Can Kuwait save the GCC?

Three Arab Gulf states issue an unprecedented and highly critical joint statement that took their ally to the woodshed.

GCC is still struggling to come to terms with sacrosanct security matters, writes Kechichian [EPA]

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar to lodge a formal protest at what officials in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama concluded were gross interferences in regional security affairs. Doha expressed its “regret and surprise” but said it would not reciprocate.

In the event, the rare internal disciplinary step became public knowledge after senior Saudi and Emirati officials grew restless at what they percieved to be Qatari reticence to abide by the November 23, 2013 accord duly signed by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia and Prince Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar in the presence of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the Emir of the State of Kuwait.

That agreement, which was duly endorsed by all GCC leaders a month later at their annual summit in Kuwait, covered, according to informed sources,  three specific items:Sever GCC States’ ties with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – an illegal organisation in Saudi Arabia and the UAE; end all broadcast privileges to the Egyptian Scholar, Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi; and, severely restrict the movement of ‘Iranian operatives’ within the GCC zone.

It was crucial to note that Doha signed this accord twice: First, at the tripartite meeting in November 2013 in Riyadh and, second, at the Kuwait Summit the following month. Apparently, no actions were taken to implement its clauses. Moreover, it was also important to observe that while the GCC foreign ministers’ meeting held on February 4,  was “stormy”. The three countries that took this unprecedented step against Doha were said to be surprised by the Qatari officials’ reluctance to implement what their country already committed itself to.

Qatar calls Saudi, UAE, Bahrain withdrawal a ‘big mistake’

The GCC officials declared that they would abide by the principles on which the GCC was established in 1981, namely to “achieve coordination, cooperation and interdependence among member states in all fields until the unity and deepening and strengthening ties and linkages and existing cooperation between their peoples in various fields”.

Qatar did not disagree and insisted that this latest decision by three of its long-standing allies had “nothing to do with the interests, security and stability of GCC people” but was linked to a difference in positions over issues outside the GCC. Its own official response stated that Doha was “absolutely keen on brotherly ties between the Qatari people and fellow GCC people, which prevent Qatar from taking a similar procedure of recalling its ambassadors”.

Oman did not react as of Thursday morning and Kuwait issued a mild concern from the Speaker of the Majlis al-Ummah (Parliament), which expressed its concerns, though neither the Kuwait monarch nor his prime minister commented.

Ironically, it fell on the Kuwaiti ruler to iron out differences between Riyadh and Doha last November, though he – himself – expressed disappointment at the unnecessary delays towards the implementation of the accord’s terms. What was at stake was far greater than usually believed and left to fester, this dispute was bound to shake the foundations on which the alliance was established.

Muslim Brotherhood connection

What leading Arab Gulf countries objected to was what they perceived as Doha’s unwavering support for the Brotherhood as they periodically reminded their neighbour of an official GCC policy to ban the Islamist organisation. If the Qatari exception was – somewhat –  tolerated in the past, epochal developments in Egypt and Syria – which brought the MB to power in Egypt between 2012 and 2013 and increased its presence in Syria in 2013-led to a fundamental split.

If the Qatari exception was somewhat tolerated in the past, epochal developments in Egypt and Syria – which brought the MB to power in Egypt between 2012 and 2013 and increased its presence in Syria in 2013-led to a fundamental split.

At the time, Qatar extended blanket support to President Mohammed Morsi, expressed through an $8bn aid package. Remarkably, and although GCC States failed to persuade Doha to stop its “support for anyone who threatened the security and stability of GCC countries”, the Egyptian Central Bank returned $2bn in September 2013. To counter Qatar’s financial aid, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE promised $15bn in fresh aid for Egypt, to stabilise Cairo’s financial situation.

Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi believed that Doha armed the Jabhat al-Nusrah Front in Syria – when a GCC decision was reached to end such aid – while Saudi Arabia objected to what it claims was a Qatari support extended to Houthi rebels in Yemen. For its part, Manama was persuaded that Doha looked askance to Iranian involvement in the post-2011 uprising in Bahrain that required a GCC military intervention.

An Emirati court , on February 3, sentenced a Qatari physician, Mahmoud al-Jaydah, to seven years in jail for supporting an illegal Islamist group. It was further revealed that Dr al-Jaydah was detained at the Dubai airport on February 26, 2013, and charged with supporting al-Islah, a Brotherhood front group that was banned in the UAE. Two Emirati citizens were also convicted of supporting the group and each received five-year sentences as well. Earlier in 2014, 30 Emiratis and Egyptians were convicted of forming an illegal branch of the Brotherhood in the UAE and received jail terms of up to five years.

Such tensions were exacerbated by Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi’s pronouncements, which led Abu Dhabi to formally summon the Qatari charge d’affaires over what it called “insults” against the UAE, allegedly uttered by the scholar in one of his broadcasts from Doha. The popular sheikh, who seldom missed an opportunity to express his support to the Brotherhood, routinely criticised the Egyptian military regime that replaced the Morsi Government.

Given complex challenges that faced Cairo, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among others, Qaradawi’s pronouncements vexed all concerned. In fact, Abu Dhabi delivered its “official protest memorandum” over remarks made by the scholar that disparaged the UAE’s support for the current Egyptian government.

Although Qatar’s foreign minister, Dr Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, sought to distance his country from the scholar’s remarks by saying “we have full respect to our brothers” and emphasised that “the only source for Qatar’s foreign policy is the official channels of the state”, GCC officials demurred. They also reminded al-Attiyah in Riyadh last Tuesday, that Doha had previously agreed to end Sheikh Qaradawi’s broadcasts, without fulfilling such a  pledge.

Alleged infiltrations?

More problematic still were unconfirmed reports circulated in Saudi papers claiming that Qatar facilitated the movement of un-named Gulf citizens – presumed to be Iranians – to circulate within the GCC zone. According to well-placed sources, this was the main cause of disagreement at the last  GCC meeting that led to the withdrawal of the three diplomats and though details were not provided, the accusation was grave enough but verifying it  was an impossible task. 

In recent months, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama were alarmed by what was described as “Iranian infiltrators”. Even Omani officials, who maintained close ties with Tehran, were distressed.

Amid such tensions, it may well fall on Kuwait to make mediation efforts between Doha and  its troubled neighbours. The opportunity will arise on March 25 when Kuwait  will host the Arab Summit meeting. Still, this may be easier said than done, as last week’s events represent an unprecedented event in the history of inter GCC relations and would not be brushed over due to differences of opinion.

The move also  highlighted that three decades after its creation, the GCC was still struggling to come to terms with sacrosanct security matters. It was a further illustration that even the closest of alliances needed a steady hand at the helm.

Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).