The Institutionalization of the GCC Conflict

by Giorgio Cafiero

Five months into the Qatar crisis, the future outlook for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as an institution of six Arabian countries is gloomy. In light of expectations that the Council will postpone its annual summit— scheduled for next month in Kuwait—and Bahrain’s recent calls for freezing Qatar’s membership in this sub-regional organization, a realistic solution to the Gulf dispute appears nowhere on the horizon. As Kuwaiti, American, French, and Russian efforts to promote a diplomatic settlement prove futile, the GCC is unraveling.

The lack of a response to the GCC crisis from the organization’s secretary general—a Bahraini national accused of favoring his government’s position—highlights the Council’s institutional weakness. If the GCC is designed to protect the security of all six members, how could an effectual Council permit three of its members and a non-GCC country—Egypt—to impose a blockade and wage a media war of narratives against a founding member? The GCC’s charter calls for unanimous support from all its members for any substantive changes to the institution. So, how would Bahrain’s plan—presumably backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—for suspending Qatar’s membership play out in practice given half of the GCC members’ opposition to such an unprecedented measure?

Sovereignty: Qatar’s “Red Line”

The unwillingness of the parties to the Qatar crisis to make adequate concessions is an outcome of the dispute’s root causes. Furthermore, such origins of the rift are likely to continue shaping the Arabian Peninsula regardless of the GCC’s future as a transnational organization. Ultimately, as officials in Washington continue working to convince the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain—to enter talks with Qatari officials, the ATQ is making demands of Qatar that no sovereign state would accept.

The ATQ’s 13 demands would require Doha to relinquish pillars of its independent foreign policy that have defined the Persian Gulf emirate’s ascendancy on both regional and international levels since the mid-1990s. As an influential Middle Eastern country and a major player in the international economy, particularly in the global liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector, Qatar has been escaping Saudi Arabia’s orbit of influence for more than two decades. In doing so, Doha has largely relied on policies that Riyadh and other GCC capitals saw—and continue to see—as undermining the Council’s collective interests.

Chiefly, Qatar created political space in the GCC for influential and controversial Islamists from other Middle Eastern countries. Doha granted citizenship to a handful of these foreign-born Islamists and provided them media platforms through outlets such as Al Jazeera—launched in 1996—that enabled them to speak to a wider Arab audience. In the process the Persian Gulf emirate became a “squeaky wheel” in the GCC, originally a Saudi-led initiative, at a time when some members of the Council were cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood’s local offshoots in their own countries. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw Doha as a threat to the status quo and an instigator of regional instability. So, for instance, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Qatar in 2002 in response to a Saudi dissident’s controversial remarks on Al Jazeera. In the mid-1990s, Saudi Arabia also tried to rein Qatar in by supporting a counter-coup d’état plot.

In 2011, the uprisings that shook the Arab world also frightened the Persian Gulf’s conservative Arabian sheikdoms. Of the six GCC members, only Qatar and the UAE did not feel the winds of revolutionary activism. In Bahrain the possibility of a revolution was real prior to the deployment of Saudi/Emirati forces to silence the anti-regime protestors. Yet despite being a GCC member, Qatar acknowledged the significant role of Islamist groups in the Arab world’s post-2011 political landscape and sought to embrace political Islam as a wave of the future. The absence of a substantive opposition in Qatar permitted officials in Doha to patronize Islamists in foreign countries without fear that similar forces at home would challenge the legitimacy of the Al Thani royals. Thus, mainly driven by pragmatism, not ideology, Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s regional affiliates because officials in Doha expected Islamists soon to start governing in the major Arab countries. As a result of Qatar’s fundamentally different response to the greater Arab world’s upheaval in 2011, trust between Doha and other GCC capitals began to quickly erode, despite Qatar’s close alignment with Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Syria.

In March 2014, the ATQ’s GCC members withdrew their ambassadors from Doha to pressure Qatar into supporting the military-led ouster of Egypt’s Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi. Although the emirate made certain concessions—and Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama returned their ambassadors to Qatar eight months after their withdrawal—the adjustments in Doha’s policies didn’t ultimately heal the rift. The Saudi/UAE-led bloc’s fundamental goal in 2014 is the same today: to pressure Qatar into returning to the role it played in the region when Emir Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani ruled from 1972-1995 and when the emirate was far less wealthy and autonomous. The current crisis boils down to Qatar conducting an independent foreign policy that challenges the regional status quo.

No Qatari Nostalgia for the Pre-Development Era

In June, the ATQ miscalculated that Doha’s relative isolation would turn Qatar’s population against Emir Tamim and his father, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, whom certain GCC officials believe still pulls the strings in Doha. Instead, the blockade led to surging nationalism in Qatar with locals and expatriates alike expressing strong support for Emir Tamim’s response to the GCC’s row. Ironically, prior to the crisis, political and tribal tensions in Qatar posed challenges for Emir Tamim. Yet the emirate is united under his rule now more than at any time since he ascended to the throne in 2013.

Qatar’s 300,000 nationals do not want the emirate to return to its pre-1995 role in the GCC. Before Doha confidently rose regionally and internationally, Qataris enjoyed a much lower standard of living. Today the citizenry largely attributes their peace and prosperity to the policies of Emir Tamim and his predecessor/father.

With the support of Qatari citizens—and by relying on alternative economic corridors with Kuwait, Oman, India, Iran, and Turkey—the current leadership in Doha has proven capable of maintaining not only political stability and a sense of normalcy within the emirate but also the flow of LNG to the outside world. Qatar’s wealth and strategic partnerships with major regional and global actors have enabled the Persian Gulf country to withstand the siege, uphold its sovereignty, and assert autonomy from Saudi Arabia to an unprecedentedly high degree.

Indeed, officials in Doha accept that their refusal to surrender to the 13 demands will pave the way for an institutionalization of the GCC’s rift. This scenario inevitably comes with a price tag for Doha of roughly $38 billion so far. But the Qatari leadership sees such a cost as worth paying if the alternative requires relinquishing sovereignty and accepting a relationship with Saudi Arabia such as Bahrain’s. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Emir Tamim said that demands that violate the emirate’s sovereignty cross a “red line.”

Gulf Disputes’ Origins Prevent Any Backing Down

Indeed, the ATQ has set itself up for a zero-sum game with Qatar by blockading the emirate and issuing unreasonable demands for restoration of relations. The GCC’s impasse is unlikely to be resolved on terms that either side of the rift would accept.

The root causes of the Gulf dispute suggest that there is no room for compromise between Doha and its GCC adversaries. Of course, even if the GCC continues to unravel, Qatar will remain neighbors with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But these latter countries are unlikely to ever accept a wealthy country in the Arabian Peninsula with a foreign policy that the Saudis and Emiratis perceive as threatening to their internal security. As the emir of Kuwait recently warned, the GCC’s failure to institutionally weather the five-month-old row may ultimately transform the western Persian Gulf from a sub-region of stability in the Middle East to yet another one of the region’s hotspots.

To date, the GCC has provided a framework for resolving tensions. But now the GCC is ceasing to be a Council made up of different members that for all their rivalries can meet at the roundtable let alone create a collective security umbrella against regional threats. Thirty-six years after the GCC’s establishment, fundamental disagreements about the smaller members’ sovereign rights and responses to political and social developments across the greater Middle East are bringing to an end the Saudi initiative to unite all Arab states and societies of eastern Arabia and the western Persian Gulf under a shared Khaleeji identity.

The institutionalization of the GCC’s rift will have major geopolitical ramifications around the region and beyond, given the importance of the oil- and gas-rich Persian Gulf to the international economy and global security. But the United States needs to acknowledge the underlying source of tension in the crisis. As long as Qatar remains sovereign and operates outside of the Saudi consensus in pursuit of its own national interests—and as long as the ATQ rejects this reality—negotiations will be moot and the rift will become permanent.

Photo: The GCC in more harmonious days.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.


One Comment

  1. “Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Saudi Arabia, . .”
    Hah. KSA is the world’s terrorist leader, and not Iran as the US claims. Hey, the US hasn’t been too bad at it either, especially in Syria against a sitting government.

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