By Arab News
By Dr. Manuel Almeida*
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s dispute with Qatar seems to have enough fuel to continue for the foreseeable future. The Qatari authorities recently responded to the commercial boycott imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt by blocking commercial imports from all four countries. And a few days ago Doha made its clearest statement yet in opposition to any strong measures designed to counter Iran’s regional policies.
Since tensions boiled over a year ago, various misconceptions about the nature of the crisis have circulated widely in mainstream and social media. Many of them do not stand up even to the most basic scrutiny, yet they have contributed to the misinformation that has characterized coverage and analysis of this issue. Let us consider a few of the most common claims.
“This is a year-old problem.” In fact, the boycott of Qatar by the four Arab countries is only the latest development in a more serious chapter of a dispute that has been developing on and off for years. Longstanding efforts to resolve the matter discretely through conventional diplomatic channels led to the signing in 2013 of the Riyadh Accord between Qatar and its GCC neighbors. This addressed the very same concerns the four Arab countries continue to raise against Qatar. The deal eventually collapsed and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors in response to what they viewed as Qatari non-compliance. The issue was temporarily settled the following year with the signature of a supplementary agreement.
“It is essentially a family feud.” While the old ties of kinship between ruling families in the Gulf might add a sentimental element, and possibly contribute to a lack of pragmatism, the matters at hand extend much further and are at the heart of the key political issues affecting the Middle East today. As with much of the analysis of the region, the view that grudges related to kinship are the main cause is loaded with preconceived notions about the region’s peoples and politics.
“It is a peripheral issue.” The case can easily be made that reaching negotiated solutions to the wars in Syria or Yemen, devising a regional security mechanism that would bring all major powers to the table on a regular basis, and finding common ground for strategies of sustainable development should be top priorities for GCC governments. However, issues such as what is and is not considered an extremist group, the principle of non-interference in the affairs of fellow GCC members, and the need to maintain enough distance from the most radical elements of Iran’s regional policy remain a source of disagreement between Qatar and other GCC members. The absence of a common GCC view on these elementary, yet critical, issues makes it virtually impossible to cooperate on many of the region’s wider problems.
“Doha will cruise through this crisis.” Since the commercial boycott was imposed, Doha has stepped up its diplomatic outreach and made use of its seemingly infinite checkbook to withstand the boycott. In Istanbul, Moscow and Tehran, this crisis is seen as an opportunity to obtain commercial, financial and geostrategic advantages, at a higher price for Doha than would otherwise be the case. Qatar is the world’s wealthiest country per capita and has plenty of leeway to make painful adjustments, but the present situation is painful for all sides and consumes plenty of focus and resources. In particular, Qatar loses plenty of strategic leverage, and there is no great substitute for normal relations with fellow GCC members. In addition, the effect on local businesses, trade flows, cross-country investments and supply chains should not be underestimated. For example, Qatar’s only terrestrial border has become nonoperational.
“It is an attempt to curb tiny Qatar’s independence in foreign policy.” It all depends on what exactly is meant by Qatar’s independence, but there is no need to look further than Oman or Kuwait for examples of independent foreign policies within the GCC that have not elicited the same kind of response from neighboring countries as Qatar’s. Fearing larger neighbors, especially Iraq, Kuwaiti leaders tread carefully so as not to antagonize Tehran, while on key regional matters they remain aligned with fellow members of the GCC. Likewise, Sultan Qaboos of Oman has long maintained an equidistant policy toward Saudi Arabia and Iran. For the countries that denounce Qatar’s regional policies, the issue is the specific nature of Qatari foreign policy — which has been described even by a former diplomat insider as ad hoc and reckless — rather than its independent character.
“The end of the GCC is imminent.” A Qatari withdrawal from the organization certainly would, at first, weaken but by no means necessarily kill the GCC. It could even lead to much needed reforms within the organization. Disagreements on fundamental issues have been the rule rather than the exception since the GCC was created in 1981, during a time of great upheaval in the Gulf against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. More importantly, foreign mediation in this crisis will probably be fruitless, and any long-lasting solution needs to be backed by a wider institutional framework to ensure constant and structured dialogue about specific issues. The GCC is the only obvious option and therefore the organization remains as necessary as ever.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.