It has been almost a full year since the crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council began with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates severing diplomatic relations with Qatar. This was accompanied by a land, sea, and air blockade of the Qatari peninsula that continues today.
Not a fan of Qatar’s foreign policy orientation, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi threw Egypt’s weight behind the boycott and went step-for-step with the GCC trio in isolating the small state.
Today, the crisis has stalemated and resulted in a deep schism in the GCC that has not only weakened the bloc but threatens its very existence. One year after it began, the blockading countries remain responsible for both perpetuating the crisis and simultaneously facilitating its resolution.
A difficult stalemate
Manifestations of stalemate are inescapable. Early mediation efforts by Kuwait and the United States failed to break the impasse, despite Kuwait’s record as the mediator in the GCC and Washington’s weight and prestige in the Gulf.
Even President Donald Trump’s personal intervention in early 2018 – when he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani – did not produce the desired results.
The new US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, practically gave the Saudi-led coalition an ultimatum to break the logjam. But the blockading countries keep insisting on the implementation of 13 demands they made of Qatar in June 2017 – despite Doha’s rejection of them and Washington’s belief they are unfair and unrealisable.
Qatar is today being treated like a pariah state. In fact, last autumn, Bahrain – which is fully dependent on Saudi Arabia – called for suspending Qatar’s membership of the GCC.
The blockading countries even ended Qataris’ residencies on their soil. Last April, news spread that Saudi Arabia was working on a project to build a canal along its border with Qatar, practically making the Qatari peninsula an island.
Obviously, only time will tell; but the blockading countries seem to have dug in their heels in unalterable positions. In fact, the crisis has taken on a personal nature that has made all reasonable approaches to its resolution unlikely to succeed.
Since the beginning, it was plain to see that Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed were on a mission to re-shape the Gulf and the Arab world to their liking.
It is thus hard to see how the current crisis can be resolved without their full personal cooperation. The stakes are high, especially for the young bin Salman, since his ascension to the throne may depend on his ability to end a needless dispute with a sister state.
Additionally, while breaking whatever modicum of unity in the GCC prior to June 2017, the GCC stalemate threatens the alliance’s well-being and opens up its members to dangerous external challenges, mainly from Iran.
The trouble with the Islamic Republic
Ever the supposed threat to GCC security and stability, Iran today looms larger than ever before. It is on the ground in Syria, has a very strong position in Lebanon, and is trying to outmanoeuvre Iraq’s politicians for influence in their own country.
While not directly fighting in Yemen, Iran is happy to egg on the Houthis in what has become a quagmire for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
All four countries should be considered the GCC’s backyard and what happens there is intricately linked with the fortunes of all of its states.
The Islamic Republic is also becoming more assertive in the waters of the Gulf. Its many quarrels with regional states and the international community, especially the United States, make for a very dangerous and unstable strategic environment.
President Trump’s ill-advised decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran may have satisfied a small domestic constituency he aims to please. But his decision’s direct impact will be felt by GCC allies and friends.
The choice of the US president and Israel to ratchet up the pressure on Iran could very likely lead to a military confrontation. No matter how limited, any military action will have all GCC states as its first and primary victims.
It is obvious the Trump administration is too busy defending the president against charges of collusion with Russia to pay much attention to the GCC. The administration also lacks the necessary institutional requirements and personnel to plan a good roadmap out of the entente’s crisis.
The Arab world is also overwhelmed with its troubles; Europe cannot force a resolution; and Russia may well prefer a disunited GCC.
It is therefore imperative, at this one-year mark, that those countries that concocted the crisis with Qatar to have a reckoning with themselves. Insisting on compounding their mistake is already causing a calamity for all.