At the end of last year, many Middle East experts were confident that, given the ongoing rift between its members, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was falling apart. Then came the al-Ula summit of January 5, putting an end to the three-year blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt and creating a renewed confidence in the GCC’s ability to bring the Gulf together. Indeed, after the siege of Qatar ended and the two sides reconciled, the assumption that the GCC was no longer relevant lost some of its support. Over the past months, the region has witnessed steady rapprochements between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, with the three countries working to move forward while putting the 2017-2021 Gulf diplomatic crisis behind them.
Yet some have argued that the al-Ula summit was merely an attempt to buy time to extend the life of a fundamentally broken organization; whenever tension rises among two or more of the member states, the GCC has been unable to fix it and has remained highly subject to fragmentation instead. Today, four decades after the GCC’s birth, it is unclear if the organization can realize its potential as a regional Arab institution in terms of achieving the goals set out by the six-member states in 1981. The al-Ula Declaration calls for “coordination and integration between the Member States in all fields” and “a unified and effective foreign policy”—but, at least for the time being, this lofty vision does not seem realistic.
The Division Continues
The Gulf diplomatic crisis made it clear that the six GCC states have significantly different views about what constitutes an “effective foreign policy.” The GCC’s members broadly approve of the mutual security provided by the organization, but disagree with regard to issues such as the role of democratically elected Islamist parties in the region, Iran’s behavior in the Middle East, and the Israel/Palestine issue. Although today the countries that once made up the “Anti-Terror Quartet” (the blockading states) and Qatar have temporarily set aside some of their differences due to a host of factors, most notably the election of President Joe Biden in the United States, these tensions remain below the surface. According to Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East and Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum, “Trump’s failure to overturn the 2020 presidential election results meant that Gulf leaders faced the prospect of a Biden administration taking office in January 2021.”
One such difference concerns the American (and GCC) relationship with Iran. Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar are increasingly in favor of the Biden administration and Iran negotiating a successful revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna. By contrast, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have grave concerns about the geopolitical implications of the historic nuclear deal being reconstituted through the ongoing talks in Vienna. Regarding Israel, the UAE and Bahrain made the decision to formalize full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv last year, while the other four GCC members chose to continue their official support of the Arab Peace Initiative, which would require Israel to return to its June 4, 1967 borders prior to the signing of any diplomatic agreements.
Amid these tensions, the issue of democratic development in the Gulf has largely been cast aside. Over the past decade, there have not been major changes in the public scene by expanding popular participation and strengthening the role of elected institutions in the six GCC states. One exception to this rule has been Qatar, which announced its first democratic election for the Shura Council in October and plans to reform the council from merely an advisory body to include a lawmaking capacity, a role formerly reserved for the Executive Branch. However, there is no guarantee that a more democratic legislature will be more successful. In Kuwait, the National Assembly, widely regarded as the GCC’s most democratic institution, is facing a crisis of its own; the continuous confrontation between the government and the opposition dramatically increased after December 2020 parliamentary elections, and the escalation of conflict is likely to lead to the dissolution of parliament in the coming months and a call for new elections.
The other Gulf countries have avoided Kuwait’s problems by ignoring democracy altogether. The opposition in Bahrain has long been denied a role in the island country’s political process. The ruling families of the seven emirates of the UAE continue to control the government. Finally, Saudi Arabia, which has ceaselessly promoted its economic reforms since the accession to power of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has entirely ignored calls for equivalent political reforms. Throughout the Gulf, reformers and opposition politicians who have called for political liberalization have been imprisoned or sent into exile in the United States, Europe, or Turkey.
Moreover, the GCC’s financial situation is beginning to unravel. Oil, the commodity on which all Gulf countries overwhelmingly depend for income, has begun to lose value in light of the global push to use clean sources of energy. One way or another, the GCC’s dependence on oil will eventually end; whether the region will be solvent after it has been phased out remains an enduring question. Despite the increased efforts to diversify their economic resources, the diversification plans have remained marginal in the economic structure of the six states. Although the GCC states have long experience in the energy sector, until now there have been no serious efforts to invest in green energy resources.
A Challenging Future for the GCC
Although the GCC’s members were unable to resolve all of their differences at al-Ula, there are some ways in which the bloc can live up to its stated purpose. In general, the GCC is more successful when it comes to areas of cooperation that are less politically sensitive, including the fight against COVID-19, shared scientific research, economic and trade collaboration, and joint infrastructure projects.
The GCC is experiencing a moment of generational change for both its leadership and its citizens. In January 2020, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the last of the organization’s founding monarchs, passed away. Later in the year, Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Sabah, a veteran Kuwaiti statesman and his country’s leader since 2006, passed away as well. Going forward, the fate of the GCC will be left up to a younger generation of Gulf Arabs who have differing experiences and more individualistic perspectives, unlike their predecessors who generally shared similar foreign and domestic policies. The current generation will need to address many of the delicate issues and tensions that have resulted in the Council’s internal splits over the past four decades—notably including the span of 43 months (June 2017 to January 2021) during which many experts saw the GCC as irrelevant. To create a future in which the GCC can serve as an effective institution with real power, a new way of thinking will be required.
At this moment, forty years after the GCC’s establishment, there is a narrow window for the Gulf Arabs to consider how to balance their countries’ unique national interests, priorities, and perspectives with the collective interests shared across the Gulf. Regardless of what the future holds, it is beyond dispute that the GCC has been a consummate survivor over the past four decades, with its role shifting as needed to maintain its relevance. In the upcoming years, the Council will exist in a more unstable Middle East and in a world that is increasingly multipolar, interconnected, and defined by rapid change through technological innovations that are essentially impossible to decelerate.
Although it is doubtful that the six Gulf Arab states will find a way to fundamentally unite their foreign policies in the short term, there is a clear understanding among Gulf Arab governments of the value of the GCC, and a clear desire to, at the very least, maintain its basic structure and functions. Yet overcoming trust deficits and intra-Gulf Arab rivalries that have plagued the GCC for many years will not be an easy task for the new generation. It will be critical to observe whether these younger leaders find themselves looking to emulate elders such as the late Sultan Qaboos and Emir Sabah, who always sought to promote compromise and accommodation, or more ambitious and maximalist leaders who in recent years have seen international relations as a zero-sum game without regard for the institutional health of the GCC.
Amidst all these challenges facing the organization, the public opinion of GCC citizens remains unrealized by the nations’ leaders. While the citizens seek a united Gulf in an increasingly unstable and turbulent region, the states have continued to work unilaterally and inconsistently, prioritizing their own interests above the unity of the organization. In this sense, for the last 40 years, the GCC has been kept as a façade that only represents the rulers and has not changed into an organization that represented the aspirations of the citizens of the GCC states.
Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.