GCC Embraces Reconciliation, Prioritizes Economic Development
Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Gulf International Forum
The GCC Riyadh Summit of December 2021 will be recorded as the first ‘normal’ GCC summit in five years, following the “blockade” period summits of 2017, 2018, and 2019, and the ‘reconciliation’ summit at Al-Ula in January 2021 that kickstarted the past year. In the Gulf, 2021 has seen GCC leaders’ attempts to restore ties of trust and confidence among Gulf rulers and their peoples. The Riyadh Declaration was heavy on the need for political, economic, and strategic coordination and made special mention of the circular carbon economy initiative that the Saudi leadership had made a centerpiece of their year-long presidency of the G20 in 2020. As Abu Dhabi begins preparing to host the “COP28” climate conference in 2023 and takes up its two-year rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2022-23, GCC leaders also discuss aligning the Gulf states’ foreign, security, and defense policies.
By the standards of GCC communiques, the 42nd summit declaration was striking for its language on economic, social, and sustainable development, with much less of the ‘harder’ tone on security and military issues as has featured in the past. This suggests that, at least for 2022, the priority among Gulf leaders is the economic, social, and public health recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. At a broader level, the GCC also appears determined to preserve and protect regional interests in a climate-stressed and energy transition landscape. Both issues have the capacity to affect, both directly and indirectly, the lives and livelihoods of citizens and residents in all six GCC states, as well as their regional neighbors, including Iran. As such, it is perhaps unsurprising, though welcome nonetheless, that leaders in the region see the need to focus on issues of common policymaking interest (and urgency) rather than the divisiveness of the recent past.
The GCC is Embracing Regional Reconciliation
Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein
Senior Vice President, the Middle East Institute
After years of regional tension and threats of conflict, including the intra-GCC feud between Qatar and three other members, the 42nd Summit in Riyadh marked a sea change both in the tone and tenor of regional relations, if not necessarily their tangible reality. Nearly a year after the al-Ula agreement ended the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain (along with Egypt), GCC Secretary-General Nayef al-Hajraf’s declaration that “any attack” on a member state “is an attack on them all” highlighted a new alignment of member state positions. Beyond the effort to repair relations within the Gulf alliance, though, the last year marked a concerted effort by GCC member states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to lower the temperature of regional relations, including through outreach to Turkey and Iran, strengthening relations with Iraq, and embracing new initiatives to end the conflicts in Yemen and Syria peacefully.
These changing regional dynamics were fully reflected in the statements at the Summit. Most notably, the Summit displayed the evolving posture of the member states towards Iran. Certainly, concerns about Iranian policies, including its nuclear program as well as interference in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, remain at the top of the GCC agenda. Nevertheless, the leaders were equally clear that they seek to resolve their differences with Iran through dialogue, suggesting a clear break with the confrontational posture that characterized of Gulf-Iran relations during the years of Trump-induced “maximum pressure.”
Indeed, if not an outright loser in this shift towards a more pragmatic, less security-centric posture in the GCC, the U.S. will need to scramble to find its footing in the new regional order. A GCC no longer focused on confronting military threats within the region will be a GCC that is less tethered to the U.S. security umbrella and more comfortable in emphasizing its political and economic interests away from the U.S., including with U.S. rivals. This could mean that the U.S. will find regional actors more ready to hold the door open as it pursues its long-anticipated pivot away from the region.
EU States Approve of GCC Unity, Pragmatic Decision-Making
Dr. Cinzia Bianco
Visiting Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations
From a European perspective, this GCC summit was first and foremost an opportunity to solidify the détente reached at the al-Ula summit in January 2021. Both the European Union and individual European states had consistently hoped for a resolution of the intra-GCC crisis since it first erupted in 2017. Therefore, Europeans are watching carefully as the GCC countries move back toward cooperation and hope to see the effects of this rapprochement in places of European interest where intra-GCC rivalries have contributed to furthering instability, such as in the Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa.
Secondly, Europeans are interested in tracking the re-positioning of GCC actors vis-à-vis Iran and the nuclear talks. The EU itself, as JCPOA coordinator, has substantially increased its level of communication with GCC interlocutors, keeping them engaged and informed about the progress of the nuclear talks. As the talks have run up against significant obstacles, both the EU and its member states hoped that the GCC countries will not leverage these issues to sabotage what is left of the JCPOA. Therefore, Europeans are pleased that pragmatic voices within the GCC seem to be prevailing.
Finally, Europeans are supportive of the GCC’s attempts to find common ground and increase coordination in issues linked to climate change, the environment, and energy transition. GCC states have discussed new ways to enhance cooperation on international climate policies, renewable energy, and the implementation of a circular carbon economy, as well as long-term water and food security. The EU and European states are at the forefront of the global action on climate and sustainability, and they have a growing strategic interest to engage with their GCC counterparts on these topics, with high-level meetings, technical cooperation, and policy discussions already underway and slated to be upgraded in the early months of 2022. While Europeans will be working bilaterally with individual GCC states, it will be important to maintain a level of consistency and coherence that can be guaranteed by working at the GCC level.
An Opportunity for Improved Turkish-GCC Relations
Dr. Ali Bakir
Research Assistant Professor at Ibn Khaldon Center, Qatar University
One of the summit’s primary goals is to strengthen the intra-GCC relations following the January 2021 al-Ula agreement and solidify the normalization process between its members. In this sense, the summit constitutes an opportunity for Turkey to improve its relations with the six GCC countries, given that no one GCC member will be opposed to better relations between Ankara and the Arab Gulf capitals – especially after the recent normalization of relations between the UAE and Turkey.
With regard to Turkey-GCC relations, Ankara intends to seize this opportunity to re-activate its relations with the regional organization. With the help of its allies and friends inside the GCC, Ankara will pursue the revival of talks regarding the free trade agreement with the GCC, one of its long-standing economic goals.
Since the summit took into consideration the emerging threats to the Arab Gulf countries, including those arising from a nuclear Iran, the focus on Tehran as a threat might shed light on Turkey’s future role in the Gulf as a security partner, especially considering America’s projected withdrawal from the region. Ankara is pursuing an aggressive policy in promoting its success exporting indigenous military equipment. It will surely seek to increase Turkish arms sales tailored to suit the defense needs of the GCC countries.
Although it is highly unlikely to expect a unified GCC policy towards Iran soon, the persistence of the Iranian threat might increase value of unity in the eyes of the GCC countries. With that said, Turkey’s political, economic, and defense relations with the GCC as a bloc will depend highly on the status of its relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Crown Prince is banking on this summit to improve his tarnished image, promoting himself as a responsible player in regional issues. Moreover, Ankara’s strong ties with several GCC countries, particularly Qatar, might prove useful in normalizing the relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The fact that Saudi Arabia wants to build on the al-Ula agreement might provide an inroad for improved relations with Turkey.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.