As fighting raged during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, neighbouring countries of the Gulf region decided it was time to organise militarily and economically to ensure strength in numbers.
Thirty-nine years later, the union that became known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is in tatters because of a blockade imposed on one of its members, the natural gas-rich nation of Qatar.
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The GCC was fractured on June 5, 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, along with Egpyt, a non-council member, severed all ties with Qatar and blocked air, land, and sea routes to and from the country.
Three years later, with the blockade still in full force, the fate of what once represented Gulf-Arab unity is now in question.
Bringing together Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the GCC faces “unprecedented” challenges – including the repercussions from the coronavirus pandemic and the diplomatic crisis caused by the siege, Secretary-General Nayef al-Hajraf said in a statement marking the bloc’s 39th anniversary last month.
The GCC was formed on May 25, 1981, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, as the bloody war between Iraq and Iran was at its peak and the region was still reeling from the Islamic Revolution in Iran two years earlier.
The goals were lofty.
The GCC’s aim was to coordinate resistance to outside intervention in the Gulf, and a Unified Economic Agreement was signed in November 1981 and ratified in 1982. One of its goals was to include free trade among member states in all agricultural, animal, industrial, and natural resource products of national origin.
It also sought to strengthen cooperation among its six member states and regulate areas such as economic affairs, commerce, customs and communications, education and culture, social and health affairs, information and tourism, and legislative and administrative protocols.
The GCC – a region with a population of about 50 million people, half of those expatriate workers – also aimed to stimulate scientific and technological progress, establish scientific research centres, and encourage cooperation with the private sector.
With its headquarters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the GCC allowed the free movement of citizens and capital, but restrictions on some economic activities were left in place.
The GCC formed a joint military ground force known as the Peninsula Shield in 1984 to rapidly deploy if any of the members were attacked.
In 1987, GCC nations declared any assault on a member state tantamount to an attack on the entire group. Despite these moves, however, the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990 was not met with Gulf troops.
The Middle East pro-democracy protests that erupted in 2011, known as the Arab Spring, were largely avoided in the GCC – with the exception of Bahrain.
In March 2011, about 1,000 Saudi soldiers entered the country to protect government facilities at Bahrain’s request, in line with the GCC defence pact. Dozens of protesters were killed, many arrested, and the uprising was put down.
Fossil fuels are the main driver of the GCC’s economic engine, accounting for about 90 percent of government revenues.
The GCC nations are facing their worst economic crisis in history amid the double shock of plunging oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic, the Institute of International Finance (IIF) noted this week.
Overall gross domestic product (GDP) will contract 4.4 percent this year, despite indications the coronavirus spread has been successfully contained.
Saudi Arabia, the region’s largest economy, could see its real GDP shrink 4 percent this year and its deficit widen to 13 percent.
Qatar, the world’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas, will also suffer from low energy prices, but it continues to develop its share of the North Field, the world’s biggest gas deposit.
Because of the air, sea, and land blockade, Qatar has been forced to seek out new trade routes and partners, and opened up its $74bn Hamad Port.
Business between Oman and Qatar is booming since the siege was imposed. Over the past three years, Qatar has also developed stronger economic relations with Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan.
Reports have emerged that Qatar, Oman and Kuwait may establish a free-trade zone independent of the GCC.
GCC Secretary-General al-Hajraf, Kuwait’s former finance minister, said last week the Gulf crisis and the pandemic represent “a common concern for all countries of the council”.
“This matter makes it imperative for all of us as the GCC system to enhance joint action and collective preparedness to deal with the post-coronavirus world with its economic, health, security, and labour dimensions in order to protect our people and preserve their gains,” he said in a statement marking the GCC’s 39th anniversary.
The blockade was not the first time Qatar faced internal GCC sanction. In 2014, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors to Qatar over concerns about Doha’s independent foreign policy.
Efforts to resolve the current crisis are reportedly continuing, with Kuwait acting as the main mediator since the beginning of the crisis in June 2017.
Three months after the blockade was imposed, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah told a press conference with US President Donald Trump: “What is important is that we have stopped any military action.”
The blockading nations immediately denied a military incursion had been planned.
James M Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, wrote in Modern Diplomacy that some Qatari officials believe “gaining control of Qatari gas reserves was a main objective of the Saudi-UAE boycott”.
Analysts have suggested the severe shift in GCC cooperation and solidarity occurred following the rise to power by Saudi Arabia’s current Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, after his father became king in January 2015. In tandem with the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, the two countries moved to dominate the political agenda of the Gulf grouping.
“The organisation has been usurped by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to coerce the smaller states into followership,” said Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at King’s College London.
Speculation has been rife that Doha may split with the GCC, though a Qatari official denied such a move was imminent.
“Reports claiming that Qatar is considering leaving the GCC are wholly incorrect and baseless,” Deputy Foreign Minister Lolwah al-Khater said last week.
“Such rumours must have originated from people’s despair and disappointment with a fractured GCC, which used to be a source of hope and aspiration for the people of the six member countries. As we are reaching the third year of the illegal blockade on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, there is no wonder why the people of the GCC are doubting and questioning the GCC as an institution.
“Qatar hopes the GCC will once again be a platform of cooperation and coordination. An effective GCC is needed now more than ever, given the challenges facing our region,” al-Khater said.
With discussions continuing, Kuwait’s Prime Minister Shaikh Sabah Al Khaled said on Wednesday “hopes are bigger than before” of ending the Gulf crisis.
“We used to move one step ahead and return two steps backwards. But now if we move forward a step, it is followed by another step,” Al Khaled told local media.
But one Western official in the Gulf, quoted by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, was far less optimistic.
“The regional conditions aren’t really there for some big rapprochement at the moment. My sense is this is the same old merry-go-round.”