GCC Unity in 2024 in the Face of Regional Threats
Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Fellow for the Middle East, the Baker Institute; Senior Non-Resident Fellow, Gulf International Forum
History indicates that periods of harmony among GCC states tend to overlap with periods of regional tension where the points of friction do not concern issues specific to the Gulf States but rather an external threat that is common to all the Gulf States. Examples include the regional landscape in the early 1980s, after the revolution in Iran and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, which led to the overnight creation of the GCC, and the situation after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, which saw renewed discussions about intra-GCC cooperation. By contrast, periods of regional tension in which the points of friction intersect with differences among GCC states’ political and policy approaches have contributed to some of the worst crises within the GCC, as occurred in the decade after 2011.
The Gaza war and the threat of a regionalization of conflict to include Iran and its proxy groups across the region is an example of a threat that is likely to draw the GCC states closer together in 2024, despite their differences in approach toward Israel and Palestine. To the extent that there is a consensus among the GCC states, it is that the Israeli bombardment of Gaza must come to an end—and that any regional escalation would be deeply counterproductive. The interest in rapprochement that has guided intra-GCC and regional geopolitics since 2021 remains in place, and it has ensured that the fighting between Israel and Hamas has not spread beyond Gaza (albeit with the limited exceptions of the West Bank and southern Lebanon).
The GCC states recognize that intra-GCC competition, particularly between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is inevitable, and reflects the fact that many of the ‘giga-projects’ associated with Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia are moving into economic sectors where Dubai and Abu Dhabi have led the region for years. However, these competitive rivalries are less likely to lead to renewed friction, as they are not ideological in nature; a large-scale political rupture akin to that between Qatar and its neighbors in 2017 is nearly unthinkable. There is a risk that economic tensions could rise as 2030 approaches, particularly if Saudi officials feel pressured to take decisive measures to ensure the success of their Vision 2030 giga-projects, but this is a medium-term ‘black swan’ issue for policymakers across the Gulf to consider as one of multiple possible scenarios.
Reversal of Progress: The Resurgence of Old Conflicts in the Middle East in 2023-2024
Professor David Des Roches
Associate Professor, Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies; Senior Non-Resident Fellow, Gulf International Forum
–Comments do not reflect the views of any USG agency—
2023 marked the year when progress toward Middle Eastern peace halted and old problems—long thought to be superseded—re-emerged with a vengeance. The fragility of the regional security architecture was brought into sharp focus by new developments. 2024 shows every sign of being another regressive year, marked by tension and conflict.
It is tempting to view history as a trajectory in which one trend emerges and then develops over time. 2023 showed that the new trend is of disruption: causes which were dormant reasserted themselves and shoved other developments out of the way. The security situation in the Middle East was dominated in 2023 by the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping; in all likelihood, these will continue to dominate the region’s attention in 2024.
At the start of 2023, the main security issue was how soon, and at what price, the remaining Arab states would recognize Israel. A secondary issue was how to build on various elements of détente with Iran’s proxy network, such as the Israeli-Hezbollah agreement, and proceed with Mediterranean natural gas exploration and the Saudi-Houthi negotiations.
Prior to October 7 terrorist attack, the arc of 2023 was towards peace and reconciliation. Indeed, just one week before the attack, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan wrote in Foreign Affairs that the Middle East was “quieter than it has been for decades”; the events of October 7, and the ensuing Israeli invasion of Gaza, led the magazine to hastily edit the piece.
Indeed, the security arc of events for 2024 shows every sign of continuing along the chaotic post-October 7th path, not the hopeful path of most of 2023. There are a few characteristics which we can expect in what will most likely be a year of conflict.
First, the marginalized of the Middle East will attempt to make themselves relevant. The Palestinians—long viewed as bystanders or political bargaining chips in an inevitable Arab-Israeli reconciliation—will put themselves and their concerns at the forefront of regional events. Arab (and, increasingly, global) public opinion is sympathetic to the Palestinian side of this conflict. In this climate, moves towards additional countries recognizing Israel are unlikely. Indeed, it should be viewed as an Israeli victory if no Arab country withdraws its recognition of the Jewish state.
Second, the Houthi shipping attacks will force all of the Middle East’s regional powers to deal with the troubling implications of Iran’s incubation of a network of disruptive militias and proxy groups. These proxy states have grown increasingly independent and self-reliant, not only receiving their illicit weapons from Tehran but also manufacturing them domestically in greater numbers. Politically, they are seeking to evolve from mere proxies into junior coalition partners with a higher degree of autonomy from the Iranian center. Until now, most countries have dealt with these groups on the assumption that they are simply appendages of Iran and can be controlled through engagement with Tehran, but this approach may no longer work. Certainly Iran has the ability to provide some capabilities and influence, but the proxies—in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen—have now developed the ability to function autonomously, and will need to be addressed on their own terms rather than as appendages of the Iran file.
Unresolved Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Derails U.S. Gulf Strategy
Ambassador Patrick N. Theros
Strategic Advisor and Senior Scholar, Gulf International Forum
Defining the Biden administration’s vision of its interests in the Gulf region, and attempting to align that vision with its actions, baffles even the most astute observer. America’s overriding interest in the Gulf remains unchanged since 1945: deterring any threat to the free flow of oil and gas into world markets. Occasionally this focus has given way to other aims, such as attempting to draw the Gulf states into an alliance with Israel against America’s enemies, first the USSR and later Iran. Under the Trump administration, the United States tried again to create an Israeli-GCC alliance against Iran as part of the “Abraham Accords,” leading Bahrain and the UAE to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel. The Biden administration sought to build on this accomplishment by throwing its full support to persuading Saudi Arabia to follow suit. As in the previous iterations, the United States was seen as seeking two objectives: creating a new alliance structure meant to contain its enemies, and isolating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But those previous initiatives failed spectacularly, and in the aftermath of the October 7 attack, there is no reason to doubt that this will happen again.
In 1955, the United States’ creation and sponsorship of the “Central Treaty Organization” (CENTO), a military pact linking Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan in an alliance with Iraq, led directly to the blood-soaked overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy and the installation of a communist revolutionary government three years later. Only the rapid deployment of British troops saved Jordan’s monarch from the same fate. In 1981, President Reagan’s Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, tried again, this time to create an alliance against the newly revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran, which he linked to the USSR. The effort encouraged Saddam Hussein to intensify his attack on Iran, developing into a ghastly eight-year war; the failure of this effort contributed to Haig’s defenestration in 1982.
There is little reason to suspect that the current effort would not have resulted in a similar failure to accomplish American objectives, even if there had been no Gaza war. The GCC states do not want Israel to protect them against Iran; they fear that a far-right Israeli government, particularly under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would entangle them in a war that they do not want. American officials have suggested Hamas attacked Israel to derail the Abraham Accords initiative before the talks with Saudi Arabia could bear fruit, but the timeline does not strongly support this interpretation; Hamas had clearly been preparing this attack long before the prospect that Riyadh could send an Ambassador to Israel was ever considered. However, the Hamas attack will probably render the Abraham Accords meaningless. The Bahraini and Emirati embassies will probably survive unless the Palestinian death toll becomes dramatically higher or Israel expands the war to Lebanon. Dragging the United States into war with Iran, long an objective of the Netanyahu administration, would be a catastrophe of a greater magnitude.
America’s one vital interest in the region remains unchanged and unchallenged. It is the only country willing and able to maintain the stability required to ensure the free flow of oil and gas from the region. To go down the rabbit hole of pursuing failed strategies that endanger that vital interest makes little sense.
Iranian-Saudi Relations: Steering Through Peace and Tensions in 2024
Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush
President, MidEast Analysts
The Saudi-Iranian normalization deal in March 2023 came after the two sides severed ties in early 2016 over their diverging interests in the conflict-prone region of the Middle East. The deal has shown modest peace dividends to date. In August, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian held talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to urge closer cooperation, but these talks ultimately left Saudi Arabia empty-handed. President Ebrahim Raisi flew to Saudi Arabia to attend a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in November, to address the crisis in Gaza, but the war continues.
Ambassadors Abdullah bin Saud al-Anzi and Alireza Enayati, who respectively lead the Saudi and Iranian missions in Tehran and Riyadh, have overseen talks to expand bilateral cultural and economic ties. But the two capitals struggle to find common ground for peace in the Middle East. Tehran wants the Palestinians, including Hamas, to control their land. Its allies including the Houthis in Yemen want the same, and they have struck at Israeli and U.S. targets and naval ships in the region in the pursuit of this aim. For its part, Saudi Arabia wants to contain the flames of war by refusing to directly provoke Iran and its allies. But the longer the Gaza war carries on, the more likely it is that the Houthis—who are rebuilding their own fragile ties with Riyadh—might turn against it for weighing the U.S.-backed option of normalizing Saudi ties with Israel.
Moving forward, Riyadh will have to balance its ties with the United States and Israel against increased pressures from Iran and its allies. Tehran will engage with Riyadh, but only as long as Saudi Arabia agrees to buffer the tensions between America and Iran. According to some reports, Riyadh may have recently exchanged messages between Washington and Tehran to help de-escalate regional tensions. Iran’s foreign ministry refuses to divulge information on this exchange. But the Houthis say they will not tolerate normalization by any regional state with Israel, a clear warning to Saudi Arabia. This suggests that Riyadh and Tehran will need to establish mechanisms to defuse potential crises and maintain a relatively calm regional atmosphere, if they aim to prevent a wider war in the Middle East in 2024.
Fragile Calm in Yemen: Challenges for Peace Amidst Regional Tensions
Dr. Nabeel A. Khoury
Senior Non-Resident Fellow, Gulf International Forum
There is relative calm in Yemen, but there is not peace. The Houthi-Saudi agreement of early 2022, bolstered by the Saudi-Iranian agreement in March 2023, has brought relative calm, especially to the Saudi-Yemeni border. However, there is no agreement among the various Yemeni factions on how to reunify their country or break the Yemeni state into mutually and peacefully agreed upon independent components. The Gaza war, and the Houthis’ military action in the Red Sea, further complicates the pursuit of peace.
One must recall at the start that the Yemeni crisis is one of governance, generally speaking and specifically in the aftermath of president Ali Abdallah Saleh’s resignation in 2012 and his ultimate death in 2017. In 2012, Saleh faced a rebellion against his rule by the southern and northern regions—and in a wider sense by the Yemeni youth, who demanded a more democratic form of government. The void left by Saleh’s departure resulted in the fragmentation that he had often predicted during his lifetime. Today, Yemen’s north is largely ruled by Ansar Allah (the Houthis), though their form of government is authoritarian and exclusive. The south is partially ruled by the Southern Transitional Council, mostly confined to Aden and contested elsewhere in the south. The Presidential Council (PLC), appointed by Mohamed Bin Salman in Riyadh, is in principle based in Hadramawt, though the Hadramis have their own ruling council and act independently from the PLC.
None of these four components of the former state of Yemen are being ruled justly or democratically, and none are in agreement with one another. The Gaza war and the Houthis’ involvement as a member of the Iranian “axis of resistance” further militarizes the north, implicates the rest of the country in a regional struggle with international dimensions, and distracts Yemeni leaders from the already difficult task of domestic peace. Yemen’s peace prospects for the near and medium terms remain unfortunately precarious.
Kuwait’s New Era: Shaykh Mishaal’s New Governance Vision
Dr. Courtney Freer
Senior Non-Resident Fellow, Gulf International Forum; Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow, Emory University
Kuwait recently mourned the passing of Amir Shaykh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, who led the country for almost three years. Known as the “amir of pardons,” Shaykh Nawaf was notable in particular for his leniency towards political dissenters, contributing to a more stable domestic atmosphere bridging the gap between the opposition-dominated parliament and the executive branch. In 2022, he pardoned opposition lawmakers, leading to the dissolution of the sitting parliament and the announcement of new elections. Despite these actions, Kuwait’s unique political structure continues to present challenges, with the opposition facing restrictions and MPs pursuing individual agendas, leading to systemic inefficiencies. Before Shaykh Nawaf’s death, a significant move was made by the parliament to reform the electoral system, potentially introducing party-like lists and abolishing the single-nontransferable vote system established in 2012. This change aims to address parliament’s composition and operational dynamics.
Shaykh Mishaal, the new amir, brings a distinct approach to governance. Criticizing the performance of both the cabinet and parliament in his first speech in the new position, he indicated a departure from the leniency of his predecessor. He has frozen promotions and new appointments and witnessed the cabinet’s resignation as his first official act. Shaykh Mishaal’s primary objectives include improving cabinet-parliament relations and advancing Kuwait’s economic diversification, particularly reducing dependence on hydrocarbon revenues. Regionally, Kuwait is expected to maintain its neutral stance, despite ongoing border disputes with Iran and Iraq and its commitment to the Gulf Cooperation Council. The country’s foreign policy is likely to remain consistent, focusing on regional and international cooperation.
Succession in Kuwait does not follow a strict pattern, but requires the amir to be a descendant of Shaykh Mubarak al-Sabah. The shift away from prime ministers becoming amirs, as seen with Shaykh Mishaal’s rise, may lead to future amirs from security backgrounds, affecting the dynamics of political opposition and executive regulation. Under Shaykh Mishaal, Kuwait anticipates a period of stability, with efforts towards more effective governance, transparency, and economic diversification, while maintaining its established foreign policy direction.
Strengthening Bonds: The Advancement of GCC-Turkish Relations in 2024
Non-Resident Fellow, Gulf International Forum; Research Assistant, Gulf Studies Center of Qatar University
It is possible to describe 2023 as the year that Turkey and the GCC states reaped what they sowed during the prior years of rapprochement. After his narrow re-election in the summer of 2023, to reflect the importance of the Gulf states, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan embarked on a tour encompassing Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. This tour held symbolic and strategic importance, culminating in various agreements between Turkey and the Gulf nations. In December, Erdoğan was the guest at the 44th Session of the Supreme Council of the GCC held in Doha. Turkey’s inclusion at that forum showcased its commitment to strengthening regional ties and institutionalizing foreign relations, including economic and security dimensions. The commitment was further emphasized in March, when the UAE and Turkey signed a free trade agreement aiming to increase Turkish-Emirati bilateral trade to $40 billion in the next five years, followed by Kuwait’s $367 million deal with Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar for the purchase of TB2 combat drones. Similar agreements were signed with other GCC states through a range of diverse sectors. Thus, after the rapprochement, last year was a transition to a period of consolidation of relations.
Currently, Turkish-Gulf relations are primarily centered around economic and defense-related gains, and this trend is expected to persist in 2024. The sixth strategic discussion between Turkey and GCC states, set to take place in Istanbul in early 2024, is noteworthy due to its occurrence after an eight-year hiatus. The meeting is also an indication of a unified GCC-wide commitment to boost ties with Turkey.
It is important to note that Turkey pursues different relations with each GCC member state based on their respective priorities and interests. Within this context, there are still persisting specific political disagreements between Turkey and some of the GCC member states. Still, it is safe to expect a more collaborative year for Turkish-Gulf relations in face of several international and regional challenges.
The context of the ongoing Gaza war adds complexity without clear resolution prospects. While the upcoming U.S. presidential election in November 2024 may not be of paramount importance to Turkish and GCC policymakers compared to previous years, it remains essential to consider systemic-level developments when analyzing Turkish-Gulf relations. As Washington’s foreign and security policies are less aligned with those in Ankara and Gulf capitals, Turkish and Gulf leaders sought cooperation in diversifying their security needs through cooperation with each other or with other global powers.
Iraq’s Tightrope: Balancing PMF Growing Power and Ties with Washington
Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy
Non-Resident Fellow, Gulf International Forum; Iraqi Academic and Researcher
2024 will witness the continuation of Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Sudani’s difficult task in striking a balance between factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and relations with the United States. The military dimension of this conflict was elevated with the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel, as some PMF factions continue to target U.S. bases in both Iraq and Syria. On more than one occasion, the United States retaliated by striking militia compounds, leading to the possibility of escalating conflict. Economically, these same factions contribute to Iraq’s outflow of hard currency to Iran and its partners, which is hurting the daily lives of the average Iraqi citizen. In other words, lesser circulation of U.S. dollars within Iraq is leading to the devaluation of the Iraqi dinar and, by implication, decreasing the purchasing power of Iraqis. Simply put, these militias are disputing the dictates of the Iraqi government to the detriment of Iraqi society, and the Iraqi government must be proactive in preventing such prevalent violations of its sovereignty.
The Iraqi government expressed on more than one occasion its objection to attacks against U.S. bases, and Al-Sudani outrightly and justifiably called them acts of terrorism. Because the Iraqi government is unable to prevent these factions from conducting such attacks, it must continue to coordinate with U.S. forces by giving its tacit agreement to retaliate against the compounds of these militias. This position must go hand in hand with the Iraqi government’s sustained effort to build a formidable Iraqi military—one that is first and foremost loyal to the state—before it can independently address such violations.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s economic coordination with the United States should unabatedly continue, particularly to reform the Iraqi banking sector with the overarching aim of rehabilitating Iraq’s financial system and modernizing its economy. In short, Al-Sudani must make it clear to the PMF’s leadership that if they want to be the main political players in governing Iraq, then transitioning their worldview from a militia-mindset to a more nationalist perspective with broader horizons is of utmost necessity.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.