The Qatar blockade killed the GCC, but what next?

The Qatar blockade killed the GCC, but what next?
Comment: The cruel two-year blockade imposed on Qatar signals the need for a new Gulf entente based on collective action, writes wrties Imad K. Harb.
6 min read
05 Jun, 2019
Saudi Arabia and UAE lead strident foreign policies that have added to regional instability [Getty]
The crisis of June 2017 in the Gulf Cooperation Council has rounded up a second year in its unfortunate life. 

Qatar still stands mistakenly and needlessly accused of malign activities by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

The cruel and sinister blockade that the trio imposed on the peninsula nation continues, although Doha has succeeded in blunting its effects by diversifying its trade relations and actively developing autarkic policies.

Following a two-year hiatus, a bright development came on 30 May, when Qatari prime minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani visited Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Qatar was invited late to attend summit meetings for the GCC, the Arab League, and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

But Sheikh Abdulla's visit quickly lost its promise after it became clear that the Saudi-sponsored summits were a mere opportunity to lambast Iran instead of addressing the many ills that plague the GCC and the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The GCC has expired

To be sure, developments over the last two years have made clear that the old GCC has for all intents and purposes, expired.

Its consultative and cooperative features have arguably ceased to function. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are forging ahead with strident foreign policies that have added to the regional instability that was the impetus for forming the council in the first place.

The GCC's promise of collective action on economic and financial affairs has died as Qatar remains isolated from three of the entente's members. Whatever dream of a unified military structure - never fully realised - has also fallen victim to short-sighted offensive adventures that obviate the hope of common defense.

Gulf leaders should advocate for gradual political change toward open political systems

But what seriously damaged the promise of collective action has been the desire to impose diktats by specific leaders who assume that they alone possess the right vision for how the GCC should conduct its business.

Indeed, the GCC was never able to replicate the European Union as a supra-national body of equal states exercising their right to participate in collective action and decision-making.  

For a new body that can realise - and, more importantly, sustain - whatever is left of the dream of collective action by the Gulf Arab states, specific requirements must be met.

Pillars of a new Gulf entente

The GCC's failure to meet its original objectives should by no means be understood as a sign that the original desire and hope for organised collective action were misplaced.

In fact, if anything is to be gleaned from current developments in the region, it is that the Gulf Arabs, as a collective, still need an organising structure that both represents and defends the interests of every Gulf state.

Gulf Arabs and such an organisation are the only guarantors of their own security, stability and prosperity. Once this realisation is fully absorbed, Gulf leaders and elites should arrive at essential new understandings that can be embedded within an unbreakable set of institutions.

First, no longer should Gulf Arabs be led or conduct their affairs according to individual visions that neglect the importance of ironclad institutional mechanisms for collective action. Only well-designed and respected institutions prevent the excesses and fallibility of individual leaders.

No single Gulf leader should be empowered to either speak for the entente or, initiate action based on his state's specific welfare. Any decision or action that impacts the entire collective must be made or implemented after conclusive discussions about common political, economic, social and other interests.

Read more: Two years on, Qatar has beaten the Saudi-led blockade

What the current body has failed to do is to empower the office of the Secretary General of the GCC to be an executive authority, or 'manager,' through which decisions would be reached and policies implemented.

The ongoing crisis in the GCC has exposed the ineffectiveness, even irrelevance, of current Secretary General Abdel-Latif al-Zayani and his office.

Throughout the crisis, they were irredeemably sidelined by Saudi and Emirati leaders bent on ostracising Qatar, one of the GCC countries whose interests Zayani was supposed to safeguard.

Second, a new arrangement for common action in the Gulf must commit to safeguarding the civil and human rights, dignity, and freedom of all Gulf citizens.

Developments over the last two years have made clear that the old GCC has for all intents and purposes, expired

The assassination in Istanbul of Saudi Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on orders from higher ups in the kingdom was a clear example of the absence of such elemental principles of human existence.

The same can be said of incarcerating prisoners of conscience, not necessarily because they opposed the authorities but for merely voicing opinions and sharing their views.

Such practices and others in the UAE and other Gulf states prevent Gulf citizens from participating in building future polities and assisting in their management.

The social strides made by Gulf countries necessitate a modern and open political and social contract that preserves rights and stability and can absorb everyone's activism and ambitions.

Third, a future Gulf entente should avoid the dangerous brinkmanship with Iran witnessed over the last few weeks. Such brinkmanship makes a confrontation with the Islamic Republic more likely, resulting only in calamities of human suffering, economic collapse and political instability everywhere.

Adding to the seriousness of the situation is the announcement by American President Donald Trump - initially an instigator of a confrontation with Iran - that he has no problem with the Iranian regime staying in power. In other words, only Gulf states and the Iranian people would bear the brunt of an unneeded military confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

No single Gulf leader should be empowered to either speak for the entente or initiate action based on his state's specific welfare

Concomitantly, a GCC collective should seek to develop the mechanisms of conflict management and resolution, given the stakes of potential military entanglements.

From relations with Iran to addressing the danger that the conflict in Yemen represents, a future Gulf would do well to seek peaceful resolutions of complicated crises. Resorting to military solutions only serves to perpetuate conflict.

Fourth, the strident Saudi and Emirati foreign policies in the Arab world today are likely to only bring more instability to the Gulf's backyard.

Gulf leaders should advocate for gradual political change toward open political systems because authoritarianism brought disfunction, poverty, inequality, and conflict.

Saudi and Emirati military suppression of popular demonstrations and demands in Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan, serves only to perpetuate repression and stifle development.

In Libya, the UAE is 
sponsoring former general, Khalifa Haftar, in his effort to thwart United Nations efforts to find a peaceful transition for that tortured country.

The Gulf can still rise

With the GCC losing steam as an organisation for collective action by the Gulf's Arab states, an opportunity exists for newer and better things in the Arabian Gulf.

Principally, Gulf leaders who precipitated the Gulf crisis in June 2017 should start by admitting their responsibility for weakening and, after two years, collapsing what was the best mechanism possible for collective action in the Arab world.

Perhaps that acknowledgement of responsibility can be a first step on a road toward reestablishing a new entente that can learn from the hard lessons of the past.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.