The GCC’s Future Is in the Balance after Its 38th Summit Meeting

It is hard to judge the condition of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) after its latest meeting in Kuwait City, Kuwait, for its vital signs are confusing. Only two full-fledged rulers, Kuwait’s Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, attended it while three countries––Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain––sent lower-ranking officials. Oman, as usual, sent a royal representative of Sultan Qaboos who, for health reasons, has not attended such gatherings for about a decade. If a meeting’s potential success is determined at least partly by the level of official representation, then the GCC’s 38th summit failed to satisfy a basic requirement.

Sheikh Sabah is also said to have quickly wrapped up the summit’s only session after 15 minutes of what could be imagined to have been a tense closed-door get-together. This came after an earlier meeting of GCC foreign ministers, a customary organizational conference to iron out issues before the leaders’ final communiqué. It further looked as if the communiqué had been pre-written to emphasize everyone’s desire for continuing collective action in the interest of people living in the GCC countries. As host of the summit and a mediator in the ongoing GCC crisis, Sheikh Sabah was in a very difficult position. It is thus not farfetched to surmise that his abrupt ending of the meeting was meant to accomplish two important missions: preserve a modicum of unity within the GCC and salvage Kuwait’s reputation as host.

A Serious Contributing Factor

Appearances aside, it was the UAE’s announcement about establishing a “new political and military alliance with Saudi Arabia” that may signal the apparent demise of the GCC. For two of the GCC’s richest and most powerful and influential members to decide to establish a new organizational structure to mirror what the 1981 alliance was originally meant to do indicates a profound change at this critical juncture. That this latest announcement did not even include Bahrain––normally the duo’s partner––suggests that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh may have decided that the GCC was too unwieldy for the whimsical nature of Emirati and Saudi foreign policy as conceived by Abu Dhabi (UAE) Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).

Both men are currently leading the effort to isolate Qatar regionally and internationally. MbZ presided over a UAE-sponsored hack of Qatar’s official news agency and the planting of false pronouncements by the Qatari emir. MbS supported the effort, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in coordination with Bahrain and Egypt, severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a land, sea, and air blockade on the country. That this gambit has failed to have its desired impact on Qatar does not seem to have dissuaded the duo from following their destructive blueprint for reengineering GCC relations. Qatar has resisted their pressure successfully, avoiding political isolation and economic trouble and securing financial stability. It relied on its longstanding good relations with the international community, especially the United States, while exploiting its old policy of strategic hedging when it sought and garnered important and powerful friends. It also fortified its domestic front, thus thwarting the blockading countries’ attempts at sowing disorder and threatening the stability of its regime. That Oman and Kuwait did not go along with the siege must have added to the perceived “necessity” of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates either to threaten the existence of the GCC by not attending its summit meeting, or to establish a replacement alliance that could supposedly be more responsive to their concerns.

It is likely that the new alliance was patched together following the disastrous news from Yemen a day earlier that Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was assassinated by the Houthis who were his allies in rebellion against legitimate authority. His departure from the scene only adds to the troubles facing the Saudi-Emirati intervention in the country. First, whatever doubts there have been about Iran’s support of the Houthis over the last two decades, the rebels’ rule in Sanaa will most assuredly dissipate any new questions. Only the Islamic Republic will be ready and willing to assist a Houthi-led state, in the process most likely succeeding in launching a religious Shia entity on Saudi Arabia’s border—applying what amounts to a Houthi version of Iran’s Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) and securing strategic reach to the Red Sea and beyond. This would be a cataclysmic development that would lead to constant instability and tension across the region. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to posit that the survival of such a state may be the beginning of the undoing of the Sunni monarchical order on the Arabian Peninsula.

Second, with Saleh’s partisans leaderless, it is hard to count on a serious military challenge to the Houthis except by troops loyal to the internationally recognized president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. But Hadi has serious disagreements with UAE leaders who have prevented him from presiding over his government in Aden. In fact, the UAE has worked over the last two years to establish its presence as a de facto military power in southern Yemen and has assisted rival military leaders working for southern Yemen’s secession from the north. There were published reports that Hadi had a major falling-out with the UAE’s putative leader Mohammed bin Zayed, who favors Hadi’s former premier Khaled al-Bahhah. Hadi’s movement in Riyadh is also limited although he is considered the legitimate leader of Yemen. In other words, if the Houthi victory is allowed to stand in Sanaa, all that is needed is a Saudi-Emirati nudge to the powerless Hadi to cede his authority and the matter would be a fait accompli.

Third, the entire murky situation in Yemen may open the possibility of Saudi and Emirati troops on the ground to dislodge the Houthis. Saudi Arabia has mainly taken to the sky to attack Houthi positions while its troops are deployed on its border with Yemen. On the other hand, UAE troops are currently in southern Yemen where they have maintained order and fought alongside national army troops and southern secessionist soldiers against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State. Thus, Saudi and Emirati troops could launch a joint attack from the north and south against Houthi forces. If this were to happen, better coordination of military forces would be needed and cooperation on political initiatives necessary. In both the military and political realms, Saudi and Emirati leaders believe that a less cumbersome alliance would be warranted, thus the new entente.

It is important to note, however, that the new alliance does not include economic cooperation because Saudi Arabia and the UAE see each other as competitors. They have been at loggerheads since the 2000s regarding GCC economic integration. Abu Dhabi and Oman refused to join the GCC common currency talks launched in 2010; the most likely reason for the UAE’s refusal is Riyadh’s insistence on hosting the GCC Central Bank, a move that would assert its supremacy in the entente’s economic organization. (Interestingly, Qatar agreed to join the GCC monetary union.) With the second largest gross domestic product among GCC states, the UAE has always felt that hosting the bank and the currency would be a well-deserved honor. Of course, there are other impediments to full GCC economic integration having to do with independent economic elites and competition over markets and investment. Thus, for now, the new Saudi-UAE organization has avoided the pitfalls of economic coordination in the interest of a unity needed to deal with Yemen and other concerns.

The Dangers of Abandoning the GCC

Considering how the Saudi and Emirati leaderships have dealt with the troubles facing their policies regarding Qatar, Yemen, and Iran, one cannot help but see the new alliance as another step in the wrong direction and a further attempt to escape a crisis by creating another one. Dismantling the GCC would be a shortsighted and ill-advised decision given current conditions in the Arabian Peninsula.

Militarily, it is impossible to defend against the purported Iranian threat without the cooperation of Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, all in possession of needed armed forces and weapons that are compatible with and complementary to those of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. The contribution that the missile defense systems of the first three can make to protect the airspace of the last three is most important. In fact, the integration of command structures of all GCC states is the only surefire strategy that is guaranteed to protect everyone. On the other hand, relying on the United States for protection or for challenging Iran should be taken with great skepticism. Neither are American forces in the region ready to take on the Islamic Republic nor is Washington anxious to fight another war in the Middle East, notwithstanding the rhetoric coming out of the Trump White House. Indeed, giving credence to pronouncements from an erratic American president is folly and a sure way to fall victim to his ill-conceived policy choices.

Politically, the collective action of the GCC states can help provide the needed stability in an unstable region. For this to happen, however, the leaderships directing the affairs of state in Saudi Arabia and the UAE should reevaluate how they understand intra-GCC relations, refrain from looking at issues through self-glorification glasses, and apply rigorous analysis of conditions on the ground. Like all other organizations, the GCC cannot survive if personalities dominate the institution and self-aggrandizement is the norm. As a collective entity of similar states, the GCC must be allowed to develop its institutional mechanisms of conflict management specifically because of the differing interpretations of priorities and preferences. Stability and order benefit all domestically as well as in dealing with the international community.

Economically and socially, GCC states have similar social contracts between rulers and the ruled. They all need similar economic diversification programs that can ameliorate problems of unemployment and dependence on rent relations. Much economic integration has been achieved in the GCC’s 36-year history in areas such as labor policies, a common market, freedom of movement, tariffs, and the like. What is needed at present is the continued commitment and dedication to the diversification programs that all GCC states have declared as their priorities. The current relations between GCC states and the involvement by some of them in unwarranted adventures and grandiose projects only delay what is required to make GCC economies modern, competitive, and successful.

Finally, it would be unwise to do away with the entente that has defined the region’s global relations for the last three and a half decades. Those leaders who did not attend the GCC’s 38th summit in Kuwait would do well to reevaluate their ill-advised positions. Despite its many faults and shortcomings, leaving the GCC to just wither on the vine would complete the realization of what Iran’s leaders have desired for years.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here