The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) remains embroiled in arguably its worst schism since the Arab Gulf countries established the alliance in 1981. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain continue to impose their siege on neighboring Qatar while Kuwait tries to negotiate a settlement. To help understand the current dispute, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted on August 30, 2017 a panel discussion on the future of the GCC and the implications of the rift for the region and the wider world.
The panel consisted of Gulf experts Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, and David B. Des Roches, a Senior Military Fellow at the National Defense University’s Near East and South Asia Center for Security Studies.
ACW’s Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan, who chaired the panel, initiated the discussion by noting the unprecedented bitterness displayed by GCC opponents and their supporters throughout the region. The public discourse and media coverage regarding the conflict are equally unmatched in aggressiveness and intensity. “Nothing is sacred anymore,” said Jahshan, who has been an authoritative observer of the conflict. He expressed concern about the failure thus far of intensive Kuwaiti and American mediation efforts politically. Jahshan predicted that “the crisis will linger and that irreconcilable differences could irrevocably hinder cooperation and jeopardize the very relevance of the GCC as a regional institution.”
Ulrichsen presented a detailed analysis of the evolution of the current crisis and discussed the potential ramifications of the conflict on the GCC as a coalition and on inter-state relations within it. He emphasized that this conflict is uniquely current, stating that “[T]his crisis is very much a sign of the times. It is the first alternative-facts international crisis” because it began with a well-organized hacking campaign whose details are still murky but which was well-executed and efficiently blurred the lines between fact and fiction. This was accompanied by a media campaign that paved the way for severing diplomatic relations with Qatar and that was apparently encouraged by President Donald Trump’s alignment with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
What is noticeable to Ulrichsen is that the threats of formal escalation by the Saudi-Emirati-led bloc have not been pursued, likely because it is now clear that formal escalation is harmful to everyone involved. In its place, a series of informal escalations were undertaken by individual blockading states and have increased the risk of long-term damage to the GCC. Ulrichsen noted that traditionally the six GCC ruling families and states have acted as a chain with the states helping the weakest link in it such as the support provided to Bahrain during the 2011 protests. He further observed that the ruling families of Saudi Arabia and the UAE were hopeful for regime change in Qatar early in the conflict and have even tried boosting the notoriety of a rival member of the Qatari royal family in recent weeks. He warned against going down this slippery slope and called for a reassessment of whether further escalation is worth the risk.
As to where the GCC goes from here, Ulrichsen noted that Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s bullying of smaller neighbors will exacerbate long-held fears. Additionally, he said, the GCC as an institution has been noticeably absent in the conflict in terms of addressing grievances or fostering mediation efforts. Ulrichsen is concerned about the GCC as an institution because it may have lost its value with a country like Qatar that may no longer trust its ability to intervene impartially. Even Kuwait and Oman––coming up on succession processes within the next decade––have been more proactive in shoring up their sovereignty. They along with Qatar may have distanced themselves from the GCC enough to allow Iran and Turkey some space to maneuver and exert influence in the region.
Des Roches discussed the implications of the rift on intra-GCC military and security cooperation, and on American military interests in the region. He stated that the US interest in arming GCC states does not stem from political considerations but from strategic ones. The US has supported the GCC because of its ability to protect the Arabian Gulf from more nefarious external actors like Iran. This is why the Saudis announced a big weapons purchase when President Trump visited Riyadh earlier this year.
Des Roches also discussed several complex issues for GCC states that make the current crisis more acute. First, the Saudi campaign in Yemen is very problematic, especially for American lawmakers who lambast its humanitarian costs. President Trump’s role in the conflict is also an issue because of his shifting positions. Finally, the dysfunction in Congress is problematic for the GCC states, saying that “The Qatar kerfuffle delegitimizes all parties in the eyes of Washington.”
Des Roches outlined some divergent goals. First, he said, the UAE wants to host US CENTCOM and al-Udeid; but he dismissed that as a bad idea for the United States. Second, Saudi Arabia wants Qatar to be subservient to its foreign policy goals. Third, Qatar wants to play a major regional and international role. Fourth, the United States just wants the conflict to be resolved because of Qatar’s strategic military value and the GCC’s collective value as an Iran buffer.