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GCC Reconciliation: Restoration or Reconfiguration?

For the first time since the Gulf crisis began on June 5th, 2017, strong indicators ahead of the annual GCC summit in Riyadh on December 10th signal that the rift is on the precipice of entering a new phase. While it is not yet clear on which date new developments may be announced, all signs point to a lifting of the blockade against Qatar.  Still, in spite of these positive signs, the 2.5-year dispute has produced unprecedented political, economic, and social ramifications that will color interactions among the six GCC states regardless of whether the crisis is formally rectified. Any breakthrough should not be expected to restore relations to their previous pre-blockade character, but rather will reshape intra-GCC relations for a new, yet equally rocky phase of the GCC’s existence.  Undoubtedly any resolution can work to polish the image of the GCC states on the regional and international stage, but if it is neglectful of the rift’s root causes, it will ultimately push-off any real resolution for the incompatibilities that justified the original dispute.

At the end of the 2018 GCC Summit in Riyadh, it was announced that the UAE would host the annual event in 2019.[1] At that time, it was predicted that Qatar would not send substantial representation to Abu Dhabi, as unlike between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, friction between Qatar and the UAE remained high. Amidst this tension, Kuwait played an important role in reconciling these opposing parties. In fact, in September 2019 the Emir of Kuwait was scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Trump to discuss the crisis. However, in a stroke of unfortunate timing, the Emir fell ill and was unable to broach the topic.[2] Even so, in the months since, Kuwait has continued its efforts and has exchanged messages of negotiation, primarily between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The fruits of these efforts may be reaped at the upcoming summit, which was ultimately moved to Riyadh to better facilitate reconciliation efforts. In a showing of optimism that such a goal could be reached, Deputy Kuwaiti Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid Al Jarallah told reporters on December 1st, “there are positive indicators for a breakthrough in the GCC Crisis.”[3]

Recent Saudi developments can be attributed to the Kingdom’s (and its leaders’) desire to resolve major issues that have scarred the nation’s public image and inhibited international investment. Such a hypothesis would not be out-of-step with Riyadh’s recent actions. For example, for the first time since the beginning of the Saudi-led Coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, a Saudi official acknowledged that they have a communication channel with the Houthis.[4] Additionally, there are also reports that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are holding talks in Oman aimed at ending the war in order to mitigate its widely maligned humanitarian consequences.[5] At its northern border, over the past few months Saudi Arabia has intensified talks with Kuwait to resolve the dispute over oilfields in the Neutral Zone between the two countries. The talks appear to have been successful and both sides are close to agreeing on a resumption of oil production.[6] As it relates to the GCC crisis, Saudi Arabia appears to have disregarded many of the original 13 demands placed on Qatar by the Quartet. On Qatar’s side, a recent news report suggested that the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs visited Saudi Arabia in a secret visit that allowed negotiations to advance to a higher level.[7]

While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been leading the conflict with Qatar, it appears that the UAE is much less enthusiastic about resolving the tensions. Supporting this argument is the fact that tensions between Qatari and Saudi media have cooled in tandem with the conciliatory rhetoric employed between their respective national leaders, a correlation that has not occurred between media in Qatar and the Emirates. This supports the conclusion that the UAE seeks to downplay the appearance of reconciliation in order to stall the emergence of a possible deal.[8]

The GCC Crisis of 2017 has caused significant damage to the political, social and security fabric of the Gulf states. Talk of the dispute’s resolution is simply meant to lessen international pressures and improve the region’s image in order to reassure foreign investors that tension in the region is lessening, a goal that resonates with Saudi Arabia in particular. Even with this objective, any expected détente is unlikely to address the totality of differences that ultimately led to this most recent crisis. As such, after the blockade is lifted, relations between the GCC states will be characterized by a lack of trust and internal skepticism. This will not be limited to the states directly involved in the crisis, but will extend to each of the small GCC states wary of facing the ire of their larger neighbors. While the GCC’s desires to signal strategic unity, the regional entity will likely struggle to cooperate beyond a cosmetic level, coming nowhere close to the goals of Gulf harmony originally posited in the GCC’s founding charter.



[1] “UAE to host GCC summit in 2019,” Arab News, December 10, 2018

[2] “Kuwait emir admitted to hospital in the US,” Al Jazeera, September 8, 2019

[3] “Al Jarallah: Positive indicators for a breakthrough in the GCC Crisis,” Al Rai Media, December 1, 2019

[4] “Riyadh has ‘open channel’ with Houthis: Saudi official,” Arab News, November 7, 2019

[5] Ahmed Al-Haj and Maggie Michael, “Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s Houthi rebels in indirect peace talks, AP, November 13, 2019

[6] “Kuwait, Saudi Arabia to Reach Agreement on Neutral Oil Production Zone,” Asharq Al-Awsat, October 21, 2019

[7] Stephen Kalin and Dmitry Zhdannikov, “Qatari foreign minister’s Saudi visit seen easing Gulf rift,” Reuters, November 28, 2019

[8] David Hearst, “Why the UAE needs to scupper a Saudi deal with Qatar,” Middle East Eye, November 21, 2019

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