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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

GCC year in review: Rift with Qatar undermines Council's function as counterweight to Iran

The Arabian Gulf is struggling for unity because of the worst crisis the Gulf Co-operation Council has witnessed since its formation 36 years ago.

In what has otherwise been a tight-knit co-operation of countries, the GCC has been caught up in a row in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have isolated Qatar for its support of extremism in the region and Doha’s ties with Iran.

Qatar has made no effort to discredit the allegations or hide its relationship with Tehran, whose officials have held meetings with Doha representatives to discuss security and economic agreements. Iran and Qatar share a gas reserve, on which the Gulf country is almost exclusively reliant as a source of state income.

The crisis has had the unintended consequence of pushing the small Gulf state towards the very regional powers that Saudi Arabia and the UAE consider to be the biggest threats to stability in the Arabian Peninsula.

The six-month row has prompted Qatar, which relies on importing the vast majority of its food through its only land border with Saudi Arabia, to turn to other countries to fill that gap – including Iran.

Doha has created trade routes to Turkey and the rest of the world via Tehran in what has been a functional, albeit costly, alternative to importing its goods overland.

Iran has welcomed Doha’s resistance to the quartet’s demands and has played the role of obliging neighbour by opening its airspace and trade routes while offering military support. Turkey has also come to fill the void left by the Gulf countries’ isolation of Qatar and, in doing so, Ankara has revealed part of its renewed push for regional dominance.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to expedite a military co-operation deal with Qatar and sent troops just weeks after the boycott was announced on June 5. The 3,000 soldiers now stationed in Qatar serve as the first permanent Turkish military presence in the Gulf since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

The longer the crisis persists, the less effective the region will be in countering Iran and Turkey’s growing ambitions in the region, as both jockey for regional footholds to apply pressure on the oil-rich Gulf.

There was a precedent, however short lived, that many believed to be how the isolation of Qatar would conclude. In 2014, the three countries made a similar move, cutting ties with Qatar over similar allegations that were, at the time, not publicised.

The row in 2014 was resolved in weeks, resulting in the Riyadh agreement signed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia that pledges that neither would interfere in the internal affairs of the other.

Previous crises have been resolved quickly and secretly to avoid souring relations between the two countries, something that could be perceived as a vulnerability from abroad. But the political rift between the two sides has grown to the point where the quartet is no longer willing to tolerate Doha’s delinquent foreign policy.

The tone of the crisis took a notable shift when the governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia threatened jail terms of up to 10 years and a fine of Dh500,000 to anyone who expressed support for Qatar’s behaviour. Almost overnight, pro-GCC sentiments on Twitter disappeared, to be replaced by attacks coming from both ends, spurred by the fear that any views perceived as anything but pro-government, and by proxy anti-Qatar or anti-Quartet, would risk prosecution from the respective authorities.

Although no law has been passed between the four GCC countries that forbids them to have contact with the other side, the row entered its most dangerous territory when the people of each country began arguing.

The GCC is built upon political and economic integration drawn from deep cultural similarities between all countries of the Arabian Peninsula.

The cultural similarities that strengthen the bond between Gulf countries, although seemingly superficial to the outside world, were integral in solidifying the GCC as a more cohesive unit despite external attempts to create disunity between the six states. Qatar was held responsible for causing disunity and for interfering in the affairs of the boycotting counties.

In cutting off all ties between the Gulf countries, clear instructions were given for families who had ties with Qatar that they could still travel to the concerned countries.

Many are beginning to call the crisis the end of the GCC, but that is considered highly unlikely.

“It’s premature to predict the end of the GCC, although the December announcement of the Saudi-Emirati ‘joint co-operation committee’ suggests that some members may be looking at alternative frameworks,” said Miriam Eps, regional security analyst at Le Beck International.

Kuwait, and in particular Emir Sabah Al Ahmed, took the role of chief mediator in the crisis and successfully brought the two sides together at the annual GCC summit in Kuwait City this month. Despite poor attendance, a member of the ministry of foreign affairs in Kuwait told The National that the country would sustain efforts to patch the rift, because it considers the security of the GCC the same way as the country regards its own security.

“This means that the most plausible solution continues to be negotiations, but the seeming lack of real interest thus far, despite particular efforts by Kuwait, suggests that the crisis might continue on a slow burn for some time,” Ms Eps said.

The very formation of the GCC is predicated on creating a front to Iran’s growing imperialism. Tehran’s foreign policy is built on exporting its Islamic revolution, which toppled a westward-looking Iranian regime in the 1970s, to the rest of the Arab world.

The Arabian Gulf will continue to suffer from the threat of Iranian interference in its domestic affairs as long as interruptions continue to disturb the council’s push for unification into a union, similar to that of Europe. The crisis is more reason to work on doing exactly that, as the past six months have demonstrated the ease with which existential threats are able to take advantage of rifts in the oil-rich council.

However, without addressing the six countries’ political differences, the GCC will continue to be an organisation whose effectiveness is only ever demonstrated in times of vulnerability, a vulnerability that will continue to hang over the region as long as the crisis exists.

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