Ever since the birth of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, motivated by the external threat, the six states have viewed regional and international threats differently. In some cases, differences of opinion did not develop into deeper or strategic disputes, while at other times, and especially since June 2017, we have witnessed media campaigns against fellow GCC states and intense political disputes. Currently, starting the fourth year of the blockade of Qatar, it is clear that the GCC has failed as an institution and the council is incapable of ending the divisions. This toothless and dormant existence has pushed nearly all GCC states to look for alternative security guarantors as their fellow GCC states have turned into either foes or are similarly incapable of deterring threats.
The Birth of a Shared Vision
The day was May 25, 1981. The rulers of six Arabian Peninsula countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—held the first summit of the GCC at Abu Dhabi’s InterContinental hotel. The leaders of these six states joined around a table and discussed ways to strengthen their relationships while collectively protecting their shared interests. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, known as the founder of the UAE, delivered a welcoming speech that followed a Quranic recitation. Then the GCC states’ rulers put their signatures to a document that formally established the sub-regional institution.
Last month, the GCC began its 40th year of existence. Over the past four decades, the Council has faced many struggles while trying to give the GCC states a united voice. The GCC’s history can be understood by looking at four regional developments that heavily impacted the Gulf region: First, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988); second, the Kuwait crisis of 1990-1991; third, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; and fourth, post-Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
Ongoing Struggles for Security Amidst Common External Threats
The GCC was born amid the Iran-Iraq War, which threatened the entire region’s security and is estimated to have resulted in over a million deaths. The conflict, which officially started in September 1980 when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded western Iran shortly after Iran’s Islamic Revolution toppled the pro-Western Shah, left the Gulf monarchies vulnerable. The GCC members feared Tehran’s wrath as the majority of them chose to support their fellow Arab state, Iraq, against the Iranian regime that most Gulf monarchs saw as a predatory actor and existential threat.
Nonetheless, early on in the GCC’s existence, as the Iran-Iraq War was raging, internal divisions in the institution were already visible. Not all GCC member-states supported Baghdad over Tehran. Oman stayed neutral throughout the majority of the war, despite taking a slightly pro-Iraq position at the beginning of the conflict. The UAE was somewhat split. Abu Dhabi was sympathetic to Iraq, sharing much of Saudi Arabia’s perspective on the nascent Islamic republic, while Dubai was determined to maintain its strong commercial relations with the UAE’s Persian neighbor notwithstanding the war.
Two years after Iran’s revolutionary regime and Iraq’s Ba’athist leadership signed a peace treaty, Saddam Hussein turned his military against a GCC state, Kuwait. The response from the Gulf Arabs was one of unity, truly underscoring how the GCC could come together in times of crisis. Yet the inability of the Gulf monarchies to defend themselves independently was underscored by the fact that Kuwait’s liberation from the Iraqi occupiers only resulted from the decisive American military intervention that occurred in 1991. The lesson was clear to all in the GCC: Counting on the institution’s powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, for their security was simply not safe. Thus, in the post-1991 period, all six members of the council established their own security relationships with the US, which became the world’s sole superpower once the Soviet Union imploded the same year as the Kuwait crisis.
Impact of Iraq Invasion and Rise of Non-State Actors on the GCC
Twelve years later, the GCC states faced a major dilemma when the George W. Bush administration decided to bring the United States into war against Iraq. The perspectives of the Gulf monarchies, which feared Saddam Hussein and saw him as a threat, were complicated. Although all the GCC states (save Kuwait) were officially opposed to the war, all of them—to various extents—facilitated the US-led invasion from a logistical standpoint. As close US allies, they were interested in not publicly clashing with the Bush administration, but they also had concerns about their domestic populations’ anger with the Americans for invading Iraq, as well as fears about how Iran and various non-state actors could exploit the chaos in post-war Iraq.
Interestingly, however, there was not any major spillover of chaos from Iraq into the GCC following Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003. Instead, the violent instability moved in the opposite direction with thousands of Salafist-jihadists moving from some GCC states into Iraq. The flow of these foreign fighters into Iraq occurred within the context of growing concerns about entities financing global terrorist networks from the Gulf region. Furthermore, the Iraq Study Group, which US lawmakers appointed in 2006 to look into the crisis of foreign fighters in Iraq, found that funding for the Sunni insurgency came from private individuals in the GCC states.
As post-Ba’athist Iraq remained an extremely dangerous and destabilized country, GCC states came to quickly understand how powerful non-state actors were becoming in the region. Unlike the first two Gulf wars (1980-1988 and 1990-1991), the developments that unfolded in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 were largely driven by non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq (which later transformed into Islamic State) and scores of Shi’a militias backed by Iran that Saudi Arabia and other GCC states would come to perceive as grave threats.
The Arab Spring Growing GCC Polarization
By the time that the Arab Spring protests erupted in 2011, GCC states were faced with a whole host of new challenges that would ultimately expose major divisions and deep rifts between the Gulf Arab states—chiefly between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Although most GCC states were supportive of regime change in Syria while all staunchly opposed it in Bahrain, the leaders of Gulf states saw the developments in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia in different ways. At the heart of these differences was a sensitive question: Should GCC states support Islamist power centers that emerged from the Arab Spring revolts and were democratically elected?
Now in 2020, this question continues to polarize the GCC, vividly illustrated by the rift. Whereas Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw the rise of democratically-elected Islamist parties as a major threat to the Middle East’s status quo that they sought to preserve in the contemporary period, Doha decided to embrace a fundamentally different approach to the Islamists who achieved power in some Arab countries through ballot boxes. Qatari diplomats considered democratically-elected, moderate, non-violent Islamists legitimate actors who needed to be acknowledged. In a region where Islam is the major religion, Qatar and other Arab states are convinced that the growth of Islamism as an ideology is almost a natural outcome of political freedom following decades of dictatorship in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. Therefore, the conflicting approach between confronting or accepting these movements is still the main dispute between Doha on one side and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the other.
While the GCC’s spat of 2014 was officially resolved in the same year, the eruption of the Gulf crisis in mid-2017 highlighted the extent to which underlying issues of division were never resolved. Although certain levels of technocratic cooperation exist between the six member-states, there is no denying that the GCC states have no ability to coordinate on major security issues in the contemporary environment. Put simply, there is no consensus on the nature of regional threats to security with perceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and Turkey varying drastically from one GCC member to another.
Consensus Absent With Today’s Disrupted Political, Economic, and Social Fabric
Today, the GCC states clearly face daunting security challenges from the war in Yemen to the COVID-19 pandemic, and from the Syrian and Libyan crises to the intense US-Iran brinkmanship that subjects all countries in the Gulf to grave dangers. As close US allies, the GCC states are mainly counting on their bilateral relationships with Washington to advance their security interests without having a functional GCC framework to operate in. At the same time, against the backdrop of declining US global influence, these Gulf states are being forced to consider questions about the long-term interests and commitments of the US, which have led GCC states to seek to diversify their geopolitical and security ties by establishing deep partnerships with ‘alternative powers’ such as China, France, and Russia.
Without an effective GCC, more in the Gulf are beginning to see the exacerbation of regional problems facing the GCC states and their populations. In fact, last month, 70 academic and prominent scholars who come from all six GCC member states came together to put their signatures to a document that called on government officials in the Gulf to take steps in order to reunite the GCC states not only “by interests, but also by historical familial ties” while taking into account “the emerging economic, social or strategic threats and map out collective plans to face these threats which is in the great interest of all of our communities and their security and stability.”
Despite the logic of those intellectuals who want to see the GCC return to its pre-2017 status, especially as the Middle East prepares to enter the post-coronavirus era amid a decline in global oil prices, bringing this dispute to an end will not be easy. The zero-sum nature of this standoff will make it difficult for the two sides to find a mutually face-saving way to resolve the crisis. From the Qatari perspective, it would be foolish to trust the blockading states as officials in Doha realize that a future siege of their country could always happen in the future. The extent to which personal enmity between the various rulers has heated up and vitriol between the citizens of Qatar and the Saudi/Emirati-led bloc has grown, it appears that the blockade has done permanent damage to the GCC’s political, diplomatic, economic, and social fabric.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, DC. His research interests include geopolitical and security trends in the Arabian Peninsula and the broader Middle East.
Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.