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Prospects of Resolving the Gulf Crisis at the 41st GCC Summit

GCC Leaders Echo Political Will to Resolve the Rift but Reconciliation Remains Elusive

Dr. Dania Thafer

Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

The 41st GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia will address important regional matters and resolving the Gulf crisis is paramount to a united GCC front in addressing them. One of them is to confront a radically different U.S. foreign policy towards the Gulf region. President-elect Biden is inclined to revive the JCPOA with Iran and the GCC is likely not going to be central to his Gulf foreign policy to the same degree it was for the Trump administration. Moreover, there could be scaling back of military presence in the Gulf. Therefore, many issues including relations with Iran will be a top agenda item for the GCC summit. Turkey and Israel, and the future of Palestinians will also be chief geopolitical agenda items. A halfhearted effort to resolve the GCC crisis is a sign that region-wide political fissures will continue.

Although there appears to be political will among GCC leaders to resolve the crisis, there is merit to suspect another fumbled effort. The fact that the summit is not being held on neutral grounds such as in Kuwait or Oman can be a signal that full efforts have not been applied to diffuse tensions, albeit it is noteworthy to mention that past agreements, such as the 2014 Riyadh agreement, have been signed on Saudi territory. Another sign that reconciliation efforts may not have been fruitful is the fact that Qatar’s Foreign Minister did not attend the Manama pre-summit meeting.

Additionally, recent escalations between Bahrain and Qatar should raise questions about whether reconciliation discussions are a wholly good faith exercise. Letters submitted by Qatar to the United Nations Security Council alleged that Bahrain clashed with Qatar over the enforcement of maritime boundaries and flew its fighter jets over Qatar’s territorial water. If true and intentional, this would be an indicator that there are efforts to supplant ongoing negotiations. It is no secret that when it comes to GCC affairs, Bahrain does not act independently, especially in affairs that concern the interests of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Nonetheless, with Washington’s intensified pressure to resolve the crisis, this iteration of talks seems to be more promising than prior attempts. The best outcome for the Gulf rift appears to be the parties walking away with confidence-building measures which could be a framework for future negotiations. This could include Saudi Arabia lifting the air blockade on Qatar, something the Trump administration has been prioritizing. Even if this were the case, there will still be a trust-deficit between Qatar and the blockading states at all levels, and it will require more than a signed summit agreement to return to the pre-2017 intra-GCC relations.

What the GCC Summit Can (and Cannot) Fix

Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Gulf International Forum

There seems to be the political will among GCC leaders to move on from the bitterness and rancor that marked the impact of the Trump era on intra-Gulf relationships, at least on the surface. Whether or not any agreement to end the Gulf crisis can resolve the deeper damage to social relationships following three and a half years of insults and accusatory finger-pointing is another matter. What has made the post-2017 crisis in the Gulf different from its predecessors has been that it was not confined to a difference between ruling elites, but directly affected the peoples and communities in each country. Ties of trust cannot be restored by a written agreement at a political level and will take time to repair. 

If an agreement – preliminary or final – is reached, it will need to contain stronger mechanisms to monitor compliance at the GCC level. The fact that the GCC Secretary-General is no longer a representative of one of the states involved in the rift gives some ground for optimism, but it is important that the GCC itself can strengthen its own dispute resolution mechanism to prevent or at least minimize the risk that the deal might itself become an object of future contention, as happened with the 2014 Riyadh agreement. If the GCC can reassert its authority and provide a supporting framework to any agreement, it may facilitate the rebuilding of political (and eventually social) trust – but this process will undoubtedly take longer than one summit meeting to achieve. 

Gradual Steps Forward

Dr. Courtney Freer

Assistant Professorial Research Fellow, the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Gulf International Forum

The invitation of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to this month’s GCC summit is certainly an important step towards resolving the ongoing blockade of Qatar, building on years of mediation work led by Kuwait and more recent discussions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. While a complete resolution of the crisis would be a welcome achievement, I think that it will be difficult to reach a compromise within one GCC meeting, especially given the uncompromising nature of the demands that the blockading countries placed on Qatar in June 2017. Instead of a clear and decisive resolution, I predict the implementation of confidence-building measures, perhaps beginning with the opening of airspace or loosening of economic barriers in place towards Qatar, as a means of moving towards resolution of the crisis.

Although these developments at the official level are encouraging, the very public and sudden nature of the start of the crisis, and the issuance of the demands in June 2017, mean that it will likely take years for full trust to be reached again, not just among the governments involved but also at a more personal and social level as well. Because the crisis was so publicly put in place, both national and non-national populations on either side of the rift have become emotionally involved either in opposing or supporting it. Therefore, leaders on both sides of the rift will also need to make efforts to “sell” the resolution of the crisis to their people in a way that demonstrates the strength of their position over the past three years, but also their move towards resolution at this time. As a result, I think a gradual easing of the blockade is the likeliest outcome of the upcoming summit.

A Return to Normality?

Professor David Des Roches

Associate Professor, Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Gulf International Forum

The death or irrelevance of the GCC has been loudly proclaimed by analysts and skeptics since its formation nearly 40 years ago. Yet the GCC continues to move forward at its own pace, sometimes shaping events and sometimes watching from the sidelines. Unlike the European Union, the members of the GCC seem happy with a laissez-faire approach to regional integration. Rather than seeking an “ever-closer union” as an end in itself, the GCC members are content with an a la carte approach which brings members together for necessary collective action and remains mostly dormant in the absence of any crisis. 

This approach is not what we in the West are used to seeing from regional organizations, but it seems to have served the GCC members well. None of these countries are democracies, and while all of the GCC states are Arab, there is a great diversity of history, government, traditions and even religion among its ranks. Therefore, a relatively inactive GCC in times of tranquility seems to meet the needs of its member states.  

Of course, the path of the GCC has not always been smooth, and has rarely been as disrupted as it is now. Three of the members (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) have imposed a de facto blockade on a fourth (Qatar). The remaining two countries (Kuwait and Oman) have seen their venerated long-time rulers replaced in 2020.  Iran has continued to strengthen its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, and has stepped up its attacks against GCC interests with direct attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure and naval mine attacks on commercial ships off Fujairah, in the Strait of Hormuz, and in the Red Sea. 

Add to this the political flux in the ultimate guarantor of the GCC ‘s sovereignty, the United States. The incoming president ran on a platform of confronting GCC states over their appalling human rights records and curbing American military support for the Saudi and Emirati intervention in Yemen. Taken together, these factors will certainly lead to a challenging GCC summit – and probably the most challenging since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  

What can we expect from this summit? First, we can expect the Saudi hosts to advance a GCC-wide vision which dovetails with the far-sighted goals of Saudi Vision 2030. Even if nothing else is resolved, there will be a commitment to enhanced regional economic development and a statement calling for enhanced use of modern technology and economic cooperation.  

Second, we can expect a (carefully worded) denunciation of Iran’s malign activity in the region, as well as a call for a settlement of the situation in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Israel will not be mentioned, unless it is to welcome the recent rapprochement with Bahrain and the UAE. If this makes it into the communique, it will mean that other GCC countries will join the Abraham Accords. 

The biggest issue to be resolved, however, is the Qatar blockade. The West is reconsidering its support for the GCC states; the new American administration will almost surely look for an opportunity to scale back its military forces in the region. It is very difficult to justify American forces being put in harm’s way to protect non-democratic governments, even against clear aggression, if those countries cannot cooperate to defend themselves. For this reason, the summit is the best opportunity to cut the Gordian knot of animosity and bad blood which has poisoned intra-GCC relations; if there is not a resolution to the Qatar issue there, it will be viewed as a failure.

These remarks are the opinion of Professor Des Roches and do not reflect the view of any U.S. government agency or organization.

Cooperation on Display at the GCC Summit

Samuel Ramani

Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations

The January 5 GCC summit in Riyadh presents the best opportunity for a resolution of the Gulf crisis since the Qatar blockade began in 2017. As President-elect Joe Biden is expected to reassess the U.S.-Saudi Arabia partnership, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to assuage concerns about Riyadh’s destabilizing conduct in the Middle East. A normalization with Qatar would advance Saudi Arabia’s rebranding efforts. This scenario could buy Saudi Arabia time to strike compromises with the Biden administration on other contentious issues, such as the war in Yemen and re-engagement with Iran. 

Saudi Arabia could frame a partial détente, which allows Qatari civilian planes to fly over Saudi airspace and de-escalates the information war, as proof of “new thinking” in Riyadh. This outcome is more plausible than an immediate reset, as Qatar will likely avoid making concessions to Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s Emir Tamim al-Thani has also yet to accept King Salman’s invitation to Riyadh. It remains uncertain whether other blockading countries will follow Saudi Arabia’s lead. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi might attend the summit, and Cairo’s outreach to the Qatar-aligned Government of National Accord in Libya could inspire similar negotiations with Doha. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s ideational conflict with Qatar over political Islam and Qatar’s recent detention of 47 Bahraini fishing boats could prevent the UAE or Bahrain from reconciling with Doha. 

If a partial resolution of the Gulf crisis unfolds, the GCC summit will likely have a marginal geopolitical impact. The Qatar-Turkey security partnership remains a contentious issue for Egypt, the UAE, and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. The Qatar-UAE rivalries in Tunisia, Libya and Somalia will also persist. GCC-level dialogue on the COVID-19 pandemic and macroeconomic issues could grow, but security cooperation will be undermined by divergent threat assessments amongst its members. Moreover, Qatar’s mistrust of Saudi Arabia and the UAE could linger for decades after this crisis. This could cause smaller-scale diplomatic disputes, mirroring the withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar in March 2014, to recur in the years to come.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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