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More than a family feud: Arab Gulf unity under stress

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • June 27, 2017

    Qatar’s isolation by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain along with some other countries has created a diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf region. The unfolding crisis has challenged the unity among the Arab Gulf monarchies who compose the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). While Kuwait has been mediating to resolve the crisis, Oman has maintained a studious silence and safe distance.

    The Arab Gulf monarchies came together to establish the GCC in 1981 in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the turbulence following the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980.The founding charter of the GCC emphasised on integration and interconnection of economics, education and culture among members. Though the charter did not mention cooperation on political and security issues, subsequent official communiqués have clearly recognised these as important areas of cooperation. It was the fear of Iran emerging as a political, ideological and economic power, together with apprehensions about the likely fallout of the Iran-Iraq war for the region, which had united the monarchies. Over the last 36 years of the GCC’s existence, cooperation among its members has expanded to several fields and the grouping has steadily emerged as a powerful political, economic and security bloc in the West Asian region. GCC economies are integrated, have a common market, and have plans to introduce a common currency too. As an economic bloc, they have signed free trade agreements (FTA) with some countries. And a large number of countries including India are in the process of negotiating FTAs with the GCC. The GCC also has a joint military arm known as the ‘Peninsula Shield Force’, which is intended to deter and respond to security threats faced by member states.

    Despite such cooperation and future potential, differences have always existed among GCC members over a number of issues. In the past, such differences did not pose a threat to the unity and relevance of the grouping. But the ongoing crisis reveals that the very unity and relevance of the GCC are now under stress. The contentious Saudi-Qatar relationship is at the centre of the present crisis. Though both countries are economic powerhouses in the region and are important players in the oil and gas sectors, their political differences have set them apart.

    Ever since Emir Sheikh Hamad of Qatar took over power in 1995 after deposing his father in a palace coup, he has aspired to make Qatar a regional power and followed an independent foreign policy. With large revenues accruing from the production and sale of natural gas, Doha soon emerged as an important player in the region. Qatar has mediated in some deadly regional conflicts, most notably in Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen, adding to its international prestige and visibility on the world stage. With popular unrest hitting the Arab streets in 2011, Doha became further active in regional politics, particularly in Syria, Egypt and Libya; and alongside Saudi Arabia, it also sent forces to Bahrain and Yemen. Besides, Doha has also tried to expand its power and influence by engaging with organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, some of whose leaders live in Qatar. While Saudi Arabia has enviously watched the swift rise of Qatar’s international reputation and expanding role in regional politics, Doha’s engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas was Riyadh’s redline.

    Saudi Arabia, being the biggest power in the Gulf, has always tried to influence and shape the politics of the region. Riyadh not only has the strong backing of some of its neighbours but also of the United States (US) in playing the lead role in the region. Qatar, by dint of its independent policy and massive wealth, has been trying to emerge as a decisive player in the region. Thus, the region and the GCC are witnessing a massive diplomatic crisis because of Riyadh’s assertiveness, on the one hand, and Doha’s resistance to a Saudi-dominated regional order, on the other. Qatar aspires to be a regional power and does not want to be seen as a client state of Saudi Arabia.

    The current crisis in the GCC has brought Iran and Turkey, the two non-Arab regional powers, closer to Qatar. Iran has been sending hundreds of tonnes of food and medicines to Qatar since the imposition of the Saudi-led blockade. Turkey has expressed political and diplomatic solidarity with Qatar. The establishment of stronger Qatar-Iran ties is likely to cause yet another setback for Riyadh. The more Riyadh and its allies isolate Qatar in the region, the closer Qatar moves towards Iran – Saudi Arabia’s arch rival. Qatar’s isolation has led to a further widening of cracks in the GCC, and a new set of regional geopolitical dynamics are unfolding with Turkey and Iran siding with Qatar. The crisis has also allowed Iran and Turkey greater strategic space to manoeuvre in the region.

    Traditionally, the US had maintained a balanced approach towards GCC members and avoided pitting one country against another. It has engaged with GCC countries bilaterally as well as with the GCC as a collective. Moreover, the US has remained the principal security provider in the region and all GCC states are its trusted allies. In 2006, the George W. Bush administration initiated the Gulf Security Dialogue to promote security cooperation with the GCC states. Further, in 2012, President Obama started the Strategic Cooperation Forum with the GCC to broaden security and strategic ties. After the Saudi-led bloc cut off ties with Qatar, President Trump pointed to Qatar as a financier of terrorism. The embargo on Qatar came only a few weeks after Trump’s visit to Riyadh. Though what transpired between President Trump and King Salman is not public, Trump’s quick support for the decision of the Saudi-led bloc points to stronger US-Saudi consensus regarding Qatar’s support for terrorism. If Trump continues to single out Qatar by accusing it of financing terrorism, this would be a major shift in the American approach towards Qatar and security in the Gulf region.

    At present, the leadership of both sides to the crisis remain stubborn on their respective positions. Statements coming from leaders point towards a prolongation of the crisis. For instance, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash states that the blockade of Qatar may last for years, while Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani has stated that his country is not ready to negotiate until the blockade is lifted. A continuing escalation of the GCC crisis is detrimental for the unity and relevance of the organisation. A similar situation had emerged in 2014 when Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain had cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar over the latter’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. The crisis was resolved with the mediation of Kuwait. This time, Qatar is being isolated on a much larger scale, with the support of countries from outside the region as well. These developments point to a prolonged political crisis in the region, challenging the unity of the Arab Gulf monarchies, which seems more than just a family feud.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.