Bahrain: Qatar capitulates as GCC unites militaries

Bahrain: Qatar capitulates as GCC unites militaries
Sheikh Khaled al-Khalifa of Bahrain says Qatar has folded in the face of regional pressure, though analysts question many of his claims.
5 min read
01 December, 2014
Unity in the GCC - at least on the surface [Getty]
Qatar has capitulated to the demands of its neighbours in recent reconciliation talks and a joint military command for the Gulf states is to be established in Saudi Arabia, according to Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled al Khalifa.

In an explosive interview with the UK's Financial Times, al Khalifa claimed that the establishment of a new joint command would begin military operations after the GCC summit due to take place later this month.  

The forces will purportedly co-ordinate with the Council's naval command based in Bahrain and its air command in Saudi Arabia.

Gulf analysts, however, are wary of many of the claims.

"When we talk of GCC integration it is important to be very, very cautious. The figures being flouted for these supposed forces are completely fantastical," said Michael Stephens, research fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.
     This force has never been put to good use and was useless when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
- Abbas Khadim, Johns Hopkins University

There is already military cooperation between the Sunni kingdoms in the form of the Peninsular Shield Force, created in 1984 as the military arm of the GCC.

"This force has never been put to good use and was useless when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. It has only really been used to crush the Bahraini uprising in 2011," said Abbas Khadim, senior foreign policy fellow specialising in the Gulf, Iraq and Iran at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. 

New threats

The new incarnation of military cooperation being suggested is ostensibly proposed as a counter to the threat of militant Islamist movements such as the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS), as well as neighbouring Iran.

The threat of violent Islamist movements is arguably a greater internal threat than external.

"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," explained al Khalifa in the FT interview.

Several GCC countries are already playing a token role in the US-led coalition campaign against IS in Iraq. This has compounded their internal threat of subterfuge and violent dissent, analysts say.

In November, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio recording in which he singled out the Saudi royal family as the "head of the snake and stronghold of disease".

Among the large numbers of men travelling from the Gulf states to join the militia's ranks are influential figures, reportedly including army officers.

Several members of Bahrain's al-Binali tribe have gone to either fight or preach for IS. This is particularly unsettling for the authorities considering their privileged position in society and commercial operations. 

RUSI's Mike Stephens is dubious that the bolstering of combined forces would be very effective in countering the internal threat.

"This kind of military venture is not something you can put together overnight and the threat from IS is here, now. In any case, these countries already have quite extensive counter-terrorism apparata so I can't really see how this proposal would realistically bolster this."

As for Iran, the GCC forces are, individually or collectively, not going to constitute a matching counterweight. That role remains for the Americans whose presence in the Gulf is expanding. 

Agreeing to disagree

The recent diplomatic fallout between Qatar and its neighbours Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain was the most signifcant rift within the GCC since its creation.
     Wherever you look from Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq to Yemen they are supporting opposing sides, and it remains that way until now.

Major divergences in foreign policy, primarily with regards to the Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups, led to Qatar's isolation. The decision of the three states to return their ambassadors in the middle of last month signalled a thaw in the relations.

Khalifa suggests in the interview this rapproachment was enabled because Qatar made significant U-turns on many of the talks' sticking points. All parties are keen to present at least a facade of unity in time for the upcoming GCC summit in Qatar, to be held December 9-10.

In the "historic" agreement signed in Riyadh, he said Qatar had pledged to support the new government of Egypt's Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, end its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, change the editorial line of the AlJazeera network and stop hosting dissidents from fellow GCC states.

These would amount to an almost complete capitulation by Qatar's ruling al-Thani royal family.

The foreign ministry in Doha was not available to comment and Qatar's embassy in London did not respond to al-Araby al-Jadeed's questions by time of publication.

All regional experts interviewed by al-Araby, however, were dubious about the extent of Bahrainis' claims. 

"I can't imagine Qatar has accepted everything they like to say they have. Doha still sees the current Egyptian government as illegitimate, AlJazeera is still there, the think tanks are still there," said Toby Matthiesen, research fellow at Cambridge University and author of Sectarian Gulf and The Other Saudis.

"The Houthi takeover in Sanaa has changed the security calculations so a united front is important now but the underlying rifts are still largely unresolved," he added.

Yemen's capital Sanaa fell to the Shia Houthi rebels in September, stoking the insecurities of the Sunni rulers of Gulf states over expanding Iranian influence in their back yard.

Across the region, the conflicting ambitions of the two Gulf heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are still very much alive.

"Qatar has ambitions to replace Saudi as the most influential country in the region," said Johns Hopkins' Abbas Khadam. "They have proxies all over the place and the Saudis really don't like this at all... Wherever you look from Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq to Yemen they are supporting opposing sides, and it remains that way until now."