by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
The sudden rupture in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Canada has thrown a spotlight on the regional political dynamics that have placed unprecedented and potentially irreversible strains on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Over the past three years the inclusionary vision that had originally created and sustained the GCC as a grouping of six relatively like-minded states has given way to an exclusionary security-centered approach to regional affairs. The GCC always functioned best as a loose collective of monarchies whose ruling families guarded their autonomy and resisted attempts to draw closer on “big ticket” issues that encroached on national sovereignty. This combination of flexibility and consensus saw the GCC states through three major interstate wars in the Gulf––the Iran-Iraq war, 1980-1988; the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait, 1990-1991; and the invasion of Iraq, 2003––and helped them maintain relative stability in an otherwise conflict-wracked region. However, the emergence of a hyper-hawkish geopolitical axis running from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi has widened existing fractures, created new fault lines, and inflicted potentially long-term damage on what had been the most durable regional organization in the Arab world.
With a secretariat based in Riyadh, it was perhaps unsurprising that the secretary-general of the GCC, Abdul Latif bin Rashid Al Zayani, swiftly issued a statement on August 6 in support of the Saudi leadership’s furious response to criticism of aspects of its human rights record by Canada’s foreign minister. Al Zayani’s instant reaction contrasted with the general absence of public statements from the GCC secretariat over the 15 months since three of its members—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates—turned on a fourth, Qatar, for the second time in little more than three years. The Qatari government quickly distanced itself from Al Zayani’s claim to speak for the GCC. The governments of Kuwait and Oman issued statements of their own that focused on the principle of noninterference in internal affairs but did not take a position in the dispute. With the Bahraini and Emirati foreign ministries more vocally taking the Saudi side in the dispute, the fissures in the GCC once again became clear—although in practice they extend far beyond a simple binary fissure between the Saudi/Emirati/Bahraini trio and Qatar.
To be sure, the Qatar standoff remains the central schism that has fragmented the GCC since it erupted in May 2017. However, while the initial crisis has settled into a holding pattern, its ramifications continue to ripple across the region like a stone cast into the placid waters of the Gulf. It is clear that the rise of a ramrod approach to regional affairs by a core of policymaking elites in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has superseded the flexibility that had made the GCC so durable. The decades-long trend of long-serving members of ruling families holding senior government positions gave an air of predictability to decision-making in Gulf politics; although at times their longevity as members veered close to a perceived stagnation, it ensured that policy-making was generally stable. Nowhere was this more the case than in Saudi Arabia, where Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz and his brother Interior Minister Prince Nayef, King Abdullah, and Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal all passed away between 2011 and 2015 after having held their respective offices for a combined total of 173 years.
The death of these members of the Saudi royal family facilitated the subsequent concentration of power—unprecedented in modern Saudi history—by the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his inexorable rise toward the throne. In the UAE, meanwhile, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has risen similarly to become the power behind the scene as his older half-brother, Abu Dhabi Ruler and UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has struggled with persistent ill health for years. Together with his full brothers—National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun and Minister of Presidential Affairs Sheikh Mansour—and his son, Khalid bin Mohammed, whom he appointed Deputy National Security Advisor in 2017, Mohammed bin Zayed has built Abu Dhabi into a hard-security state and extended its control across the other six emirates that make up the UAE. In doing so, he moved far away from the legacy as a regional mediator and respected elder statesman of the Gulf, one that was enjoyed by his father, Sheikh Zayed, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966 to 2004 and was the founding father of the UAE in 1971.
Recent decisions—such as the launching of military operations in Yemen in 2015, the blockade of Qatar in 2017, and a new Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council in 2018—all illustrate the duopoly of Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed as the new focal point of Gulf politics. With a realignment of the regional center of gravity to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, other GCC states were put in the position of having to catch up to developments and resist pressure to take sides. Kuwait and Qatar both sent troops to Yemen after Emirati and Bahraini forces suffered a mass casualty attack on an encampment in September 2015 while Oman refused to join the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen. The Qatari forces were expelled from the coalition after the blockade of Qatar began, ironically just days after taking casualties while defending Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen. Oman, for its part, issued a formal protest to Saudi Arabia in September 2015 after the residence of its ambassador in Yemen was hit in an air strike in Sanaa.
Kuwait and Oman notably did not join the blockade of Qatar in June 2017, with the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed Al Sabah, engaging in frenetic shuttle diplomacy at the start of the crisis and, in September 2017, appearing to suggest that military action against Qatar had been on the table but had been averted. Two aspects of the Qatar crisis hold direct relevance for policymakers in Kuwait City and Muscat. The first is the pressure put on Doha to conform to a set of regional policy demands that aligns with priorities in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and offers little scope for autonomy or compromise. The second is the observation that the pressure on Qatar began within weeks of its new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, coming to power in June 2013. Achieving balance in regional affairs has long been a hallmark of Kuwaiti and Omani foreign policies and was on display in early 2017 when the two countries reached out to Iran to try and dial down rising tensions in the Gulf. The prospect of eventual succession in both countries—to Kuwait’s 89-year-old Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah and Oman’s 78-year-old Sultan Qaboos bin Said—has also raised concern about vulnerability to potential external pressure at times of political transition.
Between 2011 and 2014, Kuwait was roiled by skirmishing between supporters of two ambitious contenders for the position of crown prince once the incumbent, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad Al Sabah, succeeds his brother Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad as emir. The battle between former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al Sabah and former Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad Al Sabah caused great friction in Kuwait and culminated in Sheikh Ahmad going into exile in 2015. The situation has calmed and Emir Sabah’s son, Defense Minister Nasser Sabah Al Sabah, has emerged as a safe-pair-of-hands alternative; but the presence in exile of such a senior and ambitious contender for succession provides an inroad for potential future interference. It has not been lost on officials in Kuwait City that Sheikh Ahmad’s base of support lies in Kuwait’s tribal and Sunni Islamist constituencies while his leading political advocate, firebrand opposition ex-MP Musallam al-Barrak, sought refuge in Saudi Arabia after his November 2017 conviction for storming the National Assembly during protests in 2011.
In Oman, concerns have been raised by Saudi-Emirati activities in the southeastern Yemeni province of Mahra adjacent to the Omani border, long considered a buffer zone that isolated Oman from Yemen’s internal difficulties. This also rekindled memories of previous tensions with the UAE, such as allegations of financial inducements to Omani citizens in the Musandam Peninsula in the 1970s and 1980s, claims of a UAE “spy ring” ostensibly uncovered in 2011, and suggestions of large-scale land purchases by Emiratis in Oman. Omani officials have watched closely as the blockade of Qatar has unfolded and are only too aware that they may be next to feel the pressure to conform to a regional straitjacket designed in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Within the UAE itself there are suggestions that Mohammed bin Zayed may be encountering unease from the effort to centralize control in Abu Dhabi and upend—in practice if not on paper—the federal nature of the Emirati state and the equilibrium among the seven emirates. A notable absentee from the inaugural meeting of the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council in Jeddah on June 7, 2018, was Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, despite his federal positions as prime minister and vice president of the UAE. His absence added to perceptions that the new council was driven by the two crown princes in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi—who became its co-chairs—with little consultation with the rulers of the other six emirates of the UAE. The slew of joint Saudi-UAE state-led ventures announced at the Jeddah meeting would appear to go against the vaunted model of UAE laissez-faire development in which the state puts in place the structures to support economic growth but then gets out of the way.
Other signs of possible tension have bubbled up in the UAE over the past few months. The apparent defection in May of a son of the ruler of Fujairah brought to the surface the suggestion of pushback among the northern Emirates to purported attempts by Abu Dhabi to influence the direction of decision-making. Over the past year, both Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah have wooed investors to bid for energy concessions in the historically oil-and-gas poor emirates; if successful, this would diversify their local economies and make them less dependent on federal transfers from the Abu Dhabi-based central government. The reemergence of UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan four years after a stroke has been interpreted by some as sending a reminder that Mohammed bin Zayed does not yet formally hold ultimate power. The Mueller investigation in the United States, which is potentially looking into a role the UAE played in the 2016 elections, is an additional wild card that could generate a negative fallout for the Abu Dhabi leadership. A similar concern is that related to the aftermath of the Malaysian election and the renewed focus on the financial flows in the 1MDB affair that has a UAE angle to it.
It is too early to tell whether the recent pushback to Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE, or to Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia—over Jerusalem and the Trump Administration’s “peace plan”—is more than just a temporary hiccup or the beginning of a sustained effort to return to the consensus that for so long characterized Gulf politics. And yet, significant damage already has been inflicted on the political fabric of the GCC and especially on the social (and economic) ties that traditionally had bound together the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula in interrelated ways. The most immediate loser is the GCC itself as it has been “missing in action” from every phase of the Qatar standoff and has also been bypassed by the new Saudi-Emirati axis in Yemen. The July 2018 announcement of a Saudi-Kuwaiti Coordination Council suggests that the Arab Gulf countries may revert to a pre-GCC pattern of managing their relations, using a largely bilateral basis—that is, unless something gives in Riyadh or in Abu Dhabi that reverses their neighbors’ centrifugal responses to their centripetal push.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), and a Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University. Reposted, with permission, from the Arab Center Washington DC.