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Sunday, August 1, 2021

OPINION: Has the GCC finally agreed to disagree?

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The end of the years-long feud between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council is a welcome move, but there is only one real beneficiary of the reconciliation.

After three and a half years, the GCC is once more a coherent whole. The blockade of Qatar is now over and the region can once again return to some semblance of normality. 

The dispute has been protracted and painful, with things that should never have been said thrown across borders; in the course of which social taboos in the Gulf were broken, leaving bitterness and anger on both sides. 

This was only made worse by the participation of several media outlets across the Gulf and their henchmen on Twitter who pumped out reams of fake news, conspiracies and inflammatory articles that bore little relation to reality, but that fed a constant sense of anger and resentment. 

The result is that while diplomatic relations have returned to their normal state, there remains a bitter taste that will take some time to dissipate. 

It is hard to talk of winners when so much needless disruption and division has been caused. The sad fact is that this dispute has dragged on far longer than it ever needed to. The reasons for this are numerous; erratic US policy, pride, and the miscalculated belief among the blockading quartet that Qatar would capitulate, despite all signs to the contrary that it wouldn’t. 

This has led to a very strange turn of events in which an intractable dispute was fixed seemingly overnight – even despite the fact that none of the underlying problems which drove the split have been solved. 

Timeline: How the GCC crisis erupted over three years

Qatar has acquiesced to none of the 13 points demanded of it at the blockade’s outset: it maintains relations with Iran – the GCC’s supposed nemesis – and appears to have maintained 100% editorial control over its prize foreign policy asset Al Jazeera.

So what changed so suddenly? Firstly, the blockade would never have been possible without the administration of Donald Trump, whose approach to the Middle East region has been a mixture of disdain, disinterest and hurried foreign policy initiatives, some of which have admittedly borne fruit. 

With President-elect Joseph R. Biden looming on the horizon, and with it the return of team Obama, it was clear that the US was unlikely to pay much attention to the concerns of the blockading quartet. 

Biden’s policy team views the key regional challenge as that of Iran and its nuclear programme. The Gulf dispute is at best viewed as a minor irritant, and at worst as a potential spoiler in the way of the US solving its problems with Tehran. 

Either way, there was no more support coming from the United States for the quartet’s position.

This leads to the second point, which is that Saudi Arabia has needed a foreign policy “win” in recent months. 

Biden officials such as incoming Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have made no secret of their concern about Saudi Arabia, and particularly its conduct in Yemen – a war which has dragged on for six long years, enabled by US and UK arms transfers. 

The threat of a Democrat President alongside a Democrat Congress and Senate blocking arms sales looming large over Riyadh is very real. By solving the Gulf dispute Saudi Arabia could quickly chalk up a victory and appear as a constructive and helpful ally that was working alongside US interests rather than against them.

In truth the Saudis have wanted the crisis solved and off their hands for a while, but the UAE (or more precisely Abu Dhabi) has been far more steadfast in its opposition to any reconciliation with the Qataris, going so far as to block a previous attempt to resolve the crisis in January 2020. 

A year later however the Emiratis were not able to convince the Saudis to hold firm to the blockade policy, and with significant pressure from the US, the quartet position began to break down.  

Read also: A deal may be imminent but how long will it take to rebuild trust within the GCC?

The breakdown of the quartet position is merely a reflection of a drastically different GCC from that which existed ten years ago. Back then, it was common to talk about a Gulf Union, which Qatar in fact supported during the GCC summit in Riyadh in 2012. 

But it is impossible to see such a thing happening now. 

Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, all six GCC countries have experienced different domestic problems, and have come to drastically different conclusions as to secure themselves, and by extension the region, from further turmoil.

In recent times Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all pursued vastly different policies, often at the expense of each other, and so it was to some extent inevitable that divisions between the two allies (the quartet’s most important players) would emerge. 

Today, the GCC represents a loose collection of states joined by culture, geography and economics, who operate in broad recognition of each other – but that’s about it. 

This is no bad thing. In an era of geopolitical turmoil, exacerbated by low prices and a year long pandemic, there are more pressing issues for these countries to solve than disputes over regional security. 

Read also: 13 demands were ‘maximalist’ negotiation position: UAE official

At some point in the future there might be a pathway back to talk about these issues, but that time is not now, the divisions are simply too great to be reconciled. 

Nevertheless, it is good news that this dispute has finally ended, it will benefit all the countries in the Gulf socially, politically, and economically. 

But most importantly it will repair the disruption to family life that was so cruelly enforced upon millions of people across the region, and it is these families more than anyone else, who are the biggest winners of all.

Michael Stephens is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies [RUSI] and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute [FPRI].

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Doha News, its editorial board or staff.


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