Year in review 2014: GCC fortified by turbulent year
The six GCC countries displayed a new assertiveness in 2014, despite an unprecedented internal dispute that threatened the group’s unity. Air strikes were launched on Islamist militants in northern Syria by several GCC countries and two of them formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
Such direct actions were previously unheard of in the history of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which for decades has made a careful point of exerting influence quietly.
It was the rise of ISIL and the eruption of turmoil and violence across the region that prompted a surprise shift towards a regional strategy that analysts described as projecting force to counter threats before they hit home.
The changes came amid revelations about how deep the differences among some of the GCC governments ran. GCC diplomats described the countries as “brothers” that could squabble especially hard.
The opposing stances exploded into public view in March when the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar.
The rupture in diplomatic ties stemmed mainly from Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar viewed the group as a conduit for increasing its regional clout. The UAE and Saudi Arabia viewed the group as a destabilising force, even though it had a presence in Arabian Gulf parliaments. Qatar was also accused of interfering in the affairs of other Gulf states. Among the allegations was Doha-based preacher Yusuf Al Qaradawi using his show on Qatar’s Al Jazeera television to criticise the UAE’s stance on Egypt, angering Emirati officials.
The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, had backed the Egyptian military’s removal of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, while Qatar had supported him during the Brotherhood’s short-lived time in power.
The “GCC dispute”, as it became known, raged for months, despite the best efforts of Kuwait and Oman to mediate. Some speculated that border crossings with Qatar might be closed or economic sanctions imposed.
In September, in a move towards reconciliation, Qatar announced that it would expel several members of the Brotherhood from Doha.
Still, as the end of the year approached, doubts were raised that the GCC’s annual summit, scheduled to be held in Doha, would go ahead. Qatar was also expected to assume the GCC’s rotating presidency for 2015.
Analysts said it would be difficult for the summit to go ahead while the diplomatic feud was unresolved.
In March, Saudi Arabia had designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, a move followed by the UAE in November.
A meeting of GCC foreign ministers on November 10 was postponed. Tensions had risen so high that there were rumours that Qatar might even be expelled from the group.
Such a crisis was only averted after Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah called for an extraordinary meeting of GCC states in Riyadh on November 16.
Leaders from every Gulf country except Oman attended the gathering. The widely respected King Abdullah felt that either the pressure on Qatar must be intensified, possibly to a breaking point, or that reconciliation must happen, according to Mustafa Alani, the director of security and defence studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre.
“King Abdullah thought that you either have to compromise to maintain the unity of the GCC or escalate the internal conflict, which basically could lead to the disintegration of the GCC. I think this is the reason why he put his weight behind this issue.”
Qatar reportedly convinced the other states that it would honour a previous agreement not to interfere in the affairs of other states.
“The agreement was basically that, based on the collective security of the GCC, the behaviour of one single state should not undermine the security of the other members,” Alani says. “You can find this in any regional or international structure.” The GCC summit went ahead successfully in December, with Qatar assuming the presidency.
The GCC was established in 1981 with the goal to unify policies among the member states.
The main reason behind the 2014 push for GCC unity, despite some still existing differences, was the consensus that the states best faced the growing regional challenges together.
From the wars in Syria and Iraq to the unrest in Yemen and the ambitions of Iran, along with the threat of terrorism at home, the GCC states faced a series of trials unlike anything they had faced before.
The United States, the traditional security guarantor in the region, was shifting resources away from the Middle East and reorienting its positioning towards East Asia.
The ongoing negotiations between world powers and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme might also result in a historic deal that could change the status quo in the region.
The exact terms of a possible agreement with Iran, a regional rival, were less of a problem than what it might do for Tehran’s regional ambitions. There was the question of what Iran would get out of an eventual deal “not on the nuclear front, but on the regional front”, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed said in an interview.
The region was changing very quickly and the GCC found itself needing to project power to defend itself from the growing number of threats.
Abdullah Al Murad, a former Kuwaiti ambassador to the United Nations, told The National that in 2015 the GCC would focus much more on military matters.
He highlighted the threats posed by Yemen, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. “It’s time to focus on military issues,” he said.
To accomplish this, the GCC states announced the establishment of a regional police force based in Abu Dhabi, and a joint naval force based out of Bahrain. A joint military command is likely to also be formed after further discussions.
“It will be an Interpol-like force but inside GCC countries,” Qatari foreign minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah said of the police force, which is to be called GCC-Pol.
The establishment of such a force also highlights the threat the states see from their own citizens who might become radicalised.
“If Afghanistan was a primary school for terrorists, then Syria and Iraq are a university for them – these are serious threats and lots of people from our country have gone and joined them,” Bahraini foreign minister Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa told the Financial Times.
For years, the GCC states preferred to play a quiet role. Staying out of the headlines was part of a defensive strategy that aimed to deter both attention and attacks.
But times change. In recent years, the GCC states have spent billions of dollars on weapons and training for their militaries.
In 2013, Saudi Arabia was the world’s fourth-largest military spender, purchasing weaponry worth US$67 billion (Dh246bn).
Riyadh had ranked seventh in 2012’s study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Across the Middle East, military spending in 2013 reached an estimated $150bn, a 4 per cent increase over 2012.
Every GCC state joined the US-led coalition against ISIL. The most militarily-capable – the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar – also sent jets to attack the group in northern Syria. Air force pilots such as Mariam Al Mansouri and Saudi prince Khaled bin Salman carried out strikes on ISIL.
The states were concerned not only about the chaos that the group was creating in Iraq and Syria, but also about the potential for unrest at home.
ISIL’s goal was to eventually spread its self-declared caliphate across the region, including the Arabian Gulf. The group’s chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi had singled out Saudi Arabia for attacks. Sympathisers were listening. The group claimed an attack that wounded a Danish citizen in Riyadh on November 22.
The group was also implicated in the November 5 killing of eight Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province.
The attacks occurred despite Saudi Arabia arresting dozens of citizens and foreigners over the past year on suspicions that they had links to Islamist groups.
Some of those arrested were said to be planning to carry out attacks inside the country.
Differences remain, but the GCC has banded together after a year of turmoil to face a dangerous region together.
Justin Vela is Gulf Correspondent at The National.