Kuwait's mediation drive in GCC dispute gains momentum

The 30-month-old crisis with Qatar will not be simple to solve.
Friday 13/12/2019
Kuwaiti Finance Minister Nayef al-Hajraf looks on at a conference to announce the Annual Budget of Kuwait for the fiscal year 2019/2020, last January. (Reuters)
Tough mission ahead. Kuwaiti Finance Minister Nayef al-Hajraf looks on at a conference to announce the Annual Budget of Kuwait for the fiscal year 2019/2020, last January. (Reuters)

Forty years after the founding of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the general-secretariat is returning to Kuwait.

The first secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was Kuwaiti diplomat Abdullah Bishara, who served from May 1981 to April 1993. Kuwaiti Finance Minister Nayef al-Hajraf will be the second Kuwaiti to serve in the post, taking over from Bahrain’s Abdul Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani next April.

The election of the secretary-general comes amid a deep regional rift between Gulf Arab countries and Qatar, in which Kuwait is well positioned to play the role of mediator.

The 30-month-old crisis will not be simple to solve. Pitting Qatar and Oman against Gulf powerhouses Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Bahrain and Egypt, the dispute exposed deep policy and ideological disagreements in the region.

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, drawing on his country’s long history of regional diplomacy, has led an initiative to ease tensions, travelling to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha to meet with key leaders.

For more than a decade, Sheikh Sabah has had a reputation as a respected mediator in the Arab world, helping him gain support from a host of Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, as well as all parties involved in the dispute.

This is not the first time Kuwait has helped solve an intra-Gulf rift. In 2014, Kuwait stepped in after Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini envoys were summoned from Doha. Sheikh Sabah helped ensure their return and restored stability to the region.

While the current crisis is considerably more complex, Kuwait’s status as an international peacemaker and the appointment of an experienced diplomat to the GCC’s top spot could help lead to a crucial settlement.

This is especially true given signs that Gulf countries are eager to diffuse the crisis and open a new chapter.

In addition to the naming of Hajraf as GCC secretary-general, all six GCC countries expressed support for Kuwait’s mediation effort during the recent summit of the GCC Supreme Council.

At a news conference following the meeting, Zayani said member countries "will support the efforts made by the Kuwaiti emir" to bridge the rift that has damaged the relations among some member countries.

Under the chairmanship of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the summit gathered leaders to enhance cooperation and integration among members on political, defence, security, social and economic issues.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani did not attend but sent Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani in his stead.

Despite the Qatari emir's absence, recent developments pointed to a possible thaw in relations between the blockading Gulf countries and Qatar.

On December 6, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said he hoped for "progress" in efforts to resolve the Gulf diplomatic crisis following talks with Saudi Arabia, adding that the parties have "moved from a stalemate" in the dispute.

The Wall Street Journal reported in November that the Qatari foreign minister met with senior Saudi officials in October in a bid to end the rift. The foreign minister confirmed the meeting December 6 while speaking at a foreign policy conference in Rome.

"We have moved from a stalemate to some progress where... some talks took place between us and specifically Saudi," he said. "We hope that these talks will lead to our progress where we can see an end for the crisis."

Nevertheless, there remain deep disagreements with Doha and many are sceptical there will be a quick solution to the conflict. Qatar has yet to give any indication about meeting the 13 demands of boycotting countries, including the closing of the Al Jazeera channel, shuttering a Turkish military base and reducing ties with Iran.

The United Arab Emirates and Egypt are reluctant to fully reconcile with Qatar because of Doha’s refusal to sever relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey and a number of radical groups operating across the region.

It appears that Saudi Arabia, however, is more willing to reach an accommodation with Qatar. This is driven by King Salman's hope that the rift could be ended soon to preserve the status of the GCC as a regional body and keep it intact, despite the fractures it suffered during the crisis.

Even if reconciliation is reached, the GCC will need time to recover from setbacks that hurt its credibility and laid bare growing rivalries and entrenched differences among its members.

However, on a more optimistic note, Kuwait could be critical to helping the feuding parties communicate and reach a viable solution in the best interest of all Gulf countries.

10