The current existential crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began in May 2017 with a hacking operation of the Qatar News Agency website and the publication of false pronouncements attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The stalemated crisis clearly has deleterious effects on collective action, Gulf security, and overall stability in the Middle East. Its intractability has stymied mediation efforts and wide counsel by regional and international players concerned about the fate of an erstwhile alliance that for close to four decades was the center of gravity and guarantor of stability for the Arab world. This situation makes clear that only compromise and a healthy dose of humility and contrition by those who precipitated the crisis may resolve it and help restore the entente’s stability.
This paper investigates manifestations of the stalemate that characterizes the current GCC crisis, which shifted dangerously when the May 23, 2017 hacking operation turned on June 5, 2017 into a diplomatic conflict that threatens the fate of the GCC. On that day, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed a land, sea, and air siege and blockade that isolated it from the neighborhood.1 The blockading countries depict the peninsular nation as a sponsor of terrorism, a traitor to GCC united action, a collaborator with Iran, and a threat to security and stability. Indeed, the crisis has become a defining moment in the politics of the Gulf region and a case study of how a number of intervening domestic, regional, and international variables may coalesce to cause the collapse of a political, economic, social, and military alliance.
The State of Affairs
Since June 2017, much has transpired to deadlock the GCC crisis, originally assumed to be short-lived. The blockading countries have dug in their heels in demanding what Qatar believes are unattainable goals regarding its domestic affairs and external sovereignty. They have rejected dedicated and serious mediation efforts by Kuwait and the United States, precipitating a sense of distrust with these two allies and damaging the prospects for developing tools for conflict resolution in the Gulf. Moreover, on the eve of the GCC annual summit in Kuwait in December 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced the establishment of a bilateral alliance that, if fully realized, could do away with the GCC—the original, supranational coalition founded for everyone’s benefit in 1981. Since the crisis began, the duo has conducted a propaganda campaign depicting Doha in sinister terms to isolate the Qataris. They have also violated Qatar’s airspace on numerous occasions.2
While it would be inaccurate to say that Qatar has escaped the blockade and crisis unscathed, developments indicate that it has fared better than expected on a number of important fronts. Following a period of fear and unease, confusion, and tension, Doha set out to secure itself militarily, politically, and economically, cashing chips it had long accumulated through its diplomacy of strategic hedging.3 While the US Department of Defense reaffirmed the strategic importance of Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base,4 Turkey quickly announced its readiness to send troops to Doha.5 In July 2017, Qatar and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on fighting terrorism and its financing, which was broadened further with new memorandums in January 2018 as part of the US-Qatar strategic dialogue. Qatar activated its diplomatic machinery around the world and secured much-needed international support. Some countries that sided with the boycotting nations changed their positions, as was the case with Chad in February 2018.6 Qatar also set out to address its food shortages by establishing new trade routes almost overnight and enhancing existing ones with Oman, Turkey, Iran, India, and others.
Nevertheless, whatever the balance sheet of missteps, mistakes, and successes by states in the GCC crisis, evidence points to a net loss for the collective interest of the alliance. Indeed, if allowed to fester further in 2018, as Saudi-Emirati machinations at isolating Qatar continue, the stalemate will produce its own realities on the ground. The discourse of the independent nation-state will finally dominate that of collective and united action and security as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and others seek to assert their individual sovereignty. In addition, the sentiments of single state elites will likely triumph over the pan-Gulf ethos of cooperation and common cause as the boycott and blockade thwart cross-border interactions. International actors are also not likely to wait in order to cooperate with the GCC as a collective and may be eager to strike deals with individual countries.
After all, states and their elites can only wait for so long to set national and individual priorities, and in a chaotic security environment beset with conflict, such as much of the Middle East at present, the sooner individual preferences are satisfied, the better. The same can be said of international actors, especially investors, who look for long-term stability as a barometer for their plans. As the blockade against Qatar continues, the individual states of the GCC and their elites are likely to drift farther apart and establish more ties to entities outside the Gulf. This is likely to completely fray and atrophy intra-GCC bonds in the service of international connections outside the Gulf.
Compared to the 2014 conflict between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain versus Qatar, the current crisis is more serious and dangerous, despite the relatively long period of the last one: from March to November, when the three returned their ambassadors to Doha.7 In fact, the troubles ending in November 2014 were limited to withdrawing ambassadors—itself a significant event—but did not involve the imposition of an endless economic blockade, the isolation of Qataris from their Gulf neighbors and expulsion from the three countries, or threats to overall security in the alliance. The current crisis manifests conditions that characterize a stalemate and portend a potentially unchangeable status quo.
Failure of Mediation. The failure of mediation efforts and of calls by regional and international actors for reconciliation between GCC states is the clearest example of a stalemate in the GCC crisis. The impasse appears to be driven more by individual whims and preferences than by legitimate concerns. In fact, it is hard to see how the Saudi and Emirati positions could change in a positive direction after mediation since the UAE was behind the original hack of the Qatar News Agency and the planting of false statements attributed to Qatar’s ruler. As incontrovertible evidence of this complicity surfaced, exposed by the Qatari government,8 the boycotting nations resorted to old accusations of Qatari support for terrorism and terrorist organizations and of Qatar’s collusion with Iran against collective GCC interests.
As the analyses of mediation efforts by Kabalan and Dunne in this volume make clear, Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, employed a strategy of shuttle diplomacy despite his advanced age, but to no avail. Kuwaiti officials also did their share of futile shuttling. Kuwait’s undertaking was fully supported by the Sultanate of Oman and encouraged by the positive response of Qatari authorities.9 Sheikh Sabah’s neutrality in the conflict, however, may not have earned support from the blockading countries; since the early days of the GCC crisis, they appeared to operate according to the binary principle of “you’re either with us or against us.” Absence of compromise on the part of Saudi Arabia and its cohorts also stymied Sheikh Sabah’s efforts, as he could not in full conscience force Qatar to accept the original June 2017 set of 13 demands10 and the subsequent list of six principles11 that Qatar saw—and continues to see—as interference in its domestic affairs and an infringement on its sovereignty.
American efforts at reconciliation were no more successful. Ignoring President Donald Trump’s initial ill-advised and biased pronouncements on the side of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced his support for GCC unity and visited the area twice, but he failed to overcome Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini intransigence.12 He also dispatched diplomat Timothy Lenderking and retired General Anthony Zinni to try to mediate between the parties.13 While failing to break the logjam—in the process discovering that even the United States can encounter difficulties in trying to end the crisis—Tillerson negotiated and signed with Qatar an MoU on fighting terrorism financing.14 Interestingly, he could not achieve the same result with the blockading countries, a fact that showed that Saudi Arabia and the others did not even try to appear interested in addressing the very issue they accused Qatar of supporting.
Not wanting to step into the Department of State’s diplomatic territory, the US Department of Defense also attempted to remind everyone of the importance of GCC unity for regional security. Secretary of Defense James Mattis did his best to aid Tillerson in telegraphing the official US position, despite President Trump’s statements.15 From the beginning of the crisis, the Department of Defense expressed its strong belief in the centrality of Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base to its missions in the Gulf, the Middle East, and Afghanistan and its disinterest in moving the base from Qatar. Indeed, US forces in the Gulf executed a series of exercises with Qatar’s armed forces as if nothing were afoot in intra-GCC relations.16 If the blockading countries hoped that President Trump’s initial criticism of Qatar was to define American policy toward Doha, Tillerson’s and Mattis’s conduct should have convinced them otherwise and prompted them to accommodate mediation efforts. But as the intervening months have clearly shown, they still reject such efforts and insist on unattainable goals, in the process prolonging the impasse.
An Alternate Alliance. Another sign of intractability in the GCC crisis was the December 2017 announcement by Saudi Arabia and the UAE of the establishment of a new political and military alliance.17 The alliance came into being just as the 2018 GCC summit was getting underway in Kuwait City. On the one hand, the announcement represented a grudging acceptance that pressuring Qatar had failed to produce the desired outcome: to make Qatar succumb to Saudi-Emirati dictates and end its independent foreign policy. But it further meant the hollowing out of the GCC as the sole entity for collective action. In fact, and perhaps expressing views coordinated with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Bahrain had called for suspending Qatar’s membership in the alliance before the summit began.18 On the other hand, the level of Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini representation at the summit—ministers or deputy ministers attended the meeting opposite sovereigns Sheikh Al Sabah of Kuwait and Sheikh Tamim Al Thani of Qatar—indicated that the leaders of the blockading countries were opposed to a rapprochement.
The convening of the summit itself was obviously a last-ditch effort by the Kuwaiti emir to try to salvage what he could of GCC unity. By then, however, he had lost Saudi and Emirati support for his efforts. In September 2017, in a joint press conference with President Trump in Washington, Sheikh Sabah said that Kuwait’s efforts had thwarted a resort to military action against Qatar. He also spoke of Qatar’s readiness to openly discuss the demands made by the blockading countries.19 Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were displeased with Sabah’s portrayal of Doha in a positive light, especially that he exposed their purported plan to invade the Qatari peninsula—something they vehemently denied—which made them appear as open aggressors and deprived their siege of any legitimacy. Indeed, during the ill-fated Kuwait summit the leaders barely held one session and Sheikh Sabah was fully aware of the great distance that had grown between Kuwait and the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi alliance.
Even the communiqué that was issued after the foreign ministers’ meeting—which is usually held before that of the heads of state—ignored the crisis altogether. The statement merely contained old affirmations of the importance of collective action in the service of common interests. GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani, absent throughout the crisis, read a document that spoke of pursuing plans for economic, political, security, and military integration,20 just as three of the GCC’s six members were finishing six months of siege of a fourth member and threatening its independence and sovereignty. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani pointed to the lack of discussion of the proverbial elephant in the room, criticizing the blockading countries as unwilling to engage in dialogue to resolve the conflict.21 In hindsight, one could only look at the foreign ministers’ meeting and the summit—the latter breaking after a single session—as pro forma gatherings meant merely to show muted respect for the Kuwaiti elder statesman, Sheikh Sabah.
Insistence on Unmet Demands. Yet another sign of the deepening stalemate is the adamant insistence by the blockading countries on Qatar’s implementation of their 13 demands of June 2017. Among other things, these demands related to Qatar’s purported support for terrorism and financing of terrorist organizations, Doha-based Al Jazeera television network’s coverage, Turkey’s relations with Qatar, and Qatar’s relations with Iran.22 The demands were formulated in response to pressure from the US Department of State on Saudi Arabia and its cohorts to clearly identify the reasons for their boycott and siege of the Qatari peninsula.23 Later, after American officials stated that Qatar could not be expected to implement the demands, they were summarized in six “principles” that “include commitments to combat terrorism and extremism and to end acts of provocation and incitement.”24
These demands continue to be a major complicating factor in breaking the deadlocked crisis. As expected, Qatar rejected them when they were issued25 and continues to do so, if for no other reason than the fact that they represent a serious infringement on its independent foreign policy, decision-making, and sovereignty. And yet, the Saudi-led bloc insists that if Qatar truly wants to resolve the crisis, it would do well to abide by the demands—apparently forgetting that the list came with a 10-day expiration date when it was issued. The blockading countries also still reject calls for reconciliation and dialogue. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir rejected a proposal in February by Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim for a new security pact in the Gulf that would emulate the security bloc of the European Union and assure peace for the region.26 Speaking condescendingly during a trip to Egypt in early March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that the crisis does not occupy his time and is indeed the responsibility of a lowly bureaucrat at the foreign affairs ministry,27 thus basically downplaying the crisis and announcing his disinterest in resolving it.
Finally, the set of MoUs that Qatar signed with the United States in January 2018 as the culmination of the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue28 may well point to a fait accompli regarding the feasibility of GCC collective action of the pre-June 2017 period. Those memorandums, while not necessarily precluding such action, indicate that Qatar now clearly sees that it has to seek a stronger and firmer strategic relationship with the United States, one that could substitute for its perceived long-term break with its GCC neighborhood. Qatar may also seek this relationship because it may unfortunately need to protect itself from the adventurism of Saudi and Emirati leaders who had no qualms about originally attacking it and now have no compunction about maintaining an illegal siege of its territory. It was telling that one of the memorandums—regarding defense cooperation—contained a statement in which “the United States expressed its readiness to work jointly with Qatar to deter and confront any external threat to Qatar’s territorial integrity that is inconsistent with the United Nations Charter.”29
Overcoming the Stalemate?
It is hard to see how the present stalemate can be overcome. All interactions between three GCC members with a fourth have been suspended, with no end in sight. Nor are Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain expressing any interest in a compromise acceptable to all parties concerned. In fact, the announcement about Saudi plans to build a canal along the kingdom’s border with Qatar—effectively making the Qatari peninsula an island—points to the lengths to which Saudi decision-makers are willing to go to separate themselves from their Qatari neighbors.30 As a party to the crisis, Egypt—with its visceral antagonism to Qatar—also adds complications that only prolong the impasse. In essence, the GCC, the Arabian Gulf, and the Arab world may have to reconcile themselves to a conflict that they may not be able to resolve.
As Kuwait appears to have folded its reconciliation tent, at least for a while, the United States seems to want to try again to mediate the crisis. The meetings already held and those to be convened between President Trump and leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar are unlikely to lead to a break in the stalemate.31 Even if the US president succeeds in forcing a reconciliation, what transpired since June 2017 should not be seen as just water under the bridge. The severity of the siege, the blockade of Qatar, and the unprecedented animosity displayed by the blockading countries are unlikely to be forgotten easily by Qatar and its people. The repercussions on the political, economic, social, regional, and international levels may also take long to recede. Importantly, the break in the bonds of the admittedly amorphous collective Gulf Arab identity will not easily mend. The stalemate has indeed succeeded in perpetuating itself, to the detriment of all parties concerned and of the GCC alliance as a whole.
1 Patrick Wintour, “Gulf plunged into diplomatic crisis as countries cut ties with Qatar,” The Guardian, June 5, 2017, http://bit.ly/2rI3qx3.
2 “Qatar accuses UAE, Bahrain of new airspace violations,” Arab News, March 10, 2018, https://bit.ly/2FrHoXb.
3 Since the 1990s and as a small state, Qatar has followed a policy of diversifying its foreign policy options while being an active member of the GCC. It has also developed diverse economic relations around the world and intervened as mediator in conflicts such as those in Yemen, Sudan, and Lebanon. Playing an international role has helped Qatar avoid pressures from neighboring GCC states and given it more flexibility than would be expected from a state its size.
4 “U.S. military praises Qatar, despite Trump tweet,” Reuters, June 6, 2017, http://reut.rs/2G1Tshr.
5 Paul Alexander, “Turkey Agrees to Send Up to 3,000 Troops to Qatar Amid Gulf Diplomatic Crisis,” VOA News, June 8, 2017, http://bit.ly/2r1eAtk.
6 “Qatar and Chad restore relations, first since blockade,” Al Jazeera, February 21, 2018, http://bit.ly/2Fi4RXw.
7 “Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain end rift with Qatar, return ambassadors,” Reuters, November 16, 2014, http://reut.rs/2EQxjTB. Also, see Kabalan’s chapter in this volume.
8 Karen DeYoung and Ellen Nakashima, “UAE orchestrated hacking of Qatari government sites, sparking regional upheaval, according to U.S. intelligence officials,” The Washington Post, July 16, 2017, http://wapo.st/2ERTtVl.
9 Giorgio Cafiero and Theodore Karasik, “Kuwait, Oman, and the Qatar Crisis,” The Middle East Institute, June 22, 2017, https://bit.ly/2rvE6JL
10 Patrick Wintour, “Qatar given 10 days to meet 13 sweeping demands by Saudi Arabia,” The Guardian, June 23, 2017, https://bit.ly/2swYtXR
11 “Saudi-led bloc modifies demands to end Qatar crisis,” BBC News, July 19, 2017, https://bbc.in/2tpzkQJ
12 “Tillerson blames Saudi bloc for impasse in Qatar crisis,” The New Arab, October 20, 2017, http://bit.ly/2G56dHW.
13 “Two U.S. envoys travel to Gulf to work on Qatar rift,” Reuters, August 7, 2017, http://reut.rs/2FYCsGu.
14 Tom Finn, “U.S., Qatar sign agreement on combating terrorism financing,” Reuters, July 10, 2017, http://reut.rs/2lwOVbi.
15 Mark Perry, “Rex Tillerson and James Mattis are cleaning up Jared Kushner’s Middle East mess,” Business Insider, June 29, 2017,http://read.bi/2tr22zN.
16 “Qatar-US forces in joint training exercises,” Gulf Times, October 16, 2017, http://bit.ly/2HHxo8U.
17 Patrick Wintour, “UAE announces new Saudi alliance that could reshape Gulf relations,” The Guardian, December 5, 2017, http://bit.ly/2AY3Ft0.
18 “Bahrain calls for freezing Qatar out of the GCC,” Reuters, October 29, 2017, http://reut.rs/2FYRu1p.
19 “War ‘stopped’ between Qatar, blockading Arab nations,” Al Jazeera, September 7, 2017, http://bit.ly/2xQCElC.
20 “Calls to shore up GCC charter at summit,” Khaleej Times, December 5, 2017, http://bit.ly/2FJ0d8D
21 “Qatar’s blockade in 2017, day-by-day developments,” Al Jazeera, February 18, 2018, http://bit.ly/2n2AqwE.
22 Patrick Wintour, “Qatar given 10 days…,” The Guardian, op. cit.
23 Anne Gearan and Karen DeYoung, “State Department issues unusual public warning to Saudi Arabia and UAE over Qatar rift,” The Washington Post, June 20, 2017, http://wapo.st/2oAOAWB.
24 “Saudi-led bloc modifies…,” BBC News, op. cit.
25 “Qatar FM: The list of demands was meant to be rejected,” Al Jazeera, July 1, 2017, https://bit.ly/2ruPkgE.
26 “Saudi Arabia rejects Qatar-proposed EU-style security pact,” The New Arab, February 20, 2018, https://bit.ly/2wpT74x.
27 “Saudi crown prince: I do not occupy myself with the Qatar crisis,” Al Arabiya English, March 6, 2018, http://bit.ly/2HIhgnV.
28 Marwan Kabalan, “The US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue: Messages and Implications,” Arab Center Washington DC, February 8, 2017, http://bit.ly/2HG2leF.
29 “Joint Statement of the Inaugural United States-Qatar Strategic Dialogue,” Office of the Spokesperson, US Department of State, January 30, 2018, http://bit.ly/2VJIhOg
30 Joshua Keating, “Saudi Arabia May One-Up Trump’s Wall With Plan to Build a Moat on the Border,” Slate, April 9, 2018, https://slate.me/2G2dC6J.
31 “Trump to meet Gulf leaders to end GCC crisis,” Gulf Times, February 25, 2018, http://bit.ly/2pnWpzq