GCC: turning 40

Summary: as the US continues to pivot away from the Gulf and the wider Middle East and Iran remains a significant regional threat the GCC, approaching its 40th anniversary, sees strategic sense in patching up differences.

We thank Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, for today’s article. Kristian’s most recent book, published by Hurst in February, is Qatar and the Gulf Crisis.

A flurry of diplomatic activity has grabbed the attention of Gulf watchers in recent weeks as regional adversaries have engaged each other in dialogues that are at least in part a reflection of how the international climate has evolved with the shift from the Trump to the Biden administrations in the US. While some of the reasons for the move from confrontational to conciliatory approaches predate the inauguration of Joe Biden, the change in tone indicates the continuing salience of the American presidency in setting expectations even as the U.S. commitment to the Middle East remains an issue of uncertainty.

Amid the focus on recent comments by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reports of meetings between Saudi and Iranian officials in Baghdad, and the ebb and flow of efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) quietly marks its 40th anniversary on 25 May.

The GCC was established in May 1981 largely in response to the twin regional shocks of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. Proposals for a regional organization, some including Iran and Iraq, had been around since the mid-1970s, but ultimately the six Gulf monarchies came together within months as a defensive mechanism in the face of revolution and war around them.

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is embraced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he arrives for the GCC summit in Saudi Arabia, January 5 2021

For much of its history, the GCC functioned as a flexible collection of relatively ‘like-minded’ states that agreed to disagree on issues that impinged on national sovereignty, including issues of foreign, defence, and security policy. However, cohesion was strained to breaking point by diverging policy responses to the Arab Spring that set Qatar against the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and, eventually, Saudi Arabia. The rise to policymaking authority of a newer generation of headstrong leaders – Emir Tamim in Qatar as well as Crown Princes Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh and Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi – magnified still further the fissures in intra-Gulf politics during the 2010s.

The GCC has survived the two iterations of the clash between the Saudi/Emirati/Bahraini troika and Qatar, first in 2014 when they withdrew their Ambassadors from Doha for nine months, and again from June 2017 when the same three countries plus Egypt sought to isolate Qatar politically and economically. The blockade of Qatar lasted exactly 43 months until it was resolved at a GCC Summit at the Saudi heritage site of Al-Ula on 5 January 2021, fifteen days before Donald Trump left office.

What exactly was contained in the ‘reconciliation’ agreement signed by GCC states at Al-Ula remains secret, just as the Riyadh Agreement that ended the 2014 iteration of the spat was not made public until its contents were leaked to the media in 2017. One of the criticisms of the Riyadh Agreement (after it became public) was that it was generic in nature and did not contain specific measures binding on all parties along with verifiable measures to monitor and ensure compliance.

There are signs that lessons have been learned from 2014 and from the failings that meant that the Riyadh Agreement not only did not prevent the 2017 crisis but also became an object of contestation as both sides accused the other of breaching it. There is greater awareness this time around that reconciliation is secured by a process of engagement rather than by a one-off agreement. Kuwait has hosted follow-up meetings between Egyptian and Qatari as well as Emirati and Qatari delegations. A similar bilateral process between Qatar and Bahrain has been slower to take root whereas Qatari and Saudi ties have been the fastest to mend.

The fact that post-agreement follow-up meetings have taken place in Kuwait indicates that Kuwait’s reputation as a regional mediator has survived the passing of Emir Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, the elder statesman of the Gulf whose shuttle diplomacy prevented the Qatar blockade from escalating in 2017. The deaths in 2020 of Emir Sabah and Sultan Qaboos of Oman robbed the Gulf of its two ‘balancers’ in regional affairs; however, the fact that the GCC has, since February 2020, been led by a Secretary-General from Kuwait means the GCC can better act as an impartial regulator in regional affairs in a way that was more difficult under the previous Secretary-General from Bahrain, one of the parties to the dispute.

Signs of a more consensual Gulf-wide position were in evidence in late-February in regional responses to the release of the summary of U.S. intelligence findings into the murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Governments in every GCC state, including Qatar, issued statements of support for the Saudi leadership and emphasized that the stability of Saudi Arabia was for them an integral component of Gulf security.

This newfound approach – which differs markedly from the exclusionary Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis that dominated Gulf politics between 2015 and 2018 – is one illustration of how Gulf leaders are responding to the strategic uncertainties that have run through three consecutive U.S. presidential administrations. Presidents Obama and Trump, each in different ways, left Gulf partners with a sense of perceived abandonment after Obama excluded GCC states from the JCPOA negotiations and Trump failed to respond to Iranian-linked attacks. Joe Biden has left Gulf States in little doubt that his administration intends to focus less on the Middle East and that its regional priorities are disengaging from Yemen and rejoining the JCPOA, even if both are proving rather harder to achieve in practice than may have initially been envisaged.

GCC states historically have moved closer in the face of a common external threat, and it may be that the uncertainty of U.S. intentions vis-à-vis the Gulf and broader regional issues, including Iran, is providing the glue that was missing in the post-Arab Spring decade, when individual states viewed each other as threats. On an optimistic read for the GCC, the organization could move to fill the void, perhaps by coordinating and presenting a unified Arab Gulf position on any ‘JCPOA+’ agreement or even securing a seat at the table of any potential ‘follow-on’ negotiations involving Iran and regional states. On the other hand, however, closer coordination among Emirati, Bahraini, and Israeli officials, with tacit Saudi participation, on harder-line positions toward Iran could widen the existing gap within the GCC between states that have normalized with Israel and those that have not, and open a contentious new regional fault-line. How the next few months play out will shape the next phase of the GCC and of politics in the Gulf more broadly.

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