By Kabir Taneja
This past week, the 40th Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to discuss a region that is not only facing geo-political headwinds, but also a return of mass movement protests happening from Lebanon to Iraq. However, as Arab leaders met the Saudi leadership it was not the regional turmoil and the collectively viewed threat of Iran that took precedence, but the rifts within the GCC itself.
While the GCC communique released after the summit was Iran centric, condemning the recent attacks on Saudi Aramco’s oil facility in Abqaiq and attacks on ships in the Gulf, hosting a collective stance against what the group believes is aggressive expansionism by Tehran, it was the intra-GCC soap with Qatar, which commanded a hefty amount of interest.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt (a non-GCC country) collectively decided to sever ties and install an economic blockade against Qatar, a GCC member and one of the richest countries in the world thanks to its vast natural gas reserves. The move came after an alleged hack of Qatar’s state run news agency QNA’s website, which posted reports of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani criticizing US foreign policy in the region. Doha later on claimed that two blockading nations were involved in the act.
The economic blockade was expected to cripple Qatari economy, which relied on UAE ports for a lot of trade and import of most of its vital lifelines such as food, agriculture goods and so on. The accusations against Qatar by its Arab neighbours and fellow GCC cohorts were wide ranging, from the country promoting terror actors, working against the interests of Saudi and the UAE, asking Doha to shut down Al Jazeera, its international television news network, and for them to scale back increasingly cordial ties with Iran.
However, amidst the blockade, Qatar managed to come out defiant. Arguably, the blockade failed, as Doha using its immense financial prowess coupled with successfully instilling nationalistic discourse amongst Qatari people (including most migrants) succeeded in making alternate economic arrangements. It helped that most Western capitals did not see the blockade as a conducive move by Riyadh. Meanwhile, others such as Turkey, which does not forego opportunities to challenge Saudi’s regional hegemony moved in to strengthen Doha, sending 3,000 troops to the country in a show of support. Tehran also offered to substitute lost trade and vital supplies, most of which used to come from the GCC block.
Fast forward to December 2019, and there are signs of thaw in these diplomatic wars. While the Qatari emir decided to skip the Riyadh summit, he sent Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al Thani to attend. On his arrival, the Prime Minister was greeted by the Saudi King himself, with the state media praising the ‘brothers’ from Qatar with a tone suggesting things may have improved.
However, it remains to be seen in what capacity would Qatar be willing to trust the GCC grouping going forward, and whether the pre-blockade dynamics can be even partially restored. The granular details of the blockade in 2017 were around the fact that policies of Qatar that were in stark contrast to regional policies of Saudi and UAE, with Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood being at the center of the crisis. Initially, the GCC block gave Doha 13 ‘non-negotiable’ demands to solve before normalization could be restored with much of the roots being on Doha’s alleged support of Islamist groups including the likes of ISIS, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah directly or via affiliated groups and persons. The war in northern Syria between a host of Islamist factions and interest groups was perhaps the turning point for the Saudis and UAE, where they may have found Doha funding groups that did not align with their own regional political aims, which mostly run around their own monarchical survival and stability of the current orders. This stability is critical for American foreign policy aims as well in the region, more so than ever in the post-Arab Spring era. And by Saudi and UAE, the ideology and operations of the Muslim Brotherhood is seen as an existential question mark on their power centers. Like ISIS and Al Qaeda, the Brotherhood also seeks to establish an “Islamic state”, and has a more entrenched and long-drawn effort for the same, unlike ISIS which was more about the ‘shock and awe’ approach with a mix of Hollywood-like storytelling.
Late last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani made a trip to Riyadh in backroom attempts to normalize the relationship. More curiously, the report also said that as part of an impending thaw, Doha was “willing to sever its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood”. While this sounds too good to be true in the short term, a long-term agreement such as this one would in all likeliness require the Saudis to give significant leverage to Qatar in return, such as a potential financial return as ‘damages’ from the blockade instead of Saudi’s demanding the same as part of their 13 points. If not this, Doha would look at a mid-way compromise with Riyadh to normalize the GCC balance. One of the outcomes of such an agreement would also see Qatar rise significantly within the power complexities of the GCC as well. Whether this unavoidable rise of al Thani be palatable to the hegemony of the Saudi – UAE alliance remains to be seen.
It can be argued that the blockade against Qatar came out to be counterproductive to what Riyadh’s strategic calculations may have been. Turkey, and one of the major points of infraction between Saudi strengthened Doha’s isolation and Qatar, that of the latter’s improving ties with Iran, was also given a boost. For now, the Qatari Prime Minister’s attendance at the GCC summit has been a positive development. The Riyadh declaration read in the presence of Qatar talked about the cohesive nature of the GCC’s interests and the members’ commitment in working towards these common goals, ranging from unity in economic reforms and reiterating that an attack on a GCC member is considered an attack on all. “The GCC states stand, as unified rank, against the attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during this year. This GCC stance reflects the GCC defense policy based on the principle of integrated and collective security to defend an entity, components and interests of its countries, territories, airspace, and territorial waters as well as the principles contained in the Joint Defense Agreement, which was approved in 2000, affirming that any aggression against a member state would be considered as aggression against all the GCC states,” the declaration read.
However, perhaps most importantly, this whole experience for Doha gave it justification for what many studying the region believe, including serving diplomats, that the country geopolitically consistently punches above its weight. Only time will tell whether that is a good thing or a bad one for Qatar’s sovereign ambitions.