The GCC summit will take place amidst an atmosphere of worsening tensions and a climate of mistrust and this year’s meeting is not expected to achieve any breakthrough in interstate relations.
The GCC, which was established in 1981 to counter the looming Iranian threat, was long seen as an organisation that lacked the necessary mechanisms to enhance cooperation and improve inter-state relations.
Even so, the GCC managed to navigate the complexities of Middle Eastern politics. Three major wars in the region, starting from the Iran- Iraq war (1980–1988) to the American-led wars on Iraq in 1991 and 2003, have triggered profound disagreements in the Gulf, but they were still manageable for better or worse.
The situation became even more complicated with another defining historical moment, namely the Arab Spring, which divided the Gulf into two antagonistic camps.The Qatar Blockade, which was imposed since July 2017 by four countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt (three of them are GCC members), was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The blockade was an early indicator of the sheer recklessness that would characterise the policies of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) moving forward. What was striking about this episode is MBS’ disposition not just to settle a few political scores with Qatar, but to undermine this country’s independence completely, and turn it into a mere vassal state.
The thirteen demands sent to Qatar were designed to cripple and humiliate the country and its leaders. Subsequently, during the 2017 GCC summit in Kuwait, the level of representation was rather low. Aside from the host, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, the only other head of state present was Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar. Moreover, it is believed that Qatar’s Emir attended more as a gesture of respect to Kuwait’s 89-year old emir.
Nonetheless, many observers were still looking for signs of potential reconciliation. For the most optimistic among them, the very fact that the summit in Kuwait could even be held was a good sign. Since then, however, political developments in the Gulf have gone from bad to worse. The level of anti-Qatar vitriol circulated via Saudi and UAE-owned media initiated a vicious cycle.
MBS’ attempts to provoke a coup d’état within the Al Thani family, or to turn Qatar into an Island by digging massive trenches around the Qatari peninsula, means that there is indeed no love lost on either side. The gruesome killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has proven to be yet another gross miscalculation from MBS and his ilk.
Their initial plan was to accuse both Turkey and Qatar of plotting such operation and subsequently wage a smear campaign against both countries. Furthermore, Saudi media campaigns also targeted both Kuwait and Oman.
Back in October 2018, Saudi Prince Khalid Bin Abdullah Al-Saud called for a military attack against Kuwait, triggering a wave of criticism. King Salman’s decision not to attend the GCC summit in Oman in December 2016 demonstrated the deterioration of relations between the two countries. Several Saudi economic pressures were implemented against Oman, in the form of sudden constraints on trans-border trade.
There were also reports of meddling attempts by UAE-affiliated operatives in Oman’s internal affairs. It is against this backdrop that the annual GCC summit will take place. Qatar received a written invitation from the Saudi King, hand-delivered by the Secretary-General of the GCC, Dr Abdullatif Al Zayani to attend the summit. However, it is unlikely that Sheikh Tamim will participate in person.
The fact that Qatar’s Emir did not meet the GCC envoy, who was received instead by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, was not some protocol gaffe. It is a clear indication that Qatar has moved on.
The Qataris’ trust in their neighbours has been severely eroded, which further begets a lack of willingness for mutual accommodation. The announcement made that Qatar is leaving the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), barely one week before the GCC Summit, is another step in that direction. The story of the GCC exemplifies the high-cost implications of ill-conceived and aggressive policies.
Under the impetus of MBS and UAE’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed (MBZ), this Gulf body has moved from being one of the most politically stable entities of the Arab world to becoming a completely dysfunctional organisation.
While the hawks within the Trump administration are beating the drums for yet another war in the Gulf against Iran, and hope to assemble a unified front from Gulf allies, the GCC – in its current shape – is unlikely to provide such platform.