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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

GCC Council remains vital despite stumbling blocks

Qatar, Yemen and Lebanon are likely to be on the agenda this month, as well as the special US-Gulf relationship

Last year's GCC summit took place in Kuwait. Noufal Ibrahim / EPA-EFE
Last year's GCC summit took place in Kuwait. Noufal Ibrahim / EPA-EFE

The Gulf Cooperation Council, for many reasons, is not in good shape. However, going ahead with the annual GCC summit in Riyadh, at the insistence of Saudi Arabia, carries a message of principle essential to the council and its six member states. Preserving continuity is a strategic decision, regardless of who attends. Even if the summit convenes for just two hours and issues a brief statement, many important regional issues will have been tackled, from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The biggest absentee will be the US and president Donald Trump, who has restored relations with the Arab Gulf region after his predecessor Barack Obama downgraded those ties, favouring rapprochement with Turkey and Iran instead. Russia and China are also paying particular attention to GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, not strictly for geopolitical reasons but also because reconstruction in war-torn countries in the region is a top priority for them.

Some in the Gulf believe if the present situation with Qatar continues then it will unravel the GCC. None of the other five GCC states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain – have rejected mending ties with Qatar in principle. The differences are over the terms and conditions for ending the boycott.

Last year’s summit in Kuwait was attended by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, at the invitation of the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir also attended while the UAE was represented by its foreign minister, Anwar Gargash.

This year, at the initiative of King Salman, the GCC summit will convene in Riyadh. It is expected to be attended by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, the emir of Kuwait and the King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa. Oman is expected to be represented by deputy prime minister Fahad bin Mahmoud. Qatar will likely send a representative, but it is not yet clear who.

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According to a high-level former official in the GCC, the convening of the summit is a success for the group and a failure for Qatar. By holding the summit, the message is that the GCC is “bigger than Qatar” and that the considerable benefits of the bloc must be preserved. The source further said that “relations with Qatar will ultimately be mended but only when Qatar realises that its conduct and approach are unacceptable”.

In 2018, the GCC did not convene any high-level meetings but the bloc has goals that go far beyond bureaucratic matters. For this reason, it is imperative for GCC states to realise they all stand to gain from it – or lose from its disintegration.

Iran would like to see the GCC unravel, in light of the regional balance of power and rivalries. Iran regularly proposes establishing a regional security structure that would include it, Iraq and the GCC. That, however, would require dismantling the GCC and mean Iran dominating the Gulf’s security.

This is something that Saudi Arabia categorically rejects. The summit is expected to send a message to Iran, expressing willingness to engage in dialogue and co-operation, on condition that Iran commits to non-interference in Arab countries and refrains from attempting to export its ideology and engage in sectarian agitation. Today GCC countries feel stronger, thanks to the policies of the Trump administration, which has taken a tougher line on Iran. Mr Trump’s policies, which included reimposing sanctions on Iran, lifted under the nuclear deal, are very serious, as evidenced by the tough action on Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, arrested for her alleged evasion of sanctions.

Iran is economically under siege. Europe is incapable of going against the US over sanctions. Iran’s confidence in its alliance with Russia has been somewhat shaken, as Moscow has relationships with GCC countries and Egypt and is not going to prioritizse an absolute alliance with Tehran at any cost.

Iran is feigning victory in Syria and elsewhere but in reality, it is in a deep economic and political bind and is marred by divisions in its ruling structures and tensions with its people. In Iraq, it is on the back foot but in Lebanon, it continues to boost its leverage through its ally Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia, in co-ordination with the US, is today standing up to Iranian influence in Iraq in the context of backing the government of prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and pursuing the total defeat of ISIS.

Saudi Arabia is also ready to help with the reconstruction of Iraq, possibly in collaboration with China, which has shown an appetite for such endeavours in the region.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia is co-operating with the US, whose efforts are led by special envoy James Jeffrey, a capable and firm man with a clear vision on what the situation requires at this stage, whether in terms of backing the opposition or confronting Iran and the geopolitical context involving Russia.

Concerning Yemen, the peace talks in Sweden led by UN envoy Martin Griffiths carry some hope of ending the war there. The relevant GCC states are prepared to back a UN-led process that would end the fighting based on mutual concessions by Yemen’s warring sides. The GCC summit will send a message of hope and support for Mr Griffiths’s efforts.

For its part, Lebanon is proving to be the toughest issue. The GCC summit could reiterate support for Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability, condemn Iran for its meddling and Hezbollah for its cross-border activities and take a stance against Israeli threats to the Arab country.

However, the priority will be to highlight the special US-Gulf relationship and deal with domestic issues. So while the GCC might not be in good shape, it remains a strategic imperative.