Working Around the Gulf Impasse

Behind the entrenched political distrust, regional institutions are devising workarounds to contain the impact of the dispute between Qatar and other Gulf states.

Expert comment Updated 7 August 2019 Published 4 June 2019 3 minute READ

Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Mecca prepares for the emergency regional summits in May. Photo: Getty Images.

Mecca prepares for the emergency regional summits in May. Photo: Getty Images.

Senior representatives of all six Gulf states met in Mecca on 30 May as part of the three emergency summits – of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab League, and Organization of the Islamic Conference – called by Saudi Arabia to consider recent developments in the region. The Mecca meeting provided a timely snapshot of intra-regional relationships two years after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) joined with Egypt to launch a wide-ranging boycott of Qatar in June 2017.

While the political standoff remains unresolved, the Gulf States and their external partners, notably the US, have created a series of pragmatic workarounds to ensure at least a modicum of cooperation on issues of mutual interest. Though these workarounds fall far short of a fully functioning GCC, they keep alive the possibility that the organization could one day begin to recohere if political conditions ever permit.

Levels of bitterness and anger magnified by media and social media campaigns remain deeply entrenched, as evidenced by a video produced by Al Ekhbariya, a Saudi media outlet, that pointedly omitted Qatar from a profile of the states participating in the summits. Meanwhile, comments traded by the Saudi and Qatari foreign ministers after the summit served only to highlight the continuing polarization in regional affairs in the Gulf.

And yet, Qatar sent its prime minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, to Mecca – a higher ranking official than the UAE’s crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. This contrasted with the 2018 Arab League and GCC summits in Saudi Arabia, where Qatar sent lower-level officials.

This is likely to have reflected a Qatari desire to separate the narrower confines of the Gulf dispute from the broader parameters of regionwide diplomacy, as well as the outcome of pressure from the Trump administration on all parties to minimize in practice the fallout from the political split. John Bolton, the US national security advisor, lamented last year that ‘our regional partners are increasingly competing and, in the case of the Qatar rift, entering into outright competition to the detriment of American interests and to the benefit of Iran, Russia, and China’.

While all Gulf states have over the past decade diversified their political and security relationships, ties with the US remain a bedrock that no other international partner can replicate. Although President Trump shocked observers by initially backing the Saudis and Emiratis in their move against Qatar in June 2017, US government policy quickly settled back in favour of mediation to end a crisis that pits its several of its closest regional partners against one another.

Recognition in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, as well as in Doha, that the US government will not choose sides in the dispute has required officials to balance their unwillingness to ‘blink first’ in the standoff against US demands that it not affect core American defence and security interests, including the Trump administration’s regional pressure campaign on Iran. Such a balancing act has been particularly acute in Abu Dhabi given Mohammed bin Zayed’s reluctance to engage in Trump’s carefully planned sequence of visits from Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati leaders in March and April 2018 to try and find common ground to end the dispute.

With no resolution in sight, workarounds have instead been developed to contain the political impact of the dispute. US officials placed themselves ‘in the room’ and added officials from Egypt and Jordan to meetings of Gulf states’ chiefs of staff in Kuwait City and foreign ministers in New York in September 2018.

This ‘GCC+2’ formed the basis for subsequent US efforts to create a Middle East Strategic Alliance with regular meetings that involve representatives of all six Gulf states, although progress has been slowed by a lack of consensus over threat perceptions and desired outcomes that have nothing to do with the Qatar standoff, as illustrated by Egypt’s sudden withdrawal from the project in April. Qatari forces also participated in multilateral military exercises in Saudi Arabia in April 2018 and March 2019 after US Central Command threatened to suspend its own participation if all regional partners were unable to take part.

At a regional level, GCC committees have continued to function and to meet regularly away from the glare of publicity and political acrimony. Many of the meetings have taken place in the ‘neutral’ settings of Kuwait and Oman rather than at the GCC Secretariat in Riyadh and have, perhaps unintentionally, chipped away at the Saudi-centricity of the GCC that was long a source of concern for the five much smaller Gulf states, including the UAE.

Technocratic cooperation and sector-specific ministerial meetings are neither a GCC ‘2.0’ nor a substitute for what had for more than 30 years been one of the most durable and successful examples of a regional organization in the Arab world. More sensitive issues, such as a ‘GCCPOL’ meeting in Abu Dhabi in February, featured officials from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait only, and representatives from the four blockading states boycotted a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Doha in April.

On these more political matters, mutual distrust runs deep and may take years to dispel, but the fact that the humdrum work of the GCC continues, with the participation of all six member states, offers hope that the cooperative framework of the GCC can endure in areas where it is possible to take politics ‘out of the equation,’ perhaps as new structures – such as the Middle East Strategic Alliance if it gets off the ground – take on some of the ancillary issues that are currently too sensitive to handle within the GCC alone.