On December 14th, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will hold its forty-second annual summit in Riyadh. At the regional institution’s last summit—held in January at the ancient Saudi city of al-Ula—the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis agreed to lift their blockade of Qatar in the interest of moving past the 2017-2021 Gulf crisis. Since then, the Gulf Arab countries have worked hard to mend their internal rifts. This month’s GCC summit will provide an opportunity to build further on these commitments.
Gulf Arab states are pursuing greater reconciliation, cooperation, and solidarity in the face of 2021’s many challenges. These challenges include ongoing issues related to Iran, the COVID-19 pandemic, Afghanistan’s uncertain future under Taliban rule, the conflict in Yemen, and uncertainty about the degree of Washington’s actual commitment to Middle Eastern security in the current era. Within this context, rather than continuing to pursue zero-sum agendas in the region that rest heavily on hawkish foreign policies, the major power centers of the Middle East have spent the year trying to find more diplomatic and pragmatic approaches to regional challenges.
Economy Drives Reconciliation
Amid the global pandemic and its corresponding negative commercial impact on countries worldwide, economic factors, to a much greater degree than ideological agendas and geopolitical rivalries, seem to be at the forefront of foreign policy decision-making throughout the Arab world. Since January, Saudi and Emirati officials have been heavily invested in efforts to warm ties with Qatar, underscoring their desire to move past the 2017-2021 Gulf crisis. Meetings between leaders from these Gulf countries have taken place throughout 2021, and such high-profile visits have greatly contributed to the process of healing within the GCC following the three-and-a-half-year blockade of Doha.
Officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE understand that improved relations with Qatar could lead to valuable economic opportunities for their nations. The FIFA World Cup is a case in point. “The UAE hopes to be a major transit point for World Cup tourists and wants the positive associations that will come with helping aid that event,” explained Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at the risk consultancy Stratfor/Rane, in an interview with Gulf International Forum.
The ideological sources of tension between Doha, on one side, and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, on the other, will likely remain in the equation for the foreseeable future. “The GCC itself as a bloc remains riven with differences, and there’s an undertone of economic competition between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar that will hinder effective policymaking,” Bohl noted. Yet it seems safe to bet that in this current period, Gulf officials are keen to return to the pre-2014 era, in the sense that they want to address intra-Gulf tensions behind closed doors rather than out in public.
“The underlying dispute [between Qatar and some of its fellow GCC states] hasn’t been fully resolved, but the broader context is completely different,” Dr. Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington told the author. Indeed, threat perceptions have changed in recent years. It seems that the Saudis and others in the GCC believe that it best serves the Arab states’ security interests to establish a more unified approach to dealing with Iran, which the blockade of Qatar made next to impossible to achieve. In fact, from Iran’s perspective, the blockade of Doha proved highly useful; the siege essentially forced Doha to become far more dependent on Tehran for trade, supply lines, and airspace, pushing a Gulf Arab country closer to Tehran’s sphere.
While tensions between Riyadh and Doha will likely continue to exist, Saudi Arabia views Iran—to a much greater extent than Qatar—as posing the most serious threat to the GCC’s collective security. This factor largely explains why Riyadh was the main agent behind the al-Ula summit. Although tensions between the Saudis and the Iranians have cooled following talks between the two countries in Baghdad and elsewhere this year, Riyadh’s ongoing fears of Tehran continue to provide Saudi leaders with a powerful incentive to improve the kingdom’s ties with the smaller GCC states while trying to assert Saudi leadership within the institution.
“There is an urgent need for these countries to form a stronger bloc regarding Iran, particularly given real doubts about how far the U.S. would go to defend them unless they were physically invaded by Iran, which isn’t going to happen,” explained Dr. Ibish. “Also, as the whole region turns away from confrontation and direct or indirect conflict and begins to ramp-up efforts to secure national goals via diplomacy, politics, and commerce, coordination between Gulf Arab countries becomes much more appealing and important. The circumstances have been very propitious to moving beyond the dispute. So, I anticipate that this process of rapprochement will continue, and will be strengthened at the upcoming GCC annual summit and I even expect significantly warmer ties to continue developing between the UAE and Qatar.”
The GCC’s internal rifts do not start and end with Qatar, of course. For years, voices in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states have argued that Oman is too close to Iran and not sufficiently willing to support Riyadh-led initiatives aimed at challenging Tehran.
For example, in 2015, the Omanis decided against entering the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, as well as the “Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism”. The following year, Oman was the only GCC state that declined to take diplomatic action against the Islamic Republic following the violence waged against Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad. Muscat also hosted secret meetings and talks between American and Iranian diplomats beginning in 2012 and later leading to the watershed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) in 2015. All these episodes contributed to perceptions held by some in the Gulf that the Sultanate had become too “neutral” with regard to Iran.
In spite of these perceptions, Saudi-Omani relations have warmed up remarkably throughout 2021. “Omani-Saudi relations are improving at a rapid pace,” explained Omani journalist Ahmed Jawhar. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to Muscat in December and Sultan Haitham’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July, as well as the signing of bilateral agreements and the establishment of a joint coordination council, have contributed to a much better state of relations between Muscat and Riyadh compared to several years ago. “The opening of a land border between the two countries is a dream for the two peoples,” said Jawhar. “In the past, we were forced to enter the Emirates and then enter Saudi Arabia. Now it will be direct to Saudi Arabia. Work has been done to establish this line very quickly.”
The GCC’s Survival
The GCC has proven resilient over the decades. “As we are approaching the end of 2021, which is regarded as the year of de-escalation, the GCC as an institution, which also marks its 40th anniversary, seems to heave a sigh of relief after years-long tension among its member states,” Sinem Cengiz, a researcher on Turkey-Gulf affairs, told Gulf International Forum. “Thus, the upcoming GCC summit will have a symbolic importance to show that the GCC, as a sub-regional organization, stands solid after years of challenges to its unity and solidarity.”
This upcoming summit will “anchor what has been largely a positive year for the GCC,” added Bohl. “I expect the 42nd GCC summit to largely focus on solidifying [Saudi-Qatari and Emirati-Qatari] ties, especially with public photos of leaders shaking hands and smiling, and signing or agreeing to MOUs.”
With the restoration of relations between all Gulf Arab monarchies occurring less than a year ago, the al-Ula agreement’s signing is still relatively recent. This month’s GCC summit provides a chance to achieve a higher level of reconciliation between the different monarchies involved in the earlier feud. Doing so can meaningfully build on important visits by Gulf leaders to other GCC states, plus Iran and Turkey, and their rhetoric about greater cooperation between countries of the Gulf.
Although certain sensitive foreign policy issues—the role of Sunni Islamist movements and organizations, the tension with Iran, the question of normalization with Israel, and so on—will likely continue to sustain divisions within the GCC, signs point to officials in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh moving somewhat away from zero-sum thinking in the region. Much more than during the 2017-2020 period, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have embraced more accommodative and flexible foreign policy positions that allow for both Gulf countries to better manage and contain, rather than escalate, their tensions with Doha. Such shifts in the ways in which Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are conducting foreign policy in the Gulf sub-region have enabled all in the GCC to be optimistic about this month’s upcoming summit.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.