The popular analytical focus regarding cracks within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has primarily centered around the effects on member state ties with the U.S. and the U.K., Iran’s role in the region, and Gulf (in)security. Not enough attention, however, has been dedicated to the implications of the GCC crisis on the multifaceted war in Yemen. Also known as the blockade of Qatar, the GCC crisis deepened mounting divisions and competition between Riyadh, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, and in doing so further complicated the landscape of the war in Yemen.
The GCC crisis was born in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain cut ties with Doha and imposed a multifaceted blockade. Several other countries such as Jordan, Djibouti, and the Maldives followed suit, while some like Somalia resisted pressure to support the blockade of Qatar. Yemen geared toward cutting ties and withdrew its diplomatic mission from Doha; the Yemeni government seems like it had little room to maneuver, as its undetailed condemnation of Qatari practices suggests.
A Crossroad in the Gulf
Prior to this estrangement, Qatar was part of the Arab Coalition fighting against the Houthi rebels in Yemen alongside the other GCC states – except for Oman – and several other Muslim Sunni states, including Egypt and Jordan. The Gulf crisis, however, put an end to Qatar’s role in the coalition, pushing Doha away from its Arab neighbors in the Gulf and instead – due to limited alternatives – toward Iran and, by extension, the Houthis.
The Gulf crisis marked a turning point for the Arab Coalition, both in terms of its member states and intra-coalition dynamics. The suspension of Qatar from the coalition was followed by the withdrawals of Malaysia and Morocco in 2018 and 2019 respectively. These developments debilitated the coalition’s international image and legitimacy. More importantly, Sudan’s considerable drawdown from nearly 30,000 to 657 personnel by January 2020 – after the UAE, which played a major operational role on the battlefield, started pursuing gradual withdrawal in mid-2019 – curtailed the coalition’s power. Combined, this led to further isolation and an increasing burden for Saudi Arabia
Greater UAE Leverage in a ‘Managed Chaos’
The downsizing of the coalition offered greater opportunity for the UAE to pursue its strategic interests. Before announcing its gradual drawdown in 2019, which represented a shift from direct to indirect engagement, the UAE trained, financed, armed, and organized Yemeni armed groups in the country’s eastern, southern, and western regions. These command and control structures are not controlled by the Yemeni government, which meant that even though the UAE withdrew, it retains tangible control over local proxies and partners thought to exceed 90,000 personnel, which have the power to shape conflict and peace trajectories. Recent example includes the Security Belt Forces that forced the government out of Aden in August 2019, as well as the Southern Transitional Council (STC), formed in May 2017, that signed the Riyadh Agreement in November 2019. Because of the UAE’s mechanisms of influence, a 2018 UN Panel of Experts report classified UAE-backed entities as “proxy forces…undermining the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen.”
In response to the UAE subversion of Yemeni authority and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) mandate, the Yemeni government sent multiple complaints to the UNSC. It also requested that Saudi Arabia suspend the UAE from the Arab Coalition in the same way that it terminated Qatar’s membership. Riyadh, however, tried to convince Yemen to remain patient, likely in an attempt to preserve the remaining image of the coalition and maintain its strategic cooperation with the UAE at a regional level.
With this complicated political landscape, the Riyadh deal and its stalled implementation exemplify Saudi’s dilemma. Caught in the middle of its ally’s managed chaos, the Kingdom faced new hurdles, particularly from the August 2019 armed rebellion’s consequences to UAE-Yemen tension mediation, including over unjustified Emirati military deployment in Socotra Island in 2018, or between UAE proxies and the government. Given these dynamics, the STC’s recent attempt to take over Socotra can be viewed as an extension of Emirati interests, especially because the STC has been engaged in a firefight vis-à-vis government forces in Abyan governorate.
Qatar’s Shift in Alliance
Conscious of its ample resources and geopolitical ambitions, Qatar has attempted to project its power even if that means pursuing contradictory policies. When the coalition suspended its involvement, Doha adopted an anti-coalition agenda in an effort to remain engaged and influential. In accordance with this agenda, the Qatari funded news agency Al Jazeera portrayed the coalition as the “Saudi coalition” and the “Saudi-UAE coalition”, a change from its earlier depiction from when Qatar was a member. On June 9, 2017, Al Jazeera titled the article on an airstrike that killed four people: “Saudi coalition strike ‘kills family of four’ in Sanaa.” Paradoxically, the same outlet utilized a detached tone for an article on a more severe incident that caused near 30 deaths in February 2016 with the title: “Arab coalition denies targeting civilians in Sanaa market attack.” This shift in media framing sought to obliterate memory of Qatar’s earlier involvement in the coalition while simultaneously rebuking Riyadh and Abu Dhabi through exposing potential violations of International Humanitarian Law.
Al Jazeera and other prominent Qatari channels regularly featured senior Houthi leaders such as the former chief of the Houthi Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. Not only has this policy helped break Houthi isolation both regionally and internationally, but it also amplified the Houthi narrative of war and weakened the coalition’s propaganda through documentary films divulging Saudi and UAE intentions in Yemen (i.e. Hidden Intentions, Siblings’ Plot). Furthermore, Qatar, who brokered the Doha Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in February 2008, reportedly attempted to forge a marriage of convenience between the UAE’s enemy, Al-Islah party, and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in 2018. With increasing friction between Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh, the Saudi newspaper Okaz accused Qatar of financially sponsoring emerging militias in Taiz and Shabwa governorates. As such, the disruption of the coalition and reforming Yemeni partnerships seem to be two Qatari interests.
The Rest of GCC States
Despite being part of the Arab Coalition, Kuwait has demonstrated regional activism evident in its renewed political will to host another round of peace talks between warring parties in Yemen and its regular shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Arab capitals to mediate the Gulf crisis. In contrast, Bahrain’s role is peripheral. To the east of Yemen, Oman has regularly hosted sideline talks between the Yemeni government, the Houthis, the Saudis, and Western officials. Like Saudi Arabia, Oman has immediate national security concerns given it shares a 294 km border with Yemen. Of significant concern to Muscat is the Kingdom’s military presence in al-Mahra governorate, where Riyadh is planning to build a pipeline into the Arabia Sea to avoid being subject to Iran’s control in the Strait of Hormuz. The historical ties between bordering tribes in Mahra and Oman have played out in stabilizing the region, averting an exacerbation of conflict or demonstrated recurring, sporadic resistance to Saudi ambitions there. The blockade of Qatar has deepened Oman’s skepticism of the GCC as well as its sense of insecurity. This further increases the country’s quest to preserve its sphere of influence in Mahra, since during wartime it acts as a buffer zone between Yemen and Oman.
The Crisis does not Exist in Isolation
The Gulf crisis and its aftermath have significantly shaped the war in Yemen, deepened polarization, and fueled conflict dynamics. Revoking Qatar’s membership from the coalition diversified UAE options in Yemen at the expense of Saudi Arabia and made defection a possibility. The ensuing dramatic shifts in Doha’s Yemen policy illustrate how intra-GCC cracks played out in favor of Yemeni rebel groups and Iran rather than to the benefit of the Yemeni government and overall Gulf security.
Continuation of competition between the GCC states in Yemen will only exacerbate the war in the country and pose greater challenges not only for Yemen, but also for Saudi Arabia and the broader Gulf region. Three years from the conflict’s inception, a genuine intra-GCC rapprochement seems improbable but necessary.
Ibrahim Jalal is a Yemeni security, conflict and defense researcher based in the UK, an Erasmus Scholar, and a co-founding member of the Security Distillery Think Tank and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. His research examines the UN-led peace process in Yemen, U.S. counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen, the politics of the Arab coalition, the hybrid rise of the Houthi insurgency, Gulf security, Iran, and the evolving security architecture of the Middle East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.