As the Kuwaiti Emir recently warned, failure to resolve the Gulf crisis could unravel the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The breakup of this sub-regional organization, which has been an anchor of stability and prosperity in the Middle East for decades, raises major questions about the future of Kuwait and Oman’s regional foreign policies in a post-GCC order. The current Gulf crisis, the first blockade of a GCC member by others in the institution’s history, is the worst internal scuffle experienced by the Arabian Gulf countries since the GCC’s establishment in 1981.
Although the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanese Hezbollah axis remains quite unified, throughout this year the Sunni Muslim world has grown increasingly polarized with the emergence of ‘the quartet’—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt—plus Libya’s Tobruk-based administration which is staunchly anti-Islamist and anti-Iranian. Turkey, Qatar, plus Hamas in Gaza, and certain Islamists in Libya’s capital constitute another bloc that supports the Muslim Brotherhood and favors more cooperation with Iran despite opposing certain aspects of Tehran’s foreign policy, such as in Syria.
Between the conclusion of the GCC’s 2014 spat and the ongoing Gulf dispute’s eruption earlier this year, shared interests throughout the region led to growing alignment between the two Sunni blocs. Members of both axes supported Sunni rebels in Syria and opposed Yemen’s Houthi rebels. During this timespan, Qatar entered alliances with both blocs, working closely with Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the Syrian file, joining Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s coalition in Yemen, opening a joint Qatari-Turkish military base in Qatar, and joining the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism.
Although Turkey has had a tense relationship with Egypt and the UAE for years, the Gulf dispute has created significant tension between the Ankara- and Riyadh-led Sunni blocs. On top of developments in Iraqi Kurdistan and last year’s Turkish-Russian rapprochement and failed coup plot against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Qatar rift has also brought Turkey and Iran closer together. Of course, growing cooperation between Ankara and Tehran will come at the expense of the Saudi leadership’s vision of the Sunni Muslim world uniting against “Persian hegemony”.
Throughout the past five months, a host of analysts have contended that reconciliation between Qatar and the Saudi/UAE-led bloc is inevitable. By virtue of Qatar’s historic, ethnic, cultural, religious, tribal, and geospatial links with the blockading GCC states, according to such voices, Doha’s future lays with the Arabian fold. Yet as Emir Tamim emphasized in his interview last month with Charlie Rose, the quartet’s demands for reconciliation are unacceptable and in violation of the emirate’s sovereignty. Without Qatar capitulating, it appears doubtful that the Saudi/UAE-led bloc would soon engage Doha diplomatically, let alone consider lifting the blockade.
Yet the Gulf dispute’s continuation can only lead to increased trade between Qatar, Iran and Turkey. By virtue of geography, Doha will be required to work with Tehran and Ankara so that the emirate can maintain import and export routes via Iran and Turkey—in addition to Kuwait, Oman, and India—which Qatar turned to after June 5 to circumvent the quartet’s blockade.
How would Kuwait and Oman respond to the Qatar rift’s institutionalization? Both GCC members have maintained neutrality throughout the Qatar crisis and, particularly in Oman’s case, avoided fully aligning with any axis in the region, all while promoting diplomatic solutions to the Saudi/UAE-led bloc’s tense relationship with both Iran and Qatar. Yet the risk of the GCC unraveling will further challenge Kuwait and Oman to cautiously navigate the region’s geopolitical instability.
Despite the fact that Kuwait City and Muscat have often refused to toe Riyadh’s line on regional issues, both GCC members have vested interests in the Council weathering the Qatar crisis. The risks to regional stability that a permanently fractured or unraveled GCC poses for Kuwait and Oman are serious. Given both countries’ interests in working with all GCC members to counter threats posed by extremists such as Daesh, Somali pirates, and criminal organizations, the Gulf dispute’s ramifications for the Council’s efforts to enhance collective security, as well as economic integration, unsettle Kuwaiti and Omani officials. This fear is especially strong as each GCC states’ economic diversification agendas will face setbacks as a result of the Council’s lingering row.
The crisis reveals a major defect in the GCC system and its mechanisms for resolving disputes between its members through compromise. It is unsurprising that the GCC’s Secretary-General Abdullatif Al Zayani has been absent throughout this row, not even making any statement in support of the Kuwaiti Emir’s efforts to help facilitate a settlement to the Qatar crisis that can preserve the GCC and what remains of the Council’s reputation in Arabian Gulf society and in the hearts of GCC citizens.
Unquestionably, the GCC’s potential breakup threatens to usher in an era of new uncertainty in the Arabian Peninsula. Subjecting Kuwait and Oman to new security threats will also undermine both countries’ vision for preserving the Arab world’s most successful regional institution that has protected the collective interests of all six Arabian Gulf sheikdoms despite their history of internal divisions that, until this summer, managed to be kept behind closed doors.
Evidenced by the quartet’s 13 demands, distancing Doha from both Tehran and Ankara were objectives of the Saudi/UAE-led bloc’s blockade. Yet the siege has only brought the country closer to Iran and Turkey. With the GCC crisis heightening concerns in Kuwait and Oman about Riyadh’s quest to secure greater leverage over smaller Arabian Gulf states at the expense of their independence, there is a high possibility that Kuwait City and Muscat will join Doha in pursuing deeper ties with Tehran and Ankara to hedge their bets while taking stock of Iran and Turkey’s growing influence.
Yet as Tehran and Ankara’s foreign policies become increasingly anti-American amid the Trump presidency, Kuwait and Oman, which both rely on the United States as a security guarantor, will naturally come under pressure from Washington—in addition to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi—to limit any realignment toward two powers which have used Islamist non-state actors to extend their leverage across the Middle East amid a contraction of American influence in the region.
Dr. Khalid Al-Jaber