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Gulf Crisis’ Third Anniversary: Obstacles of Security and Stability in a Divided GCC

A few days before the Gulf crisis’ third anniversary, the Forum asked six experts their opinion on how the Gulf Cooperation Council’s stability and security are changing as we enter the fourth year of the dispute.

 

Dr. Dania Thafer, Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Security Dilemmas Persist that Originally Caused the Gulf Crisis

The regional consequences of the pandemic for the Gulf region will likely illuminate security concerns for smaller GCC nations. As countries worldwide shift their focus inward, diminished strategic interests of the U.S. in the Gulf are likely to be exacerbated by the change in priorities caused by Covid-19. 

The inward shift of the U.S. will likely cause Qatar (and to a certain extent Kuwait) to advance its soft power within the global governance structure and further align with alternative external guarantors, such as Turkey. The status of bilateral relations with the U.S. will likely continue to lose some of its value as a deterrent for smaller GCC states from larger neighboring states. The original purpose for Arab Gulf states to seek external security guarantors such as the U.S. went beyond maintaining their security against the often-cited antagonists of Iran and Iraq, but was as equally important in securing the GCC states against one another. Consequently, even prior to the Gulf crisis, the GCC states were deliberate in maintaining bilateral relations with the U.S. and only on occasion cooperated on a multilateral basis. 

From the vantage point of small states like Qatar, the benefits of the GCC as an institutional body are dwindling. When the institution was needed to exercise built-in conflict resolution mechanisms to address the maximalist regional ambitions of neighboring member states, these procedures were simply dismissed and bypassed. The continued ineffectual role of the GCC as a body to resolve the Gulf crisis is entering its fourth year. The standstill has minimized its relevance by sending a strong message to smaller Gulf states that the GCC as a forum does not offer all members equal weight.

The U.S.’s gradual retreat is a key factor in causing security dilemmas that induced the Gulf crisis. Now that the U.S. is forced to shift its attention inward, due to the global pandemic, security fears of smaller Gulf states will accelerate and larger Gulf states are likely to continue jockeying for power. In sum, the continuance of the same security dilemma will endure in which each side will prioritize securing themselves and their domestic interests at the expense of broader regional security. With Qatar having an alternative external security guarantor cemented in place, the incentives for capitulation are low. Similarly, the four blockading states have little motivation to end the spat and are further entrenched in their positions to preserve the status quo. Even amidst Covid-19 wreaking havoc for the monarchies, any significant sign of an impending rapprochement between the GCC states remains absent.

Ambassador Gerald Feierstien, Senior Vice President, Middle East Institute

Balancing Interests in the Region in the Face of the Global Pandemic

The economic, political, and social consequences of the global pandemic will have profound consequences for security interests in the Gulf. As governments in the region grapple with the domestic fallout of the pandemic, their priority will certainly be ensuring internal stability rather than sustaining regional competitions. Changes in the global energy market– driven not only by the current oil glut and the collapse of world economies but also by the reality of renewed popular pressure, especially in the west, for limiting reliance on fossil fuels– will further challenge regional governments.

Efforts over the past three years to force changes in Qatari policies by undermining its internal stability, beginning with the hacked “news reports” three years ago and continuing as recently as the fabricated stories of an attempted coup in Doha this month, have failed. Likewise, the smooth transition in Muscat from Sultan Qaboos to Sultan Haitham has reduced chances that Oman’s neighbors would be able to exploit internal instability to pressure the sultanate to align more closely with broader GCC regional policies.

The broader regional and global context of the intra-GCC dispute has also shifted profoundly as a result of the pandemic. The disappearance of the U.S. as the guarantor of regional defense and the architect of regional security policies, already underway before the pandemic, will be hastened by Washington’s need to focus on domestic challenges. Whether Donald Trump wins a second term or Joe Biden is elected to succeed him, the pressure in Washington will be to continue to reduce regional commitments, especially as they are no longer seen as necessary for global economic security. This may present new opportunities for Moscow and Beijing to fill the vacuum, but both have an interest in reducing rather than exacerbating regional tensions, thus offering a welcome respite from confrontation for the Gulf states.

While Iranian intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will continue to roil regional relations, the balance of interests in the region has shifted from confrontation to at least an uneasy peace. This can be sustained and perhaps open the door to nascent regional cooperation and engagement on non-controversial issues like public health and climate. That opportunity is tenuous, however, and could be upset by either the arrival in power of new, more aggressive, more militaristic leadership in Tehran or by a rise in political Islamic challenges to regional governments seen as fomented by Doha and Ankara.

Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Gulf International Forum

Neither External Threats nor Shared Challenges Seem to Provide Common Ground for Resolution

Attempts to resolve the blockade of Qatar appear to be stuck, after a period of optimism in the final few months of 2019 stalled in December and January. The pattern of attacks on maritime and energy targets in and around the Gulf between May and September 2019, which culminated in the unprecedented rocket and drone attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure at Abqaiq and Khurais, appeared to have focused minds, in Saudi Arabia at least, on the true regional threat they faced, and Qatar joined with all other GCC states in reaffirming the principle of collective security in an emergency meeting in Riyadh shortly after the attacks.

Dialogue began between Saudi and Qatari officials and seemed to be progressing well, and the optics of the Qatari delegation’s welcome at the GCC annual summit, held in Riyadh in December, were very different from the cold reception received at a midyear trio of summits the Saudis had organized in Mecca six months previously. In addition, Qatar’s hosting of the Gulf Cup of Nations soccer tournament, in December, generated an atmosphere of goodwill as many Saudis and Bahrainis traveled to Doha for games, and were received with a generosity of spirit that recalled happier times in the region.

And yet, the dialogue between Saudi and Qatari officials appears to have ended in January 2020 and not even the COVID-19 pandemic, which affects all countries and communities regardless of political or geopolitical alignment, has brought about an end to the blockade. Instead, actions and statements have only reinforced just how stuck the blockade seems to be, especially when compared to thaws in other regional hotspots, such as the de-escalation in tension between the UAE and Iran or Saudi Arabia’s newfound willingness to find a way out of its unwinnable war in Yemen. The fact that Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, was willing to discuss COVID-19 with Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, on March 27, yet remains unwilling to engage with Qatar, speaks volumes.

Whatever happens with COVID-19, it seems that the early phase of the pandemic has not been enough to break through the regional logjam, just as the attempts to peel Saudi Arabia away from the quartet came to nothing; hence, the third anniversary of a blockade that remains in place. If even the reassertion of a common external threat – from Iran and its regional proxies – or a common regional challenge – from COVID-19 – cannot resolve the Gulf crisis, one is tempted to ask, what can?

Dr. Courtney Freer, Research Officer, Middle East Center at London School of Economics and Political Science; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Gulf International Forum

GCC Solidarity has Given Way to Polarization and Nationalism

The Gulf crisis emerged in large measure due to differing opinions about the role of Islamist movements in the region – with Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE opposed to their spread, largely due to the fact that they have housed independent Islamist movements opposed to state policies and state authority. Today, however, the rift has come to define domestic policies towards Islamists, who remain in prisons across the blockading states, as well as foreign policy beyond the GCC, ranging as far as the Horn of Africa. While Islamism may have been the focus at the start, as it had been in the 2013-2014 GCC rift, the ongoing blockade has differed from other disagreements among the GCC states in its longevity, intensity, and the ripple effects it has had far beyond the ruling elites who mandated the blockade.

Early on in the crisis, I wrote about the social effects of the blockade on Qatar – families were separated; students could not return to their universities; media coverage became vitriolic; and nationalist art and music emerged. Three years later, this polarization continues: Qatari nationals are restricted from visiting neighboring states unless they receive special dispensation; the media landscape has become increasingly separate; and people who support policies of one side or the other are accused of receiving payments from the state in question as a means of dismissing potentially problematic views. As a result, local populations, both of citizens and expatriates, have become involved on both sides of the crisis, further entrenching existing views about it and putting in place stereotypes about, for instance, Qatar’s proximity to Islamists and Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s authoritarianism and bellicosity.

Accompanying this polarization, we have seen a rise of nationalism across the Gulf states, again entrenching divisions along national lines, where there had previously been at least a degree of a cross-GCC solidarity. The longer this situation continues, which is likely given that neither side of the rift is suffering enough to risk changing it, the more lasting the social effect will be, making resolution increasingly unlikely.

Dr. Abdullah Baabood, Visiting Professor at the Middle Institute, National University of Singapore

GCC Facing Regional Security Concerns with a Fractured Vision and Objectives

It is evident that more cooperation, integration, and collective efforts can assist the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)to successfully confront the many economic, social, political, and security challenges facing the member states. However, the Gulf crisis has basically shattered the GCC vision and objectives of coordination, integration, and interconnection between member states in all fields as well as the strengthening of ties between their people. It also goes against the letter and the spirit of GCC agreements like the common market and undoes any security cooperation. The crisis undermines the very principle of decision-making that requires a unanimous vote within the GCC Supreme Council as per its charter, especially as the crisis directly contradicts GCC approved agreements.

As the blockade decision was made outside of the organization’s framework, not only did member states lose trust and confidence in the GCC, but so did the public, including international partners. The crisis dealt a massive blow to the trajectory of GCC cooperation and integration, froze joint regional projects, and stalled the function of the organization. Member states started to work against and even threaten each other to support the intervention of non-GCC regional powers, thus undermining regional security. The fragmented GCC has created cracks in the regional security system, making it difficult for its international partners, especially security partners like the U.S., to collectively work with the region to face the growing challenges and threats. If this fracture was not harmful enough, the triple effect of COVID-19, the oil price wars, and dwindling investment values, have wreaked havoc and compounded challenges for the GCC states’ stability. Overall, the ongoing crisis further complicates matters in what is already a chaotic and turmoiled region by raising fears of future instability and increasing security concerns.

Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri, Director of Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University

Crisis-Induced Rifts in the GCC’s Social Fabric 

The entire stability and security platform of the Gulf Cooperation Council was forever altered when a member country dared to invade another member. It seems the foundational unified security and stability strategies turned out to be merely ink on paper. This transgression has led to a deep level of mistrust between members, thereby dividing the GCC into two fronts: one front where Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are aligned, in opposition to Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman.

Beyond the internal frictions of GCC countries, the Gulf crisis has confirmed the role of actors and emerging actors from outside of the region, especially the United States and Turkey. Although the US, a key external actor, has taken an inconsistent stance towards the crisis, it is apparent that it continues to profit from arms sales from the region and remains invested for this reason.

Most importantly, the crisis has also threatened the social fabric of the GCC. The latter has always been considered an element of unity within the GCC. However, ruptures created on the societal level will not be easily diminished and are likely to continue even if the crisis ends. It has created a deep and long-lasting rift fueled by different parties, with effects rippling across the nations in the Gulf binge.

As a result, ideas regarding stability and security are changing and will continue to change in this shifting landscape. Unification or increased integration is no longer a viable strategy for the GCC if and when the crisis ends, as the basis and definition of each has been undeniably altered. Instead, new dynamics are shaping a new way to move forward. For example, new security alliances including external players have already been formed with individual countries in the Gulf.

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