by Dr. Khalid al-Jaber and Giorgio Cafiero
On May 18, the Saudi leadership called for urgent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League meetings to discuss escalating tensions in the Gulf region. King Salman proposed holding these two summits in Mecca on May 30 to discuss recent “aggressions and their consequences” in the region. The announcement followed a seemingly mysterious act of sabotage earlier this month off the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s east coast, which targeted four vessels. Two days later, Yemen’s Houthi rebels attacked Saudi Arabia’s East-West pipeline with drones, in an incident that officials in Riyadh said had been ordered by Iran.
Major questions have been raised about how Qatar, both a GCC and Arab League member, factors into these two summits in Saudi Arabia. Initially, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani did not receive an invitation at the time that other Arab countries’ heads of state did, suggesting that officials in Riyadh would use these summits to strengthen narratives about Qatar being an isolated pariah state on the two year anniversary of the start of the Gulf dispute.
Yet on May 26, the King Salman finally extended an invitation to Emir Tamim via the GCC Secretary-General. The following day, a Qatari-registered jet landed in Saudi Arabia with a Qatari diplomat onboard, the first time that has occurred since the Gulf crisis erupted in 2017. Although the Saudi king’s invitation and the arrival of a Qatari aircraft in Jeddah were symbolically significant, Qatar’s head of state will not attend the Mecca summits, given the current state of Riyadh-Doha relations, and will send Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani in his place. Furthermore, talk of the summits leading to a resolution of the Gulf crisis is premature. In fact, the Saudis continue banning Qatari jets from the kingdom’s airspace. The Qatari jet that landed in Jeddah on May 27 was permitted entry into Saudi airspace just because of the upcoming Mecca summits, not due to any overall change in Saudi policy.
Put simply, the blockade is still in place, and until/unless it is lifted Qatar is unlikely to seek much goodwill from the Saudi leadership. Without question, this two-year blockade, which has been accompanied by the Saudi/UAE-led bloc attacking Qatar through information wars and lobbying efforts in the West, has created conditions that neither Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi would be able to easily reverse. The economic siege and severing of diplomatic relations between the anti-Qatar coalition and Doha gave the blockaded emirate no choice but to adapt and turn to other countries, such as Turkey, Iran, India, China, Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, Russia, and Western powers, for closer ties and deeper partnerships in order to circumvent the siege.
For Qataris, it is a source of national pride that their country managed to essentially gain her independence from the Saudi and Emirati shadows and spheres of influence in the region. In Doha, there is a view that Qatar is better off in the long run without its former GCC allies, which have failed to achieve their objectives in terms of pressuring Qatar into making significant changes to its foreign and domestic politics. Had Qatar capitulated, the emirate would have essentially relinquished its sovereignty to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to become a vassal state under the control of those capitals. Many Qataris are proud that their leadership has not given in to the Saudis and Emiratis.
With Emir Tamim refusing King Salman’s invitation and sending a lower-level representative in his stead, Doha is sending important messages. Much like the annual GCC summit held late last year in Saudi Arabia, plus the one a year before in Kuwait City, Qatar is continuing to support the GCC as an institution by participating in these meetings. Perhaps Qatar’s leadership believes that in the future, even if far down the road, the GCC could return to its former status as a relevant institution in regional politics, and the government in Doha would like to confidently assert that Qatar, as a founding member of the Council, never walked away from it despite the Gulf crisis.
Yet this long-term thinking does not change the realities of the Gulf’s current landscape and (in)security architecture. Qatar views Saudi Arabia as a grave threat and the GCC as a toothless institution that is entirely incapable of providing the emirate with the form of protection that all six member states (including Qatar) initially desired from the GCC when the body was formed in the early 1980s. Instead of counting on Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as allies and defense partners in the face of common threats, Qatar views other countries—chiefly the United States and Turkey—as its top security allies in the face of threats posed by, ironically, fellow GCC members.
The mistrust within the GCC, which is illustrated by both Qatar’s perceptions of the blockading states as well as their views of Doha as a major threat to their ruling regimes—will not end because of Qatar’s participation in the GCC and Arab League summits this month. It is difficult to imagine either the Saudi or Qatari governments’ positions on the Gulf crisis changing in any significant ways because of these emergency meetings.
It is of course not yet known what the Qatari premier will say in Mecca. Also unclear is how he will be treated and how he will interact with the leaders of the blockading states. It is possible that the summits will heat up the GCC’s internal row, especially if the Saudi government views the Emir’s refusal to attend as a snub, or if there are competing versions of events relayed by different media outlets in the region with more weaponization of “fake news” from state-owned media outlets in their reporting on the summits.
In all probability, these emergency meetings in Saudi Arabia will not end the GCC crisis. The leadership in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi must contend with the fact that their brash actions against Qatar in May/June 2017 gave rise to new dynamics that have not only transformed the Arabian Peninsula’s geopolitical order but have also fueled instability and polarization across the greater Islamic world, from the Maghreb to the Levant and the Horn of Africa to the Sahel. If there is a genuine effort on the part of Saudi Arabia’s king to shore up Arab Gulf unity in the face of a perceived Iranian threat to the kingdom, the conduct of the Saudi Crown Prince and his counterpart in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, toward Qatar over the past two years would undermine King Salman’s ability to achieve such an objective.
Khalid al-Jaber (@Aljaberzoon) is the director of MENA Center for Research in Washington, DC.