A New Strategic Architecture Is Emerging in the Gulf

As the Gulf crisis of 2017 recedes into memory, following the reconciliation in January at the “solidarity and stability” summit in Saudi Arabia’s al-Ula on the Red Sea, new dynamics appear to be at work in relations among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Qatar will probably always be conscious of its vulnerable position neighboring others (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates [UAE]), and it is increasing its regional and international engagement as if it had no worry in the world. Concomitantly, two of its three neighbors and a distant partner, Egypt, are gradually but surely changing their approach to the peninsular nation after they threatened its well-being with an air, land, and sea blockade that lasted for the good part of four years.

The changing conditions of intra-Gulf relations are a direct result of important and most likely irreversible transformations in the near and distant regional environments of the GCC. Qatar is reclaiming its place in the GCC and playing a busy role as both an interlocutor between the United States and Iran and as a facilitator of American relations with Afghanistan’s Taliban. Saudi Arabia is using the opportunity of an opening in Iraq to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran in dialogue about important mutual concerns. The UAE is betting on two simultaneous strategic moves to increase its reach and influence in the wider region: de-escalating with neighbors and normalizing relations with Israel. Iran is experiencing a consolidation of hard-liners’ control over its executive and legislative branches of government as its friendly militias continue to play pivotal roles around the region. Indeed, the Gulf region appears to be moving in the direction of a restructured strategic architecture that depends on the ability of regional actors to successfully recast their capabilities and interests without an active and direct role by the United States.

Qatar: Back to Activism

Arguably, the Gulf crisis of 2017 was the most serious threat to Qatar’s security and stability since its independence in 1971. Resolving it in January 2021 was a welcome development in Qatar’s bilateral relations with the blockading countries, although Bahrain is still reluctant to let bygones be bygones. Qatar’s foreign policy leadership is engaged today in rearranging the country’s relations with fellow GCC states Saudi Arabia and UAE, trying to find a new pathway to US-Iran negotiations about the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and setting the new parameters of what could be a very consequential American relationship with Afghanistan’s Taliban.

Qatar appears to have fully overcome the double Saudi-Emirati censure that followed the break of June 2017 and the subsequent blockade of its air, sea, and land.

Within the GCC, and with good relations with Kuwait and Oman, Qatar appears to have fully overcome the double Saudi-Emirati censure that followed the break of June 2017 and the subsequent blockade of its air, sea, and land. This was evident in the speech by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in front of the UN General Assembly meeting September 22nd when he listed a very busy Qatari foreign policy agenda about many regional and international concerns. Saudi Arabia has reinstated its pre-crisis relations with Qatar, appointing Prince Mansour bin Khalid bin Farhan as the new ambassador to Doha in June. Doha reciprocated by appointing Bandar Mohamed al-Attiyah, who previously served as emissary to Kuwait, as ambassador in Riyadh. Sheikh Tamim also recently received Saudi Arabia’s Minister of the Interior Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Nayef. But perhaps the most important step in the direction of a true reconciliation and possible new realignment was the establishment of the Saudi-Qatari Coordination Council that will be headed by Sheikh Tamim and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The council would be the embodiment of an institutional relationship between the two countries that could put the bilateral relationship on a firmer basis.

While the UAE was slow to reconcile with Qatar following the al-Ula summit meeting, Abu Dhabi is now moving toward normalizing its relations with Doha. This may have been effected because of disagreements between the UAE and Saudi Arabia about important bilateral issues, but it is indicative in its own right that Emirati leaders have decided to abide by the GCC summit meeting directives. Besides, there is no harm for Abu Dhabi to both show that it is a good member of the GCC and potentially benefit from an activist role Doha is playing in the region and beyond. Thus, the visit by UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Doha, where he met with Sheikh Tamim, came to represent a probing and cautious approach that replaced the reluctance, thus far, about fully normalizing relations with Qatar. It is significant that this visit was preceded by another by Sheikh Tahnoun to Turkey, Qatar’s close friend and partner in the region.

Qatar’s resumption of its position within the GCC is accompanied by a busy agenda regarding Iran and the United States as well as managing Afghanistan’s current opening to the international community under Taliban rule. It was notable that Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani visited Tehran only a couple of days after both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III departed Doha on September 7th. While Blinken and Austin were most concerned about Afghanistan-related issues following the United States’ chaotic withdrawal, Al Thani’s short jaunt to Tehran may certainly be seen in the context of delivering a message to Iran’s leaders regarding the now deadlocked Vienna negotiations on the JCPOA.

Taliban behavior and policies regarding women and their education, democratic government, and general social mores could be serious detriments to Qatar’s role as facilitator of the movement’s future relations with the world.

But Qatar’s consequential role since mid-August has focused on Afghanistan during the last days of the American presence there and following the US withdrawal. On that count, the small emirate won accolades as a “country punching above its weight on the world stage.” Obviously, the jury is still out on this role—though it is apparently an encouraging one—because of the uncertainty surrounding the Taliban’s rule in Kabul. To be sure, Taliban behavior and policies regarding women and their education, democratic government, and general social mores could be serious detriments to Qatar’s role as facilitator of the movement’s future relations with the world. Nevertheless, the mere fact that Doha is still able to organize US citizens’ and friends’ exit out of Afghanistan should be enough to dissipate any lingering doubts about Qatar’s ability to be a good asset for the United States in the Middle East.

Saudi and Emirati Calculations

Saudi Arabia’s apparent embrace of Qatar goes beyond merely implementing the al-Ula decisions about unity in the GCC. It is also part of a new Riyadh policy of regional de-escalation. But it is hard to discount the current state of lukewarm relations between the Saudi and Emirati capitals that, at least tangentially, are part of Riyadh’s calculations regarding Doha. Saudi Arabia is still smarting from the UAE’s decision to withdraw its forces from Yemen in 2019 where, before that withdrawal, it helped prop up the Southern Transitional Council that challenges the authority of the internationally recognized President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi (who exercises his writ remotely from Riyadh). The kingdom also changed its regulations on imports from GCC states, thus negatively affecting companies operating in the UAE. Disagreements between the two were on display during the July 2021 OPEC+ meetings on production quotas. Recently, Saudi television channels operating in Dubai were ordered to transfer their operations to Riyadh within six months “as part of a drive by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to turn the Saudi capital into a major business hub to rival the UAE.”

It is hard to discount the current state of lukewarm relations between the Saudi and Emirati capitals that, at least tangentially, are part of Riyadh’s calculations regarding Doha.

Outside the GCC, Saudi Arabia seems to want to try its fortunes with more openness on Iraq and Iran. The recent regional summit organized by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi—to which Saudi Arabia was invited, and which it attended—was just the venue for Riyadh to show its willingness to change past conditions. It is still very hard to predict that a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is imminent, but direct meetings in Baghdad earlier this year with Kadhimi’s mediatory role may lead to at least an easing of the tensions across Gulf waters. In his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 22, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud welcomed talks with Iran, but on the condition of mutual “respect of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.”

Prominent among the important issues at the table is addressing the war in Yemen and whether and to what extent Tehran can influence Houthi behavior. Other concerns include the role of Iran-friendly militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. This openness to dialogue with Iran was given impetus lately as the Biden Administration pulled out of Afghanistan and appears to want to lessen its engagement in the Gulf region. So far, the United States has been unsuccessful in coaxing Tehran to return, without conditions, to the JCPOA. The US administration also recently withdrew defensive Patriot missile batteries from the kingdom, signaling that it no longer wants to be seen as a guarantor of security in the Gulf.

As for the UAE, there is no question that it has decided to pursue its own path. The GCC remains an institutional framework for regional work and alignment, but it imposes no constraints on Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy decisions that, more than ever, focus on economics instead of political exigencies. There is nothing wrong with such a focus, but it entails what unfortunately may be called unprincipled pragmatism. It is interesting to note that Sheikh Tahnoun’s aforementioned visit to Doha was framed in the context of strengthening economic relations with Qatar, although it had serious political implications. More telling is the fact that it was Tahnoun, and not Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and de facto UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who met with Qatar’s emir, indicating that the strongman may not be fully behind the change in his country’s foreign policy. Moreover, the UAE’s decision to wholeheartedly embrace and promote its normalization with Israel indicates that it no longer wants to be bound by the traditional dictates of GCC or Arab politics regarding the question of Palestine. This undoubtedly is also affecting the UAE’s relations with Saudi Arabia, which so far has not seen fit to join it in accepting relations with Israel without addressing concerns regarding Palestinian rights.

Iran and Hard-line Pragmatism

If the Arab side of the Gulf is open to de-escalating relations with Iran, the Islamic Republic is enthusiastic about the prospects. Two important considerations are behind an Iranian wish to ease tensions across the waters. First, new President Ebrahim Raisi cannot hope to fulfill his campaign promises to address the country’s difficult economic conditions without a conduit that helps him avoid the deleterious impact of American sanctions. As Daniel Brumberg put it recently, Raisi and his team of hard-liners are in fact eager to make Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbors a priority in order to mitigate that impact. As it is today, Iran is already benefiting from fruitful relationships with Iraq, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE. Expanding those out to Saudi Arabia would be a very welcome boon. Concomitantly, Iran can read the writing on the wall in how the United States is beginning to see its relationship with Gulf countries—as one of friendship but not of ironclad commitment to their security. If that is the case, Iran’s foreign policy practitioners may see an opportunity to widen the avenues of cooperation even more than is currently possible.

Iran is already benefiting from fruitful relationships with Iraq, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE. Expanding those out to Saudi Arabia would be a very welcome boon.

Second, while Iran may have already begun a process of dialogue with Afghanistan’s Taliban, Tehran would be derelict if it did not purchase an insurance policy against the movement’s possible malfeasance in the future. Perhaps in a prescient stroke, prior to the collapse of the Afghan government in mid-August, Iran hosted talks between the latter’s representatives and the movement. That these talks went nowhere and then became a mere blip in the history of Afghanistan is a foregone conclusion; yet Iran’s efforts may very well help it in dealing with the movement that, in a previous incarnation (1996-2001), was the bane of the Shia Hazara community in the country. Moreover, and for all intents and purposes, Iran will hold on to a special relationship with Qatar because of the latter’s pivotal role in current Afghanistan-related developments and machinations. It also can hope that no matter how distasteful other Gulf Arab states now see relations with the Taliban, their old relations with the movement in the 1990s may yet be reestablished.

Is a New Gulf Architecture Being Formed?

Despite mutual fears, recriminations, and ostracism experienced in one form or the other on both sides of the Arabian Gulf, new conditions and exigencies are pointing to an emerging strategic architecture in the region. Perhaps the main impetus is the combination of the multifarious circumstances in which governments in the region have—willingly and unwillingly—found themselves. But all these governments realize that they have agency and could chart a new course for themselves that could lead to a less tense environment, one in which they could both feel secure and formulate ambitious plans for the future of their peoples and states.

However, each state in the region must begin with a set of goodwill measures directed at addressing the fears of others. Importantly, and despite the stridency with which Iran’s hard-liners might want to approach their neighbors, the Islamic Republic must be ready to placate apprehensions about its regional reach via armed and ideological militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Gulf Arab countries would do well to remind themselves that the dictates of geography cannot be avoided and that they must pragmatically address Iran as a neighbor with which some mutual interests could me met and satisfied. In the end, outside actors—the United States, European countries, Russia, China, and others—cannot know what exactly is in the common interest of the region’s states; only local leaders representing their people should have the courage to define those and strive to advance them.