Explainer: What to expect at the 42nd GCC summit

The summit is the first since the Al-Ula agreement, which led blockading Gulf countries to restore ties with Qatar.

Four blockading Gulf countries signed the Al-Ula declaration during the 41st GCC summit in January, restoring ties with Qatar [Qatar News Agency / AFP]

The 42nd meeting of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit is expected to consolidate the rapprochement between Qatar and formerly boycotting states, experts have said, deepening ties after the historic Al-Ula agreement in January.

The summit, which takes place on Tuesday in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, is the first since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates agreed to end their dispute with Qatar over a range of issues including its foreign policy, which had led them to sever diplomatic relations with Doha in June 2017.

The four blockading countries signed the Al-Ula declaration during the 41st GCC summit in January, opening a new chapter based on greater cooperation within the Council.

“A new era of pragmatism is descending upon GCC states,” Dina Esfandiary, a senior adviser at International Crisis Group for Middle East-North Africa, told Al Jazeera.

“There are still varying approaches on how to deal with Iran among the GCC states,” Esfandiary said. “But some of those positions have changed and evolved.”

The summit coincides with talks between Iran and world powers aimed at salvaging the landmark nuclear agreement signed in 2015. The agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lifted sanctions on Tehran and imposed curbs on its nuclear programme.

Oman, Kuwait and Qatar have maintained ties with Tehran, whose relationships with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have remained strained, but recent de-escalation efforts have levelled some of the differences vis-à-vis Iran.

Eman Alhussein, the non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Al Jazeera that disagreements between Gulf countries are likely to continue but “GCC states will benefit from a better security environment, which seems to be one of the objectives behind recent regional activities and is likely to be central to the discussions also in the upcoming Riyadh summit.”

Stability in the region

GCC states are engaged in finding a pathway back to the JCPOA, which former US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, in order to lower the risk of a considerable conflict that could embroil the countries in the region.

A seventh round of talks in Vienna has seen Iran’s new negotiating team adopt a hardline bargaining position, insisting that the US lift all sanctions imposed by Trump, including those that dealt with issues such as “terrorism” and were not part of the original agreement.

GCC members are expected to discuss ways of lowering the temperature with Iran, as well as the war in Yemen, Tehran’s links with the Houthi rebels and the role of Iran-linked militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

The UAE this year signalled a U-turn in its approach towards Iran, veering away from confrontation and moving towards diplomacy. Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan said at the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate last month that “our interest is to try and avoid [conflict] at all costs.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia engaged in face-to-face talks with its regional archrival for the first time this year, with officials from the countries meeting four times in Iraq’s capital Baghdad and once on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

According to Esfandiary, “the fact that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are becoming more willing to engage the Iranians will bring them closer to the other countries in the GCC.”

“They’re figuring out that containment on its own doesn’t work, it only works with dialogue,” the ICG analyst added.

The desire to establish a stronger, more cohesive Gulf bloc that can stand up to Iran has contributed to regional de-escalation. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman conducted a whistle-stop tour of the GCC states that culminated on December 8 with the first official trip to Qatar since he was designated crown prince in 2017.

The UAE also sought rapprochement with Qatar, Turkey, and even pushed to build ties with the Iran-allied Assad government in Syria.

Qatar, which was abruptly boycotted for three full years, has aimed to position itself as an interlocutor both between the United States and Iran and between the US and Afghanistan’s Taliban.

Economic ties

In another indication of a geopolitical reset, the Saudi-Qatari Coordination Council was established this year to strengthen bilateral relations and broaden cooperation in achieving the countries’ development goals.

Alhussein, of the Arab Gulf States Institute, said the 42nd GCC summit comes at a time of rapprochement, where “there seems to be a common understanding that will likely deter confrontations similar in scale to the recent Gulf crisis.”

The GCC bloc will likely use the opportunity to discuss longstanding projects including the implementation of the Gulf customs union and common market, economic citizenship and the construction of a Gulf rail network.

Disagreements, however, remain in place over their implementation. “Countries like Oman have said they would not join an economic union and their position has been the same for many years,” the ICC’s Esfandiary said. “I don’t think now is the time in which things like this can be dealt with.”

GCC members are also expected to stress the importance of working together to enhance investment opportunities, despite competition over foreign capital and oil production quotas.

The conservative Saudi kingdom has struggled to attract the foreign investments required to achieve its Vision 2030. Foreign businesses often snub Saudi Arabia for the UAE, which has doubled down on liberalisation policies to attract investments.

In February, Saudi Arabia announced it would stop giving state contracts to companies and commercial institutions that base their Middle East hubs in any other country in the region. Dubai’s former finance chief, Nasser al-Shaikh, said the move contradicted the principles of a unified Gulf market.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also had disagreements in July over the latter’s oil production quota within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The UAE argued that the baseline for its crude-production quota was too low, a claim rejected by Saudi Arabia.


Combating climate change, securing food and water

Climate change and resource management are soft security issues on which GCC states are expected to find more common ground.

GCC states will likely discuss new agreements to enhance cooperation on international climate policies and renewable energy, the implementation of a circular carbon economy, as well as water and food supply security.

They are expected to address efforts to offload an estimated 1.1 million barrels of crude oil on board the FSO Safer, one of the world’s largest tankers, which has been deteriorating since it was abandoned in 2017 north of the Yemeni city of Al Hudaydah.

The GCC bloc will coordinate on emergency measures as a spill is considered increasingly probable. An oil spill in the Red Sea would spread well beyond Yemen and cause environmental havoc affecting Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

Source: Al Jazeera