Politics of disunity and animosity in the GCC reshapes the regional landscape

Published in GSN, 13 December 2018

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) summit was again overshadowed by the crisis pitting Qatar against the GCC-3 of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (GSN 1,040/1). Qatar attended the 9 December summit – although Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani was one of three heads of state who stayed away from the annual meeting, this year held in Riyadh – but 18 months after the GCC-3’s boycott was launched against Doha it is becoming ever harder to paper over the cracks of regional disunity. There was no sign of any unexpected radical shift in key leaders’ thinking, leaving a consensus that the one-day summit had achieved nothing other than to entrench existing positions.

The leader who has done most to try to heal regional divisions, Kuwait’s 89-year-old Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, made a clear reference to the Qatar crisis when he told the gathering that “we face a serious threat to the unity of our position”. With the GCC split into factions, “unfortunately, the world is beginning to see us as a shaken entity whose interests no longer enjoy the guarantees provided at times of unity and cohesion”. Sheikh Sabah called for a change in the public messages emanating from member states: “In order to put an end to threats to this unity and to ambiguities about the future of our work, we call for the cessation of media campaigns offending our values and principles and planting the seeds of strife and discord among our peoples.”

In a polarised Gulf, such words tend to fall on stony ground. While the final declaration said leaders “reaffirm their eagerness to maintain the strength and cohesion of the GCC”, it made no explicit mention of the regional split.

Adding to the sense of discord was Qatar’s decision to pull out of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), shortly before its latest summit in Vienna. Doha was keen to say its Opec decision was technical – given its efforts to remain a world leader in the increasingly competitive global market for liquefied natural gas (LNG). However, its decision was widely seen to have political reasoning too, given Opec’s traditional domination by Qatar’s arch GCC-3 rival Saudi Arabia. Doha announced its decision to quit Opec on 3 December, effective from 1 January.

There is little hope for a resolution to the schism in the GCC, which was launched in June 2017 with the GCC-3 boycott of Qatar for a list of alleged offences focused around support for radical Islamism (GSN 1,040/13, 1,038/1). Indeed, for all the mediation efforts of Emir Sheikh Sabah and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said, protagonists on both sides see little reason to even try to make up; they are instead playing to their domestic audiences to shore up support at home. The lines are as clearly drawn as ever, with the GCC-3 and Egypt on one side and Qatar, backed by tentative support (or at least a sense of fellow-feeling) from Kuwait and Oman, and bolstered by key strategic alliances, notably with Turkey.

Qatar and its rivals are increasingly competing for influence in every conceivable arena in what is now seen as a zero-sum game by both sides, from the corridors of power in Washington – where Doha’s rear guard activity helped avoid US President Donald Trump’s initial urge to totally isolate the peninsula in recognition of his close alliance with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) – to arenas within the region such as Iraq and Syria.

Competition to lift global trophies from football clubs to old masters that are the currency of contemporary ‘soft power’ is all too apparent. Thus it is widely believed that it was ultimately MBS who gifted his ally Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and UAE Armed Forces deputy supreme commander Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ)’s Le Louvre Abu Dhabi with a Leonardo da Vinci painting of contested provenance, Salvator Mundi, which created a huge stir after two bidders drove up the price to $450m; vicious tongues in the art market suggested that MBS’s people thought they were bidding against Qatar (which didn’t bid), forcing up the price to a world record (GSN 1,060/7, 1,050/8). For still unexplained reasons the painting has not yet been displayed in Abu Dhabi.

A question of protocol

This fraying of alliances will do little to resolve wider issues of regional political instability, or do anything to bolster many of the economies’ weak economic prospects. The enmity often descends into petty bickering, as was on display at the GCC summit in Riyadh where the seniority of attending delegations was the main topic of discussion. Three countries were represented by their head of state: host Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdelaziz, Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khaifa and Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah. The UAE delegation was led by federal Vice President and prime minister, Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, while Oman sent deputy prime minister for cabinet affairs Sayyid Fahd Bin Mahmoud Al-Said.

In Doha, Emir Sheikh Tamim’s invitation was hand-delivered by GCC secretary-general Abdul-Latif Bin Rashid Al-Zayani, but he unsurprisingly declined the offer; minister of state for foreign affairs Sultan Bin Saad Al-Muraikhi went instead.

Tamim may have been fearing a diplomatic trap if he attended, or was perhaps just unwilling to travel to meet those who have done so much to undermine him. His decision to send a junior minister seemed a deliberate snub to his adversaries – and drew the expected wave of criticism from the GCC-3, whose governments had essentially done the same thing at the 2017 GCC summit, held in Kuwait, where Tamim was the only head of state to attend, other than host Sheikh Sabah.

The failure to even formally address the Qatar crisis during the summit points to the GCC’s increasing irrelevance as an institution. The Riyadh-based GCC Secretariat now fulfils a largely technocratic role around co-operation in relatively uncontroversial areas such as housing and electricity provision. The GCC lacks any ability to improve the political environment and is at the mercy of its member states, its chronic weakness familiar to the League of Arab States’ decline.

The GCC-3 seem in no mood to back down, even if their tone is somewhat softened by the more hostile international environment in the wake of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and rising international concern over the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen. A few days before the summit, Bahraini foreign minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa told London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat that “Qatar has burned all its ships of return”. In the days after the summit, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted that Qatar “continues to hurt and incite its neighbour”. His message was retweeted by Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed among others.

The next summit is to be held in the UAE – an arena which is very hostile to Tamim.