Saudi Arabia hosted the 39th summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh on December 9, 2018. Qatar sent its minister of state to represent the country. Since the announcement of Qatar’s blockade by the three member countries of the GCC (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates), two summits have been held in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, respectively. This is the second time when the member states have missed the opportunity to initiate a rigorous dialogue under the GCC platform and end the diplomatic crisis. However, the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar and Jamal Khashoggi’s murder overshadowed other issues of the region.
This is not the first time that the GCC member states have locked into a dispute. In 1986, a border dispute erupted between Bahrain and Qatar, which was ultimately resolved in the International Court of Justice in 2001. However, the current crisis is more serious as it has made two-thirds of member countries parties to the conflict. Resultantly, it is difficult for the GCC to focus on the founding objectives of the organisation, ie, regional connectivity and collective security.
Currently, the relevance of the organisation is gradually fading due to regional political developments. The organisation’s Supreme Council has the mandate of dispute settlement among member states. But it failed to address the issue due to the strong Saudi bloc within the GCC. It seems that aspirations such as single currency of member states, a Nato-style defence force and regional connectivity through railways have a bleak future amid strong rifts between the two-thirds of member states. Now, holding the summit itself has been portrayed as an achievement by Saudi Arabia which demonstrates the level of lack of confidence in the future of the GCC.
The GCC has been divided into three groups since June 2017. Qatar and Oman are on one side, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the other — and both the groups have competing interests and different threat perceptions. Kuwait is on the fence trying to mediate between the aforementioned two blocs. Initially, Iran was perceived as an existential threat to Arab countries. In this regard, there is a lack of unified thinking among the GCC member states. For some, Iran is still an existential threat while for others the hegemonic behaviour of Saudi Arabia itself poses a threat to their national security.
The problem with the GCC and other such organisations of the region is that Saudi Arabia wants to dominate them according to its own interests. Resultantly, such organisations either become the mouthpiece of Saudi Arabia or fail to maintain their relevance in the regional security architecture. The Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, besides the GCC, are glaring examples of it.
In fact, the recent call of Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani for a dialogue to end the crisis stands as a first positive indicator. Second, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz deliberately avoided mentioning Qatar’s blockade in his speech during the summit, which might melt the ice between the two nations. Third, the small Arab countries at the eastern shores of the Arabian Peninsula would still prefer Saudi Arabia to Iran as a hegemon due to various historical, political and ethnic reasons. Owing to these three reasons, Qatar has not withdrawn its membership of the GCC. Rather, it is still striving for a political dialogue and end of this diplomatic crisis.
The member states of the GCC do not share the same interests and threat perceptions, yet no member country wants the demise of the organisation because it has strong potential to serve its member states, provided that the internal rifts are set aside. Despite its inefficiency, the GCC is one of the most important organisations of the Middle East. Its fragmentation means the fragmentation of the Arab world — something that would lead to a much more destabilised Middle East.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2018.