Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain’s unprecedented action against Qatar created an increasingly complicated geopolitical environment in the Arabian Gulf that will have major implications for the greater Middle East.
Although the reasons behind the diplomatic row in the Arabian Gulf are not entirely clear, the three-month-old crisis raises critical questions about the GCC’s future and effectiveness. The council’s durability is under question as members continue to have conflicting interests and long-lasting grievances that have only increased over the past three months.
The GCC was formed in 1981 as a deterrence block that, coincidentally, was established months after war broke out involving the critical neighboring countries of Iraq and Iran. During the inception of the GCC in 1981 there was much skepticism in regard to its future success. The institution was ridiculed by many who predicted that it would fail because its exclusivity to the six members of the Council prevented other regional players from joining. Critics believed it unlikely that the GCC would become a regional institution as productive as the European Union, which the GCC sought to emulate.
One of the GCC countries’ highest global strategic ambitions was to forge a deep and multi-faceted relationship with the United States. In this regard, the GCC was successful as Washington remains a close ally and defense partner of all six members. Another achievement of the GCC has been preventing Iran’s 1979 revolution from spreading across the Arabian Peninsula.
Once Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime called for the toppling of monarchies in the Muslim world and sponsored subversive Shia groups in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the Middle East, GCC rulers felt threatened. These Arab rulers were concerned that Iran’s Islamic revolution would gain traction inside their own countries, particularly within Shia communities. Yet nearly 40 years after Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution triumphed in Iran, Tehran has failed to export its revolution to the GCC.
The GCC states’ agreement that an attack on one member would be considered an attack on all has proven effective. Indeed, it has made it demonstrably easier for the capitals of the five veto-wielding members of the National Security Council—the United States, The United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China—to rapidly reach a decision to come to their assistance. This is exemplified in the 1990-91 conference when the great powers aligned themselves in order to restore the political independence and territorial integrity of a GCC member, Kuwait, from the Iraqi invasion.
That said, even prior to the ongoing Qatar crisis it has been widely cited by critics that the GCC has had its own shortcomings and failures. One such failure has been the inability of the members to effectively implement some of their agreed-upon objectives, such as the issue of a central banking unit and the failure to creating a functioning common market. The working common market is riddled with exceptions. Additionally, although the GCC leaders envisioned a pan-GCC railroad project completed by 2017, the project remains pending until today.
Other critics fault the GCC countries for their inability to establish a common anti-ballistic missile system. This system has been ardently championed by members of the US Department of Defense and private firms in America’s aerospace and defense sectors. On the surface, the merits of such a system have seemed to be beyond question, in so much as they would all-at-once strengthen GCC deterrents against a neighbor’s expansionism, and enhance all six members’ defense capacities. It is no question that the institution has disappointed many, including its own citizens, and fallen short of several of its most pronounced ambitions.
The current Gulf crisis is the most imminent threat to the GCC since its inception. No member has suffered an economic and political blockade as Qatar is experiencing today, especially from fellow GCC states. Although, the same GCC members taking action against Qatar today were the ones that targeted Doha back in 2014, three years ago. Given the intensity of the crisis, it requires a political solution that minimizes the six GCC members’ losses.
In order to resolve and contain this row within the GCC without allowing the crisis to further internationalize, the Emir of Kuwait is determined to offer mediation between its fellow GCC members. Yet, not only would failure to settle the row leave the six GCC countries increasingly vulnerable to foreign threats, the continuation of severed relations between the Saudi/UAE-led bloc and Qatar will also further negatively impact the GCC states’ economies.
Ultimately, the actions taken by the GCC members against Qatar dim the prospects for the Arabian Gulf states from ever establishing a strong unified regional institution. Despite nearly more than three-and-a-half decades of seeking to unite the GCC’s citizens under a common Gulf identity, the restrictions on the rights of Qataris, Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis to travel and conduct business throughout the region is unraveling those initial efforts by creating unprecedented tensions between their societies. The latest sign of how far the GCC states are from being a regional block was the fueling of speculation about a “regime-change” campaign being plotted against Qatar by its three other GCC counterparts.
The Council’s prospects for remaining a relevant and cohesive institution are facing challenges that the six Arabian Gulf sheikdoms have never faced since the GCC’s birth in 1981. Unquestionably, it is not too late for the GCC to resolve the Qatar crisis and weather this diplomatic row. However, the longer that this rift remains unsettled and the more it intensifies, the GCC’s long-term future appears increasingly dim. The leaders of the Arabian Gulf countries taking action against Doha must assess their strategies and consider that further moves against Qatar come with a high risk of creating permanent wounds within the GCC that cannot later heal. The GCC’s upcoming summit, the 39th one – whether held on time or postponed – will reveal much about the Council’s crisis and the new chapter that seems to have begun.
Dr. Khalid Al-Jaber & Giorgio Cafiero