Gulf countries are increasingly divided about the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In a complex regional environment are the splits beyond repair?
The efforts of the Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah, culminated in the 38th Gulf summit being held in the capital Kuwait City on December 5. The summit took place six months after the outbreak of an unprecedented crisis in the Gulf region, which led to three Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) introducing a boycott against Qatar, a member state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The latest Gulf summit featured a low level of representation when compared to previous summits, as only Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, the emir of Qatar, and Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, represented presidential seats. Other Gulf states were represented by official figures at the level of foreign ministers (Saudi Arabia), ministers of state for foreign affairs (UAE) or deputies of the Prime Minister (Bahrain and Oman). Despite this level of representation, the emir of Kuwait insisted on holding the summit as scheduled.
This sent a clear message to all GCC member states that Kuwait, described as a “mediator” in the Gulf crisis and the chair of the current session of the Gulf Cooperation Council, will spare no effort in maintaining this regional entity. The GCC was founded on May 25, 1981, to enhance the security and stability of its members, which in turn would reflect positively on the security and stability of the region as a whole.
Clearly the Gulf summit held in Kuwait did not result in a breakthrough in terms of the crisis that began on June 5, leading to the siege of Qatar. This remains the case despite Doha expressing its desire to start an open and transparent dialogue with the blockading countries, its neighbours in the Gulf, discuss their concerns and find a mechanism for all parties to resolve any current or future disputes without prejudice to the sovereignty of any state. On the other hand, it seems clear that the boycotting countries (Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain) are not ready for dialogue with Doha for reasons only known to the decision-makers in their respective capitals.
A complicated regional and international context
In international relations, such issues are highly intertwined, and to understand what is happening in the East, it is necessary to study and understand what is going on in the West. Based on this principle, it is now public knowledge that there is an international drive to create a new regional system to reshape the regional balance by giving a larger role to forces that are willing to play an active role in line with the vision of the new White House commander-in-chief, Donald Trump, and during his term of office, which some doubt he will complete.
In January 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz reached the top of Saudi Arabia’s power pyramid. In addition, the generation of descendants of the kingdom’s founder reached the first rank of leadership.
This was mainly a declaration of the beginning of the formation of the fourth Saudi state. Only a few weeks after King Salman took his post and his young son Prince Mohammed bin Salman was appointed defence minister, Saudi Arabia declared war on Yemen against the Houthi rebels and loyalists of the forces of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was assassinated on the eve of the 2017 Gulf summit in Kuwait.
The declaration of war on Yemen was perhaps characterised most by the place where it was declared: the war was not launched from the Saudi capital, but was announced from Washington, by Saudi foreign minister Adel al Jubeir, then ambassador to the United States. This choice was not random; it sent a message from Saudi decision-makers that Riyadh could make decisions without getting a green light “in advance” from the White House! Perhaps this was the result of, and a reaction to, the policy of the former US administration of President Barack Obama, which – the Gulf capitals believe – favoured Iran at the expense of the Gulf states by signing the nuclear deal with Tehran.
On the other hand, the recent US presidential election resulted in Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the power pyramid in the United States. He took over the White House in January 2017. It is clear that President Trump is a businessman and not a a career politician. It is also clear that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also a businessman, as he runs a group of private companies, but he has been designated crown prince and is being groomed to become the next king of Saudi Arabia.
The will of the US administration under President Trump and the vision of the new Saudi leadership represented by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, have brought together the two parties’ efforts to secure what has been called the “deal of the century,” especially after the parties agreed that Iran is their paramount enemy. This was the point of the trilateral meeting held with the third party in this deal: Israel. Washington and Riyadh share a vision of Iran as a hostile enemy and a threat to their national security and survival.
President Trump’s first visit to Riyadh, after he took office, took place from 20 to 21 May, and resulted in business deals in excess of $460 billion. This was followed by the planned siege and isolation of Qatar, which would not have been achieved without getting a green light from the head of the White House.
Sounding the alarm on future of the Gulf Cooperation Council
Before the Gulf summit, in December, the UAE announced the establishment of a committee for economic and military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. This was a unilateral declaration, without Riyadh making any comment. The GCC project that was initiated almost 37 years ago received that looked like a fatal blow.
Although Kuwait and Qatar remain committed to the survival of the council, which was established to meet the security challenges of its member states, Abu Dhabi’s declaration of the joint committee’s establishment, on the opening day of the Gulf summit, opened the door to many questions about the GCC’s future. Will this committee be an alternative to the council? Or is it the foundation of a new bloc within the GCC?
Many events have occurred rapidly since the Gulf summit in Kuwait, the most important of which was the assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthi rebels after the coup against them and the US president’s declaration on December 6 that “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.” The region has experienced other events since Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House, which form part of what has been called the “deal of the century.” This suggests that the current US administration is racing to carry out what previous administrations had not opted to do, for the fundamental reason that Trump is fully aware that his survival as president until 2020 is not guaranteed, especially since congressional elections are coming up in 2018. The context may change if the Democrats win control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.