Bilateral arrangements could be the future of Gulf cooperation

Today’s circumstances do not seem to be better off than the uncertain and anxiety-ridden times of the birth of the GCC.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Crucial juncture. Leaders from the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council meet in Riyadh, December 9. (SPA)
Crucial juncture. Leaders from the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council meet in Riyadh, December 9. (SPA)

Through the great care it showed in hosting the Gulf summit, Riyadh seemed to want to have the definitive word on the future of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially considering predictions and questions about the group’s effectiveness and stability.

In his inaugural speech, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud stressed his keenness to see the council maintained and strengthened. Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah built on King Salman’s address by calling for a halt to defamatory media campaigns.

Qatar’s attempts to marginalise the summit, because it was in Riyadh, do not depart from the core of the role it played for decades now in downplaying the value of the opportunities to move forward with the region.

Qatar’s reactions were in line with the agenda for which huge resources and energies were pledged and for which it allowed itself to promote the goals of capitals that are hostile to any Arab role or any legitimate Arab interests in the region. This dubious behaviour led Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to boycott Qatar.

Doha has increased the cost of reconciliation. It widened the gap to the extent that it is no longer amenable to ending the crisis. Qatar’s provocative handling of the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death is proof of its ill intentions. It has expanded great efforts and expended much money to mar Saudi Arabia’s image and insult its leaders while keeping the fires of discord burning.

Bahraini Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa described the conflict between Qatar and other Gulf countries as at a low never reached before in any dispute between the members of the GCC.

Expectations are slim, that a new window for action would be opened by the efforts by Sheikh Sabah to bring about reconciliation considering Doha’s intransigence to accept the conditions for reconciliation.

Doha had thought that the protocol-dictated invitation to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to attend the Riyadh summit was a sign of a softening in the boycotting countries’ position but Bahrain and Egypt announced renewed insistence on the conditions of any reconciliation.

Given the undeniable weakness in the GCC structure, bilateral efforts to build strategic alliances are growing. Coordination councils have been formed at the highest level between Saudi Arabia and several individual Gulf countries and this approach seems much more effective and dynamic.

It was Riyadh’s dream to see the GCC entity move beyond the stage of “cooperation” to the stage of “union.” The late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had declared at one of the pivotal summits in the history of the region his wishes and those of all people of the Gulf to see their leaders rise above the marginal differences and strive for unity to provide a common front to the challenges lying ahead.

However, disagreements and conflicting agendas foiled those calls and made unity much more difficult to achieve. The region was at the time facing its darkest moments. Many Arab capitals withdrew from the scene and the Arab League failed to show behaviour indicating that some life still coursed in its veins.

Instead of being the Arabs’ last oasis and sanctuary, the Gulf institution was tested at its core by the opposing positions of its members regarding the region’s conflicts and issues, in addition to the deepening Qatari crisis. The idea of a “Gulf union” is becoming more difficult and more complex to realise.

The tempest hitting the Gulf entity cannot be separated from the fragility of the Arab reality in general. The events and volatility of the past eight years have been spewing hot lava over all Gulf states, which cannot afford to remain neutral with respect to what was happening in their backyards.

Despite that, there is a need to maintain the council, even partially, because of the roles some of its members are expected to play in coming challenges. Some international forces are relying on a bigger future role of the Gulf states in fixing the damage that befell Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Lebanon. Many Arab and regional capitals are thirsty for a role by the Gulf states to help them out of their harsh reality and give them hope for a better future.

The United States has stepped up pressure on the Gulf parties to achieve the minimum level of consensus, at least as part of Washington’s quest to form a united regional front against Iran.

Turkey’s ambitions in the region also cannot be overlooked. Ankara has shown its fangs in the northern territories of Iraq and Syria but also through its systematic attack against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz over Khashoggi’s death in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Four decades and one year after its birth, the GCC faces a fateful moment. Many in the Gulf remember the declaration made in 1981 by the late Prince Saud al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Saudi foreign minister at the time, announcing the birth of the Gulf Cooperation Council. One of the council’s goals was to present a unified front in the face of the threats resulting from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s seizing power in Iran and his policy of exporting the Islamic revolution.

Today’s circumstances do not seem to be better off than the uncertain and anxiety-ridden times of the birth of the GCC. Qatar has flung its GCC gate open to the destructive winds to bring defeat right to the heart of this institution.