After three and a half years, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) recent Al-Ula summit in Saudi Arabia finally ended the blockade of Qatar, although the extent to which the four GCC states involved in the summit — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain — can reconcile and move toward a re-normalization of relations remains to be seen. The 2017 crisis was the worst rift in the history of the GCC, and its resolution will have significant consequences for the region’s geopolitics, with perhaps the most important case being the war in Yemen. Regardless of how much diplomatic progress can be made in mending the GCC rift, however, it appears that Yemen will benefit from this diffusion of tensions in Saudi-Qatari relations.
Since the inception of the Gulf crisis, war-ravaged Yemen has endured further political and ideological polarization. After the Arab Spring broke out a decade ago, Yemen’s government underwent a diplomatic spat with Doha over President Saleh’s allegations of Qatari support for the uprisings and a “terrorist” group — a direct reference to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated al-Islah Party. Together with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi set up an Arab axis against the Qatari-Turkish alliance and the Iranian-led “axis of resistance” under the banner of countering political and revolutionary Islam. It is clear that the escalation of the war in Yemen has been directly entangled with the Gulf dispute, and while it remains to be seen, exactly how the crisis’ resolution will correlate with Yemen’s path forward, the trajectory will likely be towards de-escalation.
A Political Battleground for the GCC
After two years of Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen to reinstall the Yemeni government that fled Sana’a after the Houthi-led coup, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi launched a blockade of Qatar. The two blockading GCC states went so far as to have reportedly threatened a military intervention against Qatar — a fellow GCC member state — justifying their aggressive posture against Qatar as necessary for the neutralization of Doha. According to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar allegedly fell into Turkey’s orbit, and the power of its Al Jazeera Media Network needed to be curbed.
In the process of these heightening tensions, Yemen became a military and political battleground for the intra-Gulf dispute. The UAE designated itself as backing certain political and military factions that confront what it describes as the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar-affiliated forces. This affiliation became complicated after the UAE began to support Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council (STC), a separatist movement that does not fully recognize President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government, fueling the Yemeni forces’ already- existing mutual allegations of loyalty to foreign countries, including the UAE, Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. The different forces fighting against the Houthis do not have the same allegiances, which both impedes their military effectiveness and further perpetuates a feeling of being pawns in a regional game.
The exiled Yemeni government, now in Riyadh, also supported the blockading countries, which further exacerbated the crisis. On June 5th, 2017, it cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting the Houthis and other extremist groups in Yemen. In response, Qatar withdrew from the Saudi-led military coalition and suspended financial assistance to the Yemeni government, especially the Foreign Ministry cadre salaries.
Mending GCC Ties May Lead to End of War in Yemen
The ongoing dispute between Qatar and the blockading states has molded the crisis in Yemen in a number of ways. First, as already illustrated, Yemen has become a direct arena for the Gulf states’ competing regional agendas. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have confined themselves to military and political control, while Qatar tried to garner influence through its strong media outlets. Second, the GCC’s internal divisions have been projected onto Yemeni forces. The division heightened Yemeni doubt regarding the Saudi-led coalition’s objective in starting the war in Yemen: was it to battle the Houthis, or the al-Islah Party? Finally, the harsh posture of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on Qatar has evoked similar apprehension for Oman, which has historically maintained neutrality in regional conflicts. Oman has likely been concerned about Qatar’s blockade affecting them more severely than the other GCC states, especially after the coalition’s military movements in the governorate of Al-Mahra, adjacent to its border with Yemen.
The settlement of the 2017 Gulf Crisis constitutes an opportunity for the Arab monarchies to adopt a cohesive stance towards the Houthis after years of division. However, the recent decision from outgoing President Trump to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization might put the GCC states under international pressure in how they engage with them — especially Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, whose stances against the Houthis have historically been less stringent.
This blossoming political reconciliation may redeem the GCC’s credibility and prestige, as well as that of the Saudi-led coalition role in Yemen, which has gradually attracted rising international criticism and suspicion over its unclear intentions and shifting agenda. Furthermore, the potential influence of the GCC reconciliation would help to restore trust between Yemeni parties fighting the Houthis, including the UAE-backed STC, the Saudi-backed Hadi government forces, and the al-Islah Party. Although the deal is intended to reduce the burden on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, some Yemenis fear that the UAE will translate it as a triumph and stimulus for further hegemony in Yemen. Additionally, after successfully mediating an end to the rift between the GCC states, Kuwait might seek to end the war in Yemen through mediation between Riyadh and the Houthis — mediation that Kuwait has already conducted in Yemen, albeit with limited success. By embracing their role as mediators in the Gulf, Kuwait’s leaders might be able to finally bring an end to the region’s crises.
It is hoped that the Al-Ula summit agreement will relax the divide between Qatar and the UAE in concert with Yemen’s Riyadh Agreement, and that Doha may resume financial assistance to the Yemeni government. Crucially, by re-establishing ties with Doha, Saudi Arabia expects Qatar to help bridge the rift between Riyadh and Ankara, so that they can realign against Iran and its affiliated groups, including the Houthis. Finally, this agreement illustrates that if Saudi Arabia can shift its policy and reconcile with Qatar after years of imposing “maximum pressure” on it, it may one day take the same measure with the Houthis, either formally or informally, and end the war in Yemen.
Omar Munassar is an independent researcher based in Istanbul with areas of expertise in the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf region, and Turkey. He is recently a Ph.D. candidate in IR. He can be contacted at email@example.com and tweets at @OmarMunasar
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.