Six Gulf nations met in the Saudi capital of Riyadh to discuss cooperation on a wide range of issues from the economy to security. The summit comes at a significant time because the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council may be at stake for the first time since its founding in 1981. The blockade of Qatar, the War in Yemen, and the diplomatic crisis behind the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi are only the few major issues that have overshadowed the summit in Riyadh, but now, many experts and analysts are wondering if the GCC can survive.
One notable absentee in Saudi Arabia was the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamid bin Hamad Al Thani. This is due to a few reasons. One reason is the ongoing blockade from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain on Qatar for two years.
But because the summit took place in Riyadh and not in a venue like Oman or Kuwait, it was not very likely that Qatar could have sent high ranking officials to the meeting. And secondly, the Qatari leadership was not very comfortable in sending its heads of states to Riyadh because they don’t want to see another fiasco like the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Before the GCC crisis, the land border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was an incredibly busy traffic lane where people would be moving from one place to the other.
But now, the only land border Qatar has is now blockaded by three GCC states who have met in Riyadh. The GCC has been facing tremendous difficulties since the blockade of Qatar in June 2017, and just recently, Qatar’s withdrawal from OPEC as well. Qatar’s decision was mainly because it wanted to export more gas and move away from an economic model that was too dependent on oil. The blockading countries inside the GCC still believe that the current diplomatic crisis with Qatar will not affect the future of the organization, but this still remains to be seen.
Given the tensions between the different members of the GCC, the organization may not have any relevance left. Many people in the region are now questioning the future of the GCC and this may be the most serious crisis facing the six-nation organization since its establishment in 1981. The member countries are vying for different interests and face different threat perceptions.
In 1981, the GCC was established as a political organization that focused on creating a security umbrella to defend the member countries from Iran and its attempts to export the revolution at the time. But today, members like Qatar are facing existential threats from other members within the same bloc.
In terms of the ongoing crisis, there are three different groups. One group is Qatar and Oman, the other is Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, and we have Kuwait trying to mediate between the two.
The summit in Riyadh this weekend was merely a ceremonial meeting because nobody wanted to pronounce that the GCC was a dead organization but want to keep it alive without having any important role for the time being.
The GCC was designed to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. From the Iranian perspective, the GCC was a product for the United States to become more involved in the region. In fact, during the 1980’s, the United States along with its Arab partners supported Saddam Hussein against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War that killed thousands of Iranians and Iranian children were on the frontlines fighting the Iraqis.
Over the last few decades, the United States Israel, and Saudi Arabia have used geopolitical capabilities against Iran to weaken its economy and halt Iran’s growth as a regional power, nor can these countries accept Iran as a regional power that is going to have to be a part of the solution to the cancerous issues in the Middle East.
The hawkish policies coming out of Riyadh over the past few years, especially from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) have irritated many members in the GCC from the kidnapping of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to the Khashoggi case, the blockade on Qatar, and the war in Yemen. Looking at these specific issues, it is obvious that Saudi Arabia’s policies in the region have totally backfired, and the Saudi leaders are discrediting themselves for only fueling the chaos in the region.
The last Gulf crisis in 2014 came to an end because the GCC states needed to show unity against the Islamic State, which, at the time had taken over huge sways of territory in their own backyard. The United States of course, wants to see a unified GCC to act as a counter to Iran in the region, but the current Gulf crisis seems to have no end in sight.
Since the ascendance of Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudis have backfired on every front. The Saudis want to counter Iran, but they have divided the GCC by constantly getting involved in areas like Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
In fact, Saudi misadventures in the Middle East have led to an increased Iranian influence in the region and forcing Qatar to move closer to Iran is a good example of this. Riyadh needs to rethink its foreign policy and how it is perceived in the region and the GCC itself has failed to bring different member states together on a unified front. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates already have an economic and military partnership, but Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar could form their own grouping which could perhaps bring in Iran and Turkey too.
A core reason for the success of the GCC has been its provision of the free movement of people and goods between member states, but with the current crisis between the blockading countries of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain against Qatar there are many who question the future of the organization.
We cannot necessarily say that the GCC is confidently dead, but it is probably more realistic to say that the GCC is ensuring very difficult circumstances in a constantly changing region of different geopolitical calculations. The GCC could return to being a relevant regional organization in the Middle East down the road, but it remains to be irrelevant right now given the current state of the current crisis with Qatar. Very little will change as a result of the Riyadh Summit, but the inspirations of a single currency, a defense force, and railway connections between member states remain to be distant ambitions right now.