Thirty-six years ago, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was put together at great speed in reaction to the profound regional uncertainty in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and the start of the Iran-Iraq War. As a result, many issues of institutional design were left unaddressed, then and since. The current crisis splitting the GCC – with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain accusing Qatar of connections to Iran and Islamist groups and cutting off diplomatic ties – is now significantly testing the bloc. The longer the standoff goes on, the more the Qataris may wonder whether it is worth belonging to at all.
The GCC is neither a political nor a military alliance, and it lacks an integrative supra-national decision-making institution for the sharing of sovereignty, akin to the European Commission. It has no explicit treaty-based foreign policy-making power and its member governments retain responsibility for almost all aspects of political and economic policy, and resist measures that could limit or pool their sovereignty.
For years, the GCC has struggled to move forward on ‘big ticket’ issues such as monetary union and the move to a single currency or to agree on the degree and pace of closer political integration. The Gulf Dinar set for 2010 has been on hold indefinitely since 2009 when the UAE suddenly withdrew from the monetary union project in anger at a decision to locate the planned GCC Central Bank in Riyadh rather than Abu Dhabi. In the wake of the regional upheaval unleashed by the Arab Spring, Saudi proposals to transform the cooperation council into a political union also failed to make headway with the smaller states, Bahrain excepted, which remained wary that a potential Gulf Union would be too Saudi top-heavy.
By contrast, far more progress has occurred in more ‘mundane’ areas of technocratic cooperation and the standardization of operating practices that offered tangible practical benefits but did not tread on political toes. A case in point was the Internal Security Pact endorsed at the annual GCC Summit in Bahrain in December 2012. This agreement provided for the closer coordination of internal security and surveillance policies across the six member states as well as for the greater sharing of information and unifying of plans for joint action. Ironically, given the current crisis, Qatar was the first GCC state to ratify the Internal Security Pact, which it did on 28 August 2013, just two months after Emir Tamim came to power in Doha.
The GCC weathered a previous diplomatic row in 2014 between Qatar and the trio of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, which withdrew their ambassadors from Doha for eight months and accused Qatar of meddling in the internal affairs of regional states. Then, as now, the Emir of Kuwait – at 88, the elder statesman of the Gulf with 40 years’ experience as a foreign minister – made strenuous attempts to find a mediated solution to the standoff. Three years ago, the breach was resolved at a meeting in Riyadh in November 2014 that saw Qatar make several concessions, which included closing down the Egyptian branch channel of Al Jazeera, and relocating members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist dissidents to Istanbul and London.
It will be far harder this time for the GCC to repair internal fractures because the current confrontation greatly exceeds 2014 in scale and because none of the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Qatar appear to have involved the GCC secretariat in any way. As three members of the GCC have turned on a fourth, the secretary-general has remained silent – measures such as the restriction of movement on Qatari nationals have instead been announced unilaterally by the individual member states. Lists of grievances and demands for Qatar to change course similarly have come from the capitals concerned rather than through the secretariat, and attempts at mediation have been undertaken by the Kuwaiti Emir and not the secretary-general.
The longer the crisis continues the more Qataris may begin to question the utility of belonging to an organization that appears powerless to prevent or control the bilateral application of pressure among its members. Adversaries such as Iran may try to widen the cracks that have appeared within the GCC and make inroads into the hitherto-impenetrable network of security partnerships that have bound the Gulf states under the Western security umbrella for decades. Finally, ruling circles in Kuwait and Oman, aware that looming leadership successions might leave them vulnerable to similar pressure next time around, may watch carefully to see whether the attempt to rein in Qatar reshapes the GCC around a hawkish assertive core of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.