March 20, 2014
Changing political alignments in the Gulf region now appear to threaten the continued existence of the Gulf Co-Operation Council (GCC), an important six-nation organization designed to further the political interests of the Gulf’s conservative monarchies with an eye to eventual unification. Though tensions have been growing within the GCC for some time, the dramatic rupture in diplomatic relations between Qatar and three other members of the GCC (Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain) over the former’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood has the potential of dealing a fatal blow to the Council. GCC members include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. Rather than a simple alliance, the GCC is better thought of as a complex network of relationships in which common goals such as security and prosperity are intended to override competing interests.
Gulf Co-operation Council Nations
On March 7, Saudi Arabia declared the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria’s al-Nusra Front, the Houthists of north Yemen, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a little-known group the edict called “Hezbollah within the Kingdom” to be terrorist organizations. A Brotherhood front organization in Egypt expressed “surprise” at Riyadh’s choice to “continue support for the coup” and to “criminalize opposition to the unjust coup” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 10). Riyadh also gave 15 days for all Saudi citizens engaged in fighting abroad to return home without penalty. Under a decree issued by King Abdullah on February 3, Saudi citizens fighting in conflicts outside the kingdom will face imprisonment for a term of three to 20 years, with members of extremist or terrorist groups facing even harsher penalties (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 7).
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in early March in an unusual show of dissatisfaction with the policies of a fellow GCC member. Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid al-Attiya, responded to the moves by asserting that: “The independence of Qatar’s foreign policy is simply non-negotiable” (al-Jazeera, March 18). Qatar was a strong financial supporter of the short-lived Mursi regime in Egypt, but now has nothing to show for its investment other than growing diplomatic isolation. The Saudis and the UAE, on the other hand, have backed the military government of Field Marshal Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi with massive financial support to keep the regime afloat in a difficult period and can expect their political influence to grow if al-Sisi becomes the next president of Egypt, as expected.
Saudi Arabia is reported to have warned Qatar that it would be “punished” unless it met three demands; the closure of al-Jazeera (accused by Egypt of backing the Muslim Brotherhood), the severance of all ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and the expulsion of two U.S. institutes from Qatar, the Brookings Doha Centre and the Rand Qatar Policy Institute (Qatar News, March 15; AFP, March 15). The promised alternative is a Saudi air and land blockade of Qatar, which not only relies heavily on imports of food and other goods, but is also an important regional transportation hub. The Saudi and Qatari militaries last clashed along their mutual border in 1992. The UAE has been somewhat less bellicose than the Saudis, given that the Emirates depend on Qatari natural gas for power generation (Financial Times, March 14). Otherwise, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will find it difficult to apply economic pressure on Qatar, which has broad overseas investments, Asian markets hungry for its natural gas production and does only five percent of its trade with the three GCC partners opposing its policies (Bloomberg, March 13).
Qatar continues to host the Brotherhood’s unofficial leader, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential preacher with considerable media skills. Qatar’s ambassador to the UAE was summoned to the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi in February to explain a sermon broadcast from Qatar by al-Qaradawi in which the shaykh condemned the UAE as a nation that opposes Islamic rule. The remarks came a day after UAE authorities imprisoned 30 Emiratis and Egyptians accused of forming a Brotherhood cell in Abu Dhabi (al-Jazeera, February 2). Qatar has offered refuge to fugitive members of the Brotherhood, while the UAE has imprisoned scores of members of the Brotherhood and its UAE affiliate, the Islah Party (al-Jazeera, March 18).
In recent years, Qatar has grown closer to Iran and Turkey, the latter’s ruling Justice and Development Party also being a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s ties to Shi’a Iran in the midst of an ongoing regional Sunni-Shi’a power struggle are particularly alarming to the Saudis (whose oil-rich Eastern Province has a Shi’a majority) and the Sunni rulers of Bahrain, who are trying to repress simmering discontent in Bahrain’s Shi’a majority. Kuwait appears to be dismayed by the whole dispute and has offered to act as a mediator. The last member of the GCC, Oman, has an Ibadite majority and has traditionally close ties to Iran as part of a resolutely independent foreign policy. Oman is a strong opponent of Saudi-led efforts to create an economic, customs and defense union within the GCC. Egyptian officials announced Cairo had decided not to close its embassy in Doha because of the large number of Egyptian nationals working in Qatar but would not send a new ambassador (Al-Monitor, March 12).
Qatar’s active role in the Syrian and Libyan rebellions has been a leading element of an increasingly aggressive Qatari foreign policy that has at times alarmed its conservative neighbors. Despite this, there is a tremendous incentive to cooperation within the GCC as its members will all suffer economically if political disputes lead to blockades, closed borders or confrontations in an already compact and volatile region.
This article first appeared in the March 20, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.