As we reflect on the Gulf crisis’s fast-approaching second anniversary, it is indisputable that the past two years have unveiled serious underlying conflicts among the six Arab monarchies. Disagreements that had been camouflaged for decades by diplomacy and the Gulf’s predisposition to the preservation of public image have fractured in plain sight. The public eruption of antagonism among the wealthy Gulf states drew international attention and concern due to what the consequences of the rift could mean for the regional balance and security of an already conflict-ridden Middle East. Despite channels of communication among key players that led to occasional signs that a breakthrough may have been imminent, the crisis has reached a threshold of complexity that makes any satisfactory resolution to the crisis appear as a remote possibility for three reasons.
First, in the current context, the internal threats within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are perceived to outweigh external threats. Second, there remain active disputes on many fronts that impede the possibility of reconciliation. Third, the abandonment of the region’s traditional mechanism of conflict, namely the old Khaleeji tradition of “nose kissing,” has become a foregone anachronism. Historically, this practice saw leaders resolving issues by exchanging dialogue and pleasantries, a face-saving practice that is now becoming obsolete in the eyes of the GCC’s new generation of leaders. Taken together, these reasons will likely perpetuate that in the near future a fractured Gulf will only increasingly continue to make itself a regional status quo.
Internal Threats within the GCC Outweighs External Threats
The involved nations appear to believe that action against perceived intra-GCC threats is more urgent than the need for the GCC to appear unified against threats emanating from outside the bloc. This discrepancy is a significant reason why the GCC as an entity has not been able to meet its intended goals. In fact, the core reason for the establishment of the GCC in 1981 was to formalize a joint defense pact in the face of external threats. To be fair, since its establishment disagreements indeed existed between the six states. However, the previous generation of Gulf leadership was more inclined to contain these disputes for the sake of collective security, perhaps because they were old enough to witness first-hand the imperative of forming such an institution. Yet, in the present moment, changing leaders, contexts and challenges have altered the new rulers’ perceptions of the status and purpose of the Council.
For Qatar, with the outbreak of the current GCC Crisis, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are considered existential threats. In a number of instances, officials close to Saudi and Emirati leaders discussed conquering the Al-Wajba ruling palace in Qatar. At the outset of the 2017 crisis, there were even reports suggesting that the two countries considered military action against Qatar. The gravity of this chatter was compounded by the fact that in 1996 the Saudis and Emiratis attempted a coup d’état on the former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE perceive Qatar as a threat because the small nation has independently sought its own interests by expanding its regional influence. Incidentally, in the post Arab Spring regional environment, Qatar has challenged the regional strategy of the two states. From the perspective of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the Qatari expansion of influence in the post-Arab Spring era is tantamount to a weakening of KSA’s and UAE’s regional status, a development that could prove to pose a domestic threat to the two nations.
Saudi Arabia, which is one of the world’s largest oil-exporters and is much larger in size and population, and its Emirati ally, colloquially referred to as little “little Sparta,” do not accept that a smaller state, such as Qatar, could pose such a challenge to them. Given this intractability, the debate about the GCC Crisis should more holistically consider the region’s present power structures. Key to this analysis will be a projection as to how the GCC states may shape or position themselves in the face of these new realities.
The New Regional Order and the Battle of Narratives
The shift in what individual Gulf states interpret as a credible ‘threat’ is largely due to the branching of each of these states’ agendas in the post-Arab Spring environment. This has partly manifested as competition for influence in places such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia, each of which Qatar and KSA/UAE have identified as opportune places to accelerate their pace for regional influence.
A concurrent aspect to this quest for regional hegemony and preservation of domestic stability is a competition over the role of religion in Muslim societies. As the vast majority of the region practices or observes Islam, religion naturally has emerged as an important site for the three countries to boost their leverage at the regional level and govern their state-society relations. Saudi Arabia and the UAE perceive certain religious-based groups as a domestic threat, while Qatar does not have the same domestic fears of such political blocs. Therefore, each state’s perceived internal threats are exemplified in their responses to predominant Islamic narratives. The UAE is encouraging and rebranding Islam with a quasi-Sufi rhetoric that does not engage in politics and passively displays support to the political establishment. In contrast, Qatar supports (or is at least tolerant of) a sort of political Islam that is widely present in the region and has engaged in various political systems.
Another significant front of this “war of narratives” has been the media. The two parties are waging fierce media campaigns against each other. Some of these campaigns not only address the adversary’s politics, but also transcend traditionally defined “redlines” by targeting the families of leadership with unprecedented levels of public vitriol. The reality of these conditions within the tribal social fabric prevents a quick resolution to the crisis, especially one based solely on faint jovial encounters of regional leaders.
It seems that every time there is a possible encounter between the main rivals of this spat, reports of possible breakthroughs to the crisis emerge. Each time, however, these whispers prove disappointing. False hopes of reconciliation are commonly shattered by the fact that internal threats within GCC states remain high and the dust has yet to settle from the ongoing reshuffling of the regional order. Therefore, incentives to resolve the crisis are low, while the stakes remain high.
Gulf International Forum
 “Saudi Arabia, UAE considered military action against Qatar before Trump warning to back off’, The Strait Times, September 20, 2017 https://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/saudi-arabia-uae-considered-military-action-against-qatar-before-trump-warning