Because of the very identity of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Kuwait and Oman assumed their established roles as go-betweens to help end the rift that emerged between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
What started as fundamental disagreements over the best approaches to respond to the spillover effects of the Arab Spring – especially as Qatar and its Gulf partners played critical roles in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and in Syria – took on far more serious proportions after Iranian elements manoeuvered Gulf leaders into tight corners.
The Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini dispute with Qatar threatened to split the GCC because certain policies – impeccable red-lines – were breached, and because Riyadh, Manama and Abu Dhabi concluded that such infringements could not be tolerated. More specifically, and while a public discussion over the alleged Qatari support to the Muslim Brotherhood preoccupied many, in reality, what irked Riyadh were the contraventions of the late 2013 “Riyadh Agreement” that sealed the fate of non-GCC elements who were issued GCC travel documents, which allowed free access to all six states.
In the event, and following an extraordinary meeting for the GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh, a unanimously approved statement declared that member-states “agreed to adopt mechanisms that will guarantee moving in a plural direction”, even if it did not state when the three diplomats would return. The accord, which was accepted by Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah whose visit to Saudi Arabia was noted, specified that all signatories would “adopt measures that can ensure working as a group and that policies of any individual state should not harm the interests, security or stabilityof any other member state”.
Doha was a founding member and part and parcel of the economic miracle engine that catapulted the Arabian Peninsula forward, and which continued to move ahead at full speed. Still, it was only natural that periodic disagreements would emerge from time to time…
Moreover, the GCC foreign ministers stressed their respective governments’ readiness to implement the December 2013 Riyadh accord that was inked by King Abdallah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, witnessed by Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah.
To be sure, the language of the latest accord was unclear and a sentence like “confirmed the importance of implementing commitments” required the skills of master decoders to decipher, given that few outsiders could figure out what needed to be implemented in the first place and to which commitments. Inasmuch as “careful implementation” probably meant a joint Saudi-Qatari commitment to specific requests by both sides, this may be understood to mean that Riyadh and Doha literally guaranteed that they would, henceforth, deny travel documents to non-GCC citizens, and acted as models for others to emulate them.
Still, this was an educated guess in the absence of concrete evidence, although it was far more likely than the vague calls to limit support to the Muslim Brotherhood or to even ask Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric who called Doha home, to leave. Lest one believed that all GCC States were negligent with intrinsic security matters – which they were not – one must logically assume that this was at the heart of the dispute. The mere fact that all six committed themselves to uphold this latest rule sealed its veracity.
In addition to Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman also played a critical conciliatory role, with the Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi, to announce that the crisis was “a thing of the past”. The affable Alawi spoke to the pan-Arab London-based Al-Hayat, and declared that the crisis “between brothers” had ended and that the “ball was now in Qatar’s camp”. His confidence affirmed that the pillars of the institution were strong and could withstand periodic jolts.
Notwithstanding Alawi’s bravura, several observers commented that parts of the deal were quickly implemented.
Even if mediation efforts produced desired results, far-fetched assessments pullulated, with a Bloomberg Businessweek story written by Dana El Baltaji reaching new heights. For El Baltaji, the sensational headline of “Oman Fights Saudi Bid for Gulf Hegemony With Iran Pipe Plan”, served a cause. The article asserted that the very idea to “build a $1 billion natural-gas pipeline from Iran” was nothing short of “the latest sign that Saudi Arabia [was] failing to bind its smaller Gulf neighbours into a tighter bloc united in hostility to the Islamic Republic”, even if the link was not made.
How a pipeline between Oman and Iran was transformed into a full reassessment of the alliance was a mystery, especially when the Sultanate was closely tied to the Kingdom and its GCC partners in tight security agreements, which formed essential parts of ongoing integration efforts. El Baltaji attributed to the UAE Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdullah the gem that “the Sultan has always maintained a sense of mysteriousness about Oman”, presumably because Omanis thought “of themselves as somewhat different from the rest of the GCC”.
Whether such exceptionalism meant that Muscat was not committed to the alliance was not explained. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth, and though Oman objected to the Saudi monarch’s calls to transform the GCC into a full-fledged union, it was too soon to conclude if the Sultanate was ready to leave the alliance.
In the short-term, what motivated Muscat were significant economic opportunities with Iran given its urgent needs to create meaningful employment for a growing number of Omanis citizens. Over the long-term, however, Oman remained committed to the GCC alliance no matter what forms it eventually takes simply because it had far more in common with its Arab neighbours than with anyone else.
GCC leaders, led by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar, knew full well the alliance’s value, and would do absolutely nothing to weaken it. Doha was a founding member and part and parcel of the economic miracle engine that catapulted the Arabian Peninsula forward, and which continued to move ahead at full speed. Still, it was only natural that periodic disagreements would emerge from time to time, though what could be dangerous was if such disputes were allowed to linger. For many, the GCC was still the best regional alliance invented by Arab States, and chances were excellent that no foreign interferences would be allowed to break it loose.
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).