(Ed note: The Gulf Cooperation Council has been under significant strain for the past year, namely because of an ongoing rift between Qatar and its neighbors, seemingly nudging Qatar closer to Iran, as reported previously by The Cipher Brief. The GCC was established in 1981 to help safeguard against broader regional involvement in the Iran-Iraq war. This analysis was submitted by the INSS – the Institute for National Security Studies, associated with Tel Aviv University, and headed by Amos Yadlin, the former Chief of Intelligence for the IDF.)
By Yoel Guzansky and Ari Heistein
Claiming that Doha’s ties to Iran and support for terror endangered their national security interests, the “Arab Quartet” of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt have enforced a diplomatic, economic, and physical blockade of Qatar for over one year. The crisis has been the most serious for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – which includes Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar – since its establishment in 1981. In addition to affecting relations between specific Gulf States, the rift could also negatively impact the viability of the GCC and the U.S. ability to coordinate and execute regional policies.
The establishment of the GCC was the product of ambitions to improve the collective security of the Gulf States. Its founding was based on the common ground between the member states: dynastic monarchies as governing bodies, the Sunni identity of the ruling elite, and a shared Arab ethnicity. The Council’s aim, as declared by its founders, was “To effect coordination, integration and inter-connection between Member States in all fields in order to achieve unity between them.” Yet, to overcome the divergences between the states as well as the feeling of suspicion felt amongst them, they needed a unifying factor. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war that followed pushed the Gulf States together and provided the organizational glue required to build the project.
However, beyond several notable economic achievements, the GCC has remained divided on many important issues. In the eyes of its critics, the GCC serves as little more than a podium from which to broadcast a message of Arab unity. In fact, in a sense, its founding added to the many disagreements in the Gulf as the member states then proceeded to argue about the organization’s goals, structure, and function. The public displays of brotherhood and solidarity between the leaders of the GCC states distorted a reality of competing interests, mistrust, tribal rivalries, territorial disputes, and personal feuds.
At the same time, the Council was able to adapt itself to the changing regional contexts as well as the shifting policies of its members, while slowly advancing its goals. For example, on several occasions, the GCC served to mediate disputes between members. In addition to that, the “flexible” and slow-moving decision-making process allowed for some GCC members – like Oman and Qatar – to operate outside of the Council’s consensus and that likely contributed to extending the body’s lifespan. In reference to the many other attempts at creating organizations to promote Arab unity, including the short-lived United Arab Republic (1958-1961) and the Arab Maghreb Union that is paralyzed by disputes regarding the Western Sahara, the GCC was comparatively successful in promoting regional cooperation. Council institutions continue to function today undisturbed, promoting economic initiatives and joint energy projects, while gradually reducing the barriers to trade between the member states. In addition, the GCC serves as a framework for coordination on political matters and security matters.
Zooming out and looking at regional dynamics from Washington’s perspective, the GCC is a valuable tool for advancing its regional interests. In practice, the collective body is useful in orchestrating missile defense, anti-smuggling, anti-piracy, and counter-terror efforts among U.S. allies in the region. Beyond that, by presenting a united front, the GCC as an organization helps to deter hostile actions from subversive actors like Iran.
Yet, the seeds for the decline in Saudi-Qatari relations were planted when Hamed bin Khalifa al-Thani took the reins from his father in 1995 and established the regime’s mouthpiece Al-Jazeera in 1996. Hamed’s desire to take a more active role in regional affairs translated into nurturing ties to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which often oppose the status quo actors supported by the Saudis and Emiratis, leading them into a number of proxy wars throughout the region. In addition, the critical eye with which Al-Jazeera looks at its Gulf neighbors has become a bone of contention between Qatar and the other member states who consider the public critiques of their policies a form of interference in their domestic affairs.
Three years prior to the eruption of the latest crisis, Saudi Arabia and its partners took diplomatic steps, including downgrading their representation, to pressure Qatar to change its regional policies. Later that year, the crisis was resolved when the parties reached an agreement not to interfere in one another’s internal issues and not to harm each other’s interests, security, and stability.
But the resolution did not hold, and the 2017 crisis represents an unprecedented escalation and casts doubt on the feasibility of Gulf unity; apparently, this time the Arab Quartet even contemplated military action to promote regime change in Qatar. Shortly after launching the blockade, the Arab Quartet set out a list of 13 demands to be met by Qatar in order to end the crisis, and they include reducing its relations with Iran, closing Al-Jazeera, and shuttering the Turkish military base in Qatar.
Even without Iran’s efforts to create tension among U.S. allies, the friction between Gulf States on the Iranian issue make formulating a unified stance extremely difficult. While it is true that the Gulf States generally see Iran as a threat to their stability, they each maintain different policies with respect to the Islamic Republic based on their unique geographic and demographic circumstances. For example, Saudi Arabia has long been hostile to Iran for several reasons including internal considerations, while Qatar, Oman, and to a certain extent even Kuwait, preferred to maintain comparatively friendly ties to Tehran. Even the UAE, which has taken a hard line against Iran politically, has tens of billions of dollars of trade with that very same country every year.
With the Arab Quartet’s 13 demands unmet one year on, the Gulf crisis appears to have taken on inertia of its own and appears neither to be heading towards escalation nor resolution. If that is indeed the case, what may result is the worst of all worlds: a fragmented GCC complicating economic and security cooperation, Qatar continuing its activities in the region, and Doha possibly moving towards Turkey and possibly even Iran. As it turns out, trying to force the richest country in the world per capita to concede through economic warfare can make it quite difficult to build leverage and extract concessions as it means challenging Qatar in an arena in which it has a comparative advantage.
What is apparent thus far is that what happens in the Gulf does not stay there. The feuding GCC states have found arenas around the world in which to engage each other – including the clash between lobbyists representing the two parties in Washington, DC as well as competing efforts to establish a military presence in the Horn of Africa. These efforts could ultimately exacerbate the tensions between the parties and result in events that are dangerous to the stability of the region and harmful to U.S. interests there.
The timing of the crisis, shortly after President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, provides some indication that Washington knowingly or unknowingly gave the “green light” to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to initiate the blockade of Qatar. The involved parties may now look to Washington once more, this time for how to extricate themselves from the predicament, and the White House should provide a roadmap to resolve the issue or mediate an end to the crisis, because failure to do so could mean the worsening of a serious crack in U.S. regional security architecture.