances in the hope that this will precipitate a broader rift in the council and encourage other countries to rebel against the Saudi leadership and even to ally with regional forces opposed to Riyadh, most notably Iran.
THE GCC AND TOUGH CHOICES: What future awaits the GCC in light of the foregoing developments? What are the available options, especially in view of concurrent regional and international developments? In any decisions GCC members take, the questions of Iran (with regard to which the US appears to have put the option of war on a back burner in favour of negotiations), Syria (a looming military intervention scenario receded in favour of multinational diplomacy that includes Iran), the mounting Muslim Brotherhood terrorist threat (backed by the US and Turkey), not to mention the ongoing repercussions of the Arab Spring revolutions loom large. Such questions combined with the internal tensions among GCC countries bring the organisation to a critical crossroads in which its members will have to make some tough choices. The following are the most salient options:
1. To sustain communications with Qatar via the Kuwaiti intermediary. Some argue that this is the most viable option as Doha has been keen to keep channels of dialogue open with Kuwait, which did not follow suit with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. At the same time, officials in these three countries realise that their peoples have common interests that are realised through the GCC and that there are strong economic bonds between GCC countries.
Working against this option, on the other hand, is the intensive financial, intelligence and media support that Qatar provides the Muslim Brotherhood within the framework of a larger alliance that includes the US, Turkey and — ultimately — Israel. The larger objective of this alliance is to engineer a restructuring of the Middle East order in a manner that serves US interests, and empowering the Muslim Brotherhood is a key element in this project. Qatar may not have the desire or opportunity to withdraw from that alliance.
2. Freeze Qatar’s membership in the GCC. This may be the easiest option, especially since Riyadh appears serious in its resolve to clamp down on terrorist organisations and activities. Nevertheless, the option may not be welcomed by other GCC members, such as Kuwait and Oman, and therefore pushing for it could lead to further ruptures.
3. Restructure the Gulf regional security order in a manner that excludes US participation and, for the first time, brings on board Egypt and perhaps other Arab countries. This could be done by altering the GCC charter to provide for the membership of other nations or by creating a broader framework for cooperation and integration such as an Arab Union, which would operate in parallel with the Arab League and the Maghrebi Federation. This would pave the way for the inclusion of countries that are neither members in the GCC or the Maghrebi Federation in a larger bloc. Membership could be immediately extended to Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, although Lebanon and Syria would have to wait, given the murkiness of the situation there, and the same might apply to Sudan in view of its Muslim Brotherhood connection.
A possible disadvantage of this option is that Qatar might be prompted to promote the creation of a rival framework comprising Iran, Syria, Lebanon as well as such organisations as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbullah and Hamas. Such an alliance would be perceived as a grave threat and aggravate the dangers of divisions, animosities and polarisations in the Arab region.
If such choices are tough, the worst option would be to leave the future of the GCC countries and their stability and security prey to the moods and whims of the ruling regime in Doha whose conceit and arrogance was amply expressed by its foreign minister, Khaled Ben Mohamed Al-Attiya. In a speech at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris on 10 March 2014, he said: “The independence of the foreign policy of the State of Qatar is, simply put, non-negotiable.” He added that his government is “committed to supporting the right of peoples to self-determination and to supporting their aspirations for the realisation of justice and freedom.” Who exactly he had in mind is a matter of conjecture. But his words were not well received in Riyadh.
The writer is head of the Arab Affairs Unit in Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.