Qatar’s farewell to the GCC?

Qatar’s farewell to the GCC?
The prospect of Qatar leaving the six-state GCC bloc and pursuing an independent path is becoming a more realistic scenario as the Gulf crisis enters its ninth month.
7 min read
25 March, 2018
Blockading GCC parties are cooperating independent of Qatar [AFP]

Last June, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain took an unprecedented action against a fellow GCC member, cutting all political, diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar. The GCC trio - joined by Egypt - accused Doha of endangering regional stability by allegedly supporting terrorist organisation and other Islamist movements, along with forging cordial relations with their arch-foe Iran.

Despite severe measures undertaken by Quartet states - including bans on Qatari nationals and the closure of their airspace, water and land borders to Qatar - Doha has shown remarkable resilience. Against all odds, Qatar neutralised the effects of the initial shock of the blockade and quickly accommodated to the new reality. 

Many analysts predicted just the opposite, expecting Qatar to crackdown and submit to the demands of its GCC neighbours. Theodore Karasik, a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics in Washington DC and prominent expert on Gulf issues, last year suggested that despite its wealth, Qatar would have to eventually comply with the demands being made of it. 

He was convinced that "the situation for Qatar and its poor judgment can only be corrected if Doha capitulates on every aspect of their guilt".

But instead of submitting to the demands and distancing itself from Iran and Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has deepened its relations with Iran and Turkey, while maintaining ties with Islamic non-state actors, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. The expansion of a Turkish military base in Qatar and enhanced trade with Iran paves the road toward new closer cooperation between these three states, while reducing links with neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Christopher Davidson, an associate professor in Middle East politics at Durham University, believes an alliance with Turkey is certainly possible - and perhaps already a reality - as the two countries share not only ideological visions but also foreign policy objectives in the region - especially with regard to Syria and the containment of Saudi Arabia. An alliance with Iran remains unlikely, as Doha will be well aware that historic promises of Iranian support to other Gulf states - most notably Oman - have rarely materialised. 

The end of the GCC?

After nine months, the Saudi-led bloc has failed to achieve its objectives and instigating the Qatar crisis proved to be another misstep in the Saudi-UAE muscled approach to foreign policy. But the consequences of this aggressive move may bring tectonic shifts in the region, strengthen the position of Iran, and deal a serious blow to the GCC organisation, bringing it to the verge of extinction.

Although it is hard to envision the GCC formally dissolved, it is very likely that it will become a rather irrelevant organisation. Davidson points out that the region has a long history of dysfunctional and marginalised institutions, with earlier attempts to set up collective security groups (e.g. the Baghdad Pact, CENTO, etc.) having also eventually come unstuck. Right now the GCC looks likely to share the same fate. It also seems probable that Kuwait and Oman will try to balance their relations with the Saudi bloc, as neither have the massive resources of Qatar, which would enable them to pursue Qatar-like global foreign policies.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, in an expert comment piece for the Chatham House, questioned the utility of an organisation that appears hopelessly split and powerless to restrain its members, while asking whether the GCC is worth belonging to. This becomes apparent as three members of the GCC have turned on a fourth, while the secretary-general has remained silent. The same can be attributed to appeals aimed at Qatar to change its course, which were also launched from the states and not through the secretariat.

The current siege on Qatar reflects the flaws of GCC as a collective security organisation of Gulf Arab states, which have struggled to achieve balance between common interests of Gulf nations and the states' particular goals. The shift in Saudi and Emirati foreign policy approach has revealed a new pattern of the interventionist and aggressive politics of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, expecting others to submit to their leadership. But it is hard to believe that Qatar will be willing to accept such terms and change its traditionally independent foreign policy.

Qatar taking its own path

In the past months, the anti-Doha bloc has raised the issue of the Doha's future membership in the GCC. While the UAE openly discussed Qatar being expelled from the GCC, and argued for a "new set of alliances", Bahrain has suggested that the Gulf bloc suspend Doha's membership until it capitulates to the demands of the blockading nations.

Davidson seriously doubts Doha will ever formally leave the GCC, but rather it will become an unwritten reality that it has left. That doesn't mean, of course, that Saudi Arabia and the UAE - as the dominant powers in the GCC - won't take further steps themselves and publicly delete Qatar from the council. The longer the dispute drags on, the greater are the chances Qatar will chose a separate path and, de facto, leave the group.

Given the maximalist and public nature of Saudi Arabia and the UAE's demands and accusations against Qatar's leadership, it is hard to expect a U-turn from the blockaded nation’s policies. Davidson believes that Doha's foreign policy on the regional stage - especially with regard to Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood - will be somewhat dampened down, at least for the time being, so as not to exacerbate the situation further. "However, on the world stage I expect that Doha's foreign policy will become even more energetic, as the need to solidify lasting relationships with non-Arab powers becomes even more important," he told The New Arab.

Will Western engagement make any difference?

Preservation of the GCC, in any form, is the goal of western states, particularly the US and UK. These parties are seeking to develop ever-closer defence and security ties - with arms sales attached - to all GCC countries, including Qatar. The GCC bloc is also viewed as an important ally against Iran, who US President Donald Trump has called a "rogue state" and a "corrupt dictatorship", and thus any breakup of the bloc - or Qatar's departure from it - would certainly strengthen Iran's position in the region, while complicating Western interests in the Gulf. 

Qatar also hosts a forward headquarters of US Central Command (CENTCOM), headquarters of the US air force's Central Command, as well as the Expeditionary Air Group of the UK's RAF and 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the USAF. Closer alignment with Iran - due to a pressure coming from its neighbours - would look awkward for the US and UK, especially if they fail to defend Qatar from foreign interference.   

A GCC without Qatar would be weaker, especially if Qatar was forced to seek an alliance with Iran. In the past months, the US has intensified efforts to mend relations. According to diplomatic sources, the announcement of a US-GCC summit at Camp David, scheduled for May, is the last chance to save the GCC. However, Donald Trump warned that the planned summit will not take place if Saudi Arabia and its allies do not take steps to resolve the Qatar blockade. So far, Saudi and UAE seem either unwilling or incapable of agreeing to any reconciliation. But keeping the GCC afloat won't be an easy task in any case, as it will be far harder this time for the GCC to repair internal fractures than in when a similar crisis took place in 2014. Current confrontation greatly exceeds the 2014 experience in scale and any sudden agreement with Doha is hard to imagine, without the Saudi-led camp losing their face. According to Davidson, it's unlikely that the Gulf dispute will end as things are now too 'far gone' to be put back in the box again. It is more likely that the GCC will simply stop functioning as a six-member entity, and will instead be left with three effective members (Saudi, UAE and Bahrain), plus a satellite (Kuwait).


Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.