Although regional states have done much throughout 2021 to minimize friction, deep ideological tensions and various forms of competition continue to shape intra-Gulf relations.
On September 17, Bader al-Asaker, who heads the office of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), tweeted a photo that made headlines. It featured MbS, the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s National Security Advisor Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan (TbZ) together, smiling by the Red Sea during a visit to Saudi Arabia’s cross-border megacity, Neom. Asaker said that the Qatari head of state, Saudi crown prince, and Emirati national security advisor, all dressed casually for the photo, had a “friendly and brotherly” meeting. This gathering, which no state press agency announced, has spurred much discussion among analysts about shifting geopolitical dynamics within the Gulf sub-region.
The meeting demonstrated the growing willingness of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to capitalize on the January al-Ula summit and advance reconciliation within the sub-regional institution. Following 43 months of the blockade of Qatar, the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis agreed to lift the siege in January. Indeed, the Gulf monarchies have taken important steps this year to better manage, rather than escalate, their tensions. This does not mean that major differences between GCC members have been resolved. To the contrary, although regional states have done much throughout 2021 to minimize friction, deep ideological tensions and various forms of competition continue to shape intra-Gulf relations.
Turning the Page on the 2017 Gulf Crisis?
Experts maintain that now the Gulf monarchies are keener to address differences in more private, and less public, ways. “The photo is definitive public proof that the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have turned the page on the open side of their dispute with Qatar—they would have never agreed to such a meeting without knowing that would be the clear public takeaway,” Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at risk consultancy Stratfor, told Gulf International Forum. “But the keyword here is ‘public’,” he added. “Below [the surface] there are still disputes that simmer and economic competition that will put them at odds. They’re simply no longer willing to be seen as in dispute, believing that will cause them more harm than good.”
Dr. Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said that the Red Sea meeting and the sharing of the photo on social media speak to the desire in Riyadh and other Arab capitals to make the most of a new chapter in relations with Doha. “The decision by MbS’ team to share the photo on Twitter indicates that he is interested in highlighting that the Qatar blockade is a relic of the past, and perhaps to highlight the Saudis’ role in pursuing policies to heal the rift in the GCC. In general, MbS’ behavior has been reckless and combative: he may be learning that building a reputation as a peacemaker can pay off.”
Whether the UAE is truly on board with regional reconciliation is subject to skepticism. Experts agreed that at the beginning of 2021, shortly after the al-Ula accord resulted in the blockade of Qatar being lifted, the UAE was far less enthusiastic about GCC reconciliation than its neighbors. Significant foreign policy issues continue to pit Riyadh and Abu Dhabi against each other. These include normalizing relations with Israel and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen, as well as the question of whether to recognize the legitimacy of the Syrian regime. Throughout most of 2021, while Saudi Arabia demonstrated its interest in warming up to Doha, Abu Dhabi remained cold to such a prospect. That Saudi Arabia—and not the UAE—has formally re-established diplomatic relations with Qatar demonstrates the disunity of those at the negotiating table at al-Ula.
It is safe to contend that had the UAE had everything its way in January 2021, the al-Ula summit would not have resulted in the lifting of the blockade. “The UAE was not initially inclined to end the Qatar blockade and has maintained a less conciliatory posture than the Saudis,” explained Dr. Sheline. “High profile examples of ongoing Emirati hostility towards Qatar include the UAE’s funding and production of the Hollywood film ‘The Misfits’ which portrays a country resembling Qatar as a ‘global sponsor of terrorism.”
External Factors & GCC Rapprochement
TbZ’s visit late last month to Doha, where he met with the Qatari emir, may signal a shift in Emirati willingness to join Riyadh in pursuing rapprochement with Doha. Considering how UAE government officials and media pundits spent years accusing Qatar of sponsoring terrorist organizations and threatening the region’s security, this shift would be remarkable. A combination of global and regional geopolitical trends could explain this trend and offer insights into the future of rapprochement between GCC states.
COVID-19 has been one major factor in promoting unity between the Gulf monarchies. The global pandemic has severely hurt the UAE’s economy, as have low oil prices. Thus, this has incentivized the leadership in Abu Dhabi to pursue a less costly foreign policy which centers around commercial, trade, and investment interests. When it comes to Qatar, the Emiratis want their economy to benefit from the 2022 World Cup, especially as people from around the world will likely transit through the UAE’s airports and experience Dubai as tourists on their way to Doha for the global sports event.
The Biden presidency has also placed pressure on all the states which blockaded Qatar to reconcile with Doha. To be sure, the current U.S. administration considers both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to be important partners with whom Washington will continue to work closely. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s important trip to Saudi Arabia this month underscores this fact. Nonetheless, there has been a perception in these two Gulf capitals that without Donald Trump in the Oval Office, unconditional support from the White House for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) in Abu Dhabi and MbS in Saudi Arabia has evaporated.
The GCC’s history shows that the sub-regional organization’s six member-states have tended to move closer together during the periods in which widespread instability shook the region. Past examples included the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the Kuwaiti crisis of 1990/1991, and the Islamic State’s rise to power in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Those crises made states within the GCC improve cooperation and move closer to the idea of Arab Gulf unity. Conversely, times of relative stability tend to bring out rifts between GCC members. Within this context, the uncertain situation in Afghanistan cannot be ignored when analyzing the current drive toward reconciliation in the GCC. The hasty U.S. withdrawal from the war-torn country and the Taliban’s return to power over the summer have contributed to much unease within the Gulf region, where governments worry that chaos in Afghanistan could have a wider destabilizing impact.
The recent developments in Afghanistan have also raised doubts within the GCC that the US will remain a reliable security guarantor in the future. “Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan likely confirmed the fears of many Gulf leaders that the US is indeed pivoting away from the Middle East,” said Dr. Sheline. Absent obvious alternatives to U.S. protection, there appears to be a growing realization in the GCC that improving relations between the six members and trying to find more common ground is most pragmatic.
The recent meeting in Neom will likely build on the same intra-GCC reconciliation efforts that led to the al-Ula summit. Yet, what concrete policy decisions will follow this Red Sea gathering remain to be seen. In any event, there seems to be a genuine desire in Doha, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi to enter a new phase in the history of relations between the Gulf states in which there can be expanded opportunities for cooperation within the GCC.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.