Saudi Arabia Ends the GCC Crisis

It finally happened: the GCC crisis is seemingly over. The 41st summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) succeeded in surmounting the three-and-a-half-year-old rift. It culminated in the signing of a “solidarity and stability” accord and the restoration of diplomatic ties between Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, on the other. The agreement was preceded by a Kuwaiti announcement that Saudi Arabia would lift its land, sea, and air blockade of Qatar, which had practically isolated the peninsular nation from the rest of the region. The positive outcome of this summit contrasted with the failure of the 40th GCC meeting of December 2019––also held in Saudi Arabia––that was accompanied by promising signals that turned out to be a misplaced hope in resolving the crisis.

Not much is public so far about the contents of the latest agreement, nor is there any mention of the fate of the 13 demands made of Qatar in 2017 as conditions for accepting it back into the fold. Those had dealt with Qatar’s alleged support of terrorism, relations with Iran and Turkey, and the role of the Doha-based Al Jazeera television network, among other things. Preparations for the 41st summit over the last couple of months included a potential set of principles that would address the old demands so that meeting them individually would not become necessary to achieve reconciliation. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that not much has changed in the conditions that gave rise to the rift in June 2017, and this casts a shadow of a doubt on the sustainability of the current accord and the achievability of true solidarity and stability for the GCC. In fact, it calls for an investigation of the reasons helping to finally put an end to the fruitless crisis, one that split the council and jeopardized its future.

2017 Demands Remain Unaddressed

Although the 13 demands came only after former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked for them, they represented something of a line in the sand for the blockading countries––Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. In efforts to resolve the crisis since June 2017, Qatar’s refusal to comply with the demands individually and collectively because they impinge on its sovereignty remained the stumbling block that impeded any progress. In essence, they became the sine quo non of the crisis. Qatar needed to stop supporting so-called terrorist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, cut ties with perceived archenemies Iran and Turkey, and tone down Al Jazeera’s coverage of the boycotting quartet’s affairs. Other demands were made regarding halting interference in domestic affairs, handing over wanted opposition activists, closing Turkish military bases, paying financial compensation, and shutting down Qatar-owned media outlets inside and outside the country.

None of these and other demands seems to have been addressed in the announced agreement from the summit.

None of these and other demands seems to have been addressed in the announced agreement from the summit. In fact, following the signing of the accord, UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash––long a representative of the anti-Qatar hard line––declared that the demands were just a “maximalist negotiating position.” This begs the question as to what the quartet’s minimalist position was during the summit since nothing was announced about the real fate of those coveted demands.

Investigating such a fate is important for the sustainability of the signed solidarity and stability agreement. This is because the leaders of two states of the anti-Qatar quartet did not attend the summit, thus showing less enthusiasm and commitment to its outcome. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa sent his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad, to the meeting while Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi sent a delegation headed by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. (It is important to note that the absence of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz should not be seen in the same light because he was the ultimate host of the meeting. Further, UAE Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed Al Maktoum, has always represented ailing UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan at these meetings.) Bahrain’s lower level representation can be chalked up to King Hamad’s continued displeasure with purported Qatari malfeasance and the Bahrain-Qatar maritime dispute. For his part, Sisi’s absence may not be as consequential since Egypt is not a member of the GCC; nonetheless, his attendance would have sent a more positive message regarding future relations with Qatar.

Hidden Messages from Saudi Arabia

It was clear from the beginning of preparations for the 41st summit meeting that Saudi Arabia was enthusiastic about closing the page on the GCC crisis. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud announced in early December that the kingdom’s allies in the conflict were “on board” for a reconciliation. The meeting had been set to convene in Bahrain but was moved to Saudi Arabia, indicating that Riyadh was interested in shepherding a reconciliation on its own soil. On December 29, Egypt’s President Sisi received an invitation to the summit, which indicated that Saudi Arabia, at the very least, saw the crisis on its way to a resolution. Even the pre-summit announcement about opening borders between Qatar and Saudi Arabia must have signaled a gesture of goodwill to persuade Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad to personally attend and highlight his country’s willingness to let bygones be bygones. Like other leaders, Tamim was extended an invitation but decided to attend only after the announcement was made.

As he advances in age, King Salman bin Abdulaziz may have wanted to put Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in charge of a seminal meeting with high stakes for the kingdom.

The specific Saudi interest in holding the meeting and advancing an agreement to end the GCC crisis brings to the fore some other important issues. First, as he advances in age, King Salman bin Abdulaziz may have wanted to put Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in charge of a seminal meeting with high stakes for the kingdom. That way, MbS would look like the statesman and Gulf peacemaker the king desires him to be. As King Salman directed officials to arrange for the summit meeting and its outcome, it was noticeable that he did not personally participate in it, leaving it to his son to both chair the proceedings and issue statements. It is thus not hard to fathom a political change in Riyadh in the coming days and weeks whereby King Salman formally and officially completes the cycle of devolving authority to his son in preparation for MbS’s coronation.

Second, it could be that King Salman has grown disillusioned with the seemingly disadvantageous alliance between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the country that initially instigated the Gulf crisis when it hacked Qatar’s News Agency. Today, the UAE appears to be singing its own tune without paying much heed to Saudi interests or policy direction in the region. In Yemen, the UAE has supported the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) against the Saudi-supported government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Riyadh Agreement that was signed in November 2019 finally produced a power-sharing government between Hadi and the STC, though no one can guarantee it will succeed in bringing the insurgent Houthis to heel or in steering the country toward a resolution of the six-year conflict.

The UAE is also expanding its strategic reach from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea without much regard to Saudi Arabia’s strategic depth and influence. It has established bases on the Yemeni island of Socotra and the country’s south as well as on the Somali coast. It has also struck out on its own in reaching a normalization agreement with Israel, abandoning the framework of the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. In a sense, King Salman may be looking for a way to diminish the link between Saudi and Emirati foreign policies, in preparation for MbS’s ascension to the throne, while satisfying the wishes of the other GCC states––Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar––for more cohesion and unity of purpose within the entente.

Third, a Saudi change of heart on the GCC crisis cannot be seen in isolation from the election of the anti-Trump candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, who will be sworn into office on January 20. King Salman may have surmised that his country would do well to prepare itself to lead the GCC during the next four years of a Biden presidency that is expected to emphasize diplomacy in the Gulf instead of belligerent rhetoric and policy. Salman also is cognizant of the negative image Saudi Arabia has in Washington because of its ongoing war in Yemen, its dismal human rights record, and the audacious assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, to name only a few of the issues of concern in US-Saudi relations.

With President Donald Trump departing the White House, it will indeed be interesting to see how Saudi Arabia will try to square the circle in Biden’s Washington.

But with President Donald Trump departing the White House, it will indeed be interesting to see how Saudi Arabia will try to square the circle in Biden’s Washington, considering that these issues are arguably the outcomes of headlong policies put in place by none other than MbS himself. Equally important is the expected inability of the Biden Administration to discount MbS’s transgressions as if they did not happen. Chances are that demands will increase on Biden and his lieutenants to exact necessary sanctions against the crown prince or the kingdom, which may make restoring the old amity and coordination very difficult.

Moreover, King Salman’s work to put the GCC back together will be important for influencing the incoming Biden Administration as it plans to deal with the vexing issues of Iran’s nuclear program and its regional behavior. One complaint GCC leaders voiced when the P5+1 negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015––when Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president––with the Islamic Republic was their exclusion from the process. Now, Saudi Arabia says that it wants to be a “partner” in any new negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. It and its GCC allies will also likely want to be at the table if and when negotiations with Iran commence about Tehran’s missile program (a topic that was excluded from JCPOA talks) and regional activities. Should that be desired in the future, GCC states must show unity, common interests, and a shared vision.

Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and the Biden Administration

This year, 2021, marks the end of four decades of the establishment of the GCC as a regional organization for cooperation and coordination—yet one that has not succeeded in such integration. Thus, there should be no doubt that resolving the GCC crisis would be an important step toward a more effective and stable entente, especially at this time of serious challenges in the region. Restoring diplomatic relations and rebuilding links among the GCC states are worthy outcomes that will pave the way for further coordination and cooperation in the years ahead.

Restoring diplomatic relations and rebuilding links among the GCC states are worthy outcomes that will pave the way for further coordination and cooperation in the years ahead.

Time will tell whether the solidarity and stability accord signed in Saudi Arabia contains the requisite elements to prevent a recurrence of the conditions that led to the boycott and siege of Qatar and the ensuing disunity in the GCC. It should be remembered that the GCC of today is no longer the same that it was in 2017, thanks to the unfortunate effects of the GCC crisis. But what is encouraging is the apparent commitment of Saudi Arabia and King Salman to bring the Gulf crisis to an end and the willingness of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, to compromise. While each country has its reasons for wanting to accommodate the others and let bygones be bygones, it would be well worth the efforts of all concerned to build mechanisms of conflict mitigation so that disagreements are addressed and resolved.

Still, it is important to look into the reasons behind King Salman’s diligent work to convene the 41st GCC summit that led to the breakthrough ending the GCC crisis. Practically speaking, there were no changes in the conditions to achieve the rapprochement; in fact, the 40th summit of December 2019 could have led to the same outcome. As mentioned, a decisive factor in reaching a conclusion to the crisis was King Salman’s desire to burnish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s image and prestige, perhaps in preparation for vacating the throne to him. He also is keen to have his son chart a course for the kingdom independent from the whims of UAE leaders. What he cannot control, however, is how Saudi Arabia with MbS at the helm will fare in its relations with the United States under Joe Biden’s leadership.

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