This year, efforts to resolve the most serious crisis to date within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have failed, and it will be carried into 2018. What will happen next year is difficult to predict because, as we witnessed in 2017, a lot of the key developments did not follow the standard rules of international diplomacy.
This is because decision-making in some GCC countries is not necessarily institutionalised and is, in fact, highly dependent on unstable and unpredictable personal attitudes and ambitions of a handful of people. Strategic planning, rules of diplomacy and the risks that regional instability holds are not necessarily priority considerations for these individuals. In this sense, just as the crisis erupted out of the blue, it could easily end in the same way, without a good reason.
Although unpredictability will mark developments in the Gulf in 2018 as well, there are at least two possible scenarios that could emerge out of the current situation. The first one is the crisis becoming the status quo and the GCC transforming into another Arab League-like organisation, with much formality and little substance. Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem to be pushing in this direction.
The second scenario is the crisis being resolved. This would allow the GCC to recover slowly but not completely, as a lot of damage has already been done and trust has been broken.
Scenario one: A GCC in permanent crisis
If the crisis continues down the same path in 2018, the GCC as an organisation will become greatly marginalised, dysfunctional, and irrelevant.
The Saudi-UAE-Bahrain axis would solidify, and these countries are likely to push forward with bilateral and trilateral agreements at the expense of GCC mechanisms. Unrestrained, Riyadh is likely to continue with its destabilising diplomacy in the Middle East. It would not be surprising to see more regional gambles coming from this axis. Detentions of foreign officials and businessmen might stop, but Riyadh would continue to apply political and economic pressure on countries in the region, especially as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to use foreign policy to solidify his power domestically.
Meanwhile, Qatar would continue to seek guarantees for its security and economic development outside the Gulf. This year saw the deployment of Turkish troops to Qatar. Next year, military cooperation between the two states is expected to deepen, with more bilateral defence and security agreements, and more deployment of Turkish troops and equipment to Doha. Economic cooperation and trade would likely intensify even more between the two countries.
More Arab states would be destabilised, as they are pressured to choose sides.
Qatari-Iranian relations would remain stable, with priority given to their economic aspect. However, the more Doha is forced to rely on Iran, the more Tehran is likely to utilise it politically to portray Saudi Arabia as a source of threat to small countries in the Gulf and the region. This would help Tehran rebuild its image in the Arab world, shield itself from regional isolation, and increase its multilateral cooperation with other countries in defiance of the Saudi axis.
Kuwait and Oman would continue trying to mend relations within the GCC. However, realising their limited capacity to convince the Saudi-led bloc to back off, both Kuwait and Muscat are likely to continue to maintain relations with Saudi while also increasing cooperation with Turkey and Iran.
A continuing crisis in the Gulf could have detrimental effects on the rest of the Middle East. In this sense, more Arab states would be destabilised as they are pressured to choose sides. Iran’s influence would certainly increase, and Israel would intensify attacks on Palestinians, feeling less pressed to accept a real peace process. All of this is likely to fuel radicalisation in the region and possibly produce ISIL successors.
Scenario two: A united GCC countering Iranian influence
For the crisis to be resolved next year, two things have to happen: The anti-Qatar axis would need to believe that it has reached a dead end, and the Trump administration would need to put pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to change course.
The first would depend on Qatar’s ability to withstand mounting political and economic pressure from the Saudi-led bloc. The second would depend on the Trump administration resolving internal disagreements and pursuing a clear and unified strategy on containing Iran.
Is this possible in 2018? There are a few indications that it is.
If the Trump administration is serious about containing Iran in the Middle East, it would need a united GCC as an ally.
The goal of the Saudi-led bloc prolonging the crisis was to raise the costs of the blockade politically and economically and to push Doha to give up and submit to Riyadh. Now that Doha has been able to absorb the initial shock, overcome logistical problems the siege brought about, and re-orient itself to accommodate the new facts on the ground, the blockade is gradually losing its intended effect.
The more Doha feels comfortable in 2018, the more useless the siege imposed by the Saudi axis would seem. In this sense, unless there is further escalation against Qatar, the Saudi-led bloc would have to de-escalate.
Yet, the decision to dismantle the blockade will not come voluntarily from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Pressure on both countries is needed and it will have to come from the Trump administration. And there are signs that this could be possible in 2018.
First, in at least two, recent cases, the Saudi led-bloc had to retract its reckless decisions after failing to achieve any results and facing international pressure: in Lebanon and in Yemen.
In November, Saudi Arabia forced Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri to declare his resignation from Riyadh after detaining him there. However, things dramatically changed when Paris and Washington sent strong messages to Saudi Arabia, which allowed Hariri to go back and resume his duties as prime minister.
In Yemen, after the death of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the pressure exerted by the Trump administration on Saudi Arabia, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi held talks with Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah Party. And that was despite the fact that both countries have spent a considerable amount of energy demonising the Muslim Brotherhood in recent years.
Of course, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had to spin the retractions on Yemen and Lebanon domestically in order to save face. They could do the same if they step back from their position on Qatar as well. The Emir of Kuwait already laid the ground for such an option, when he vowed to continue the mediation, and proposed a mechanism for settling disputes within the GCC at the opening of its summit in Kuwait, in early December.
Second, if the Trump administration is serious about containing Iran in the Middle East, it would need a united GCC as an ally. To curb Iranian influence, the US would have to isolate Iran regionally and block the growth of its influence. Right now, with Riyadh on the loose and Washington sending conflicting messages to various actors in the region, Iran only stands to gain.
The US needs the GCC to work as a united bloc, at least in terms of regional politics and collective defence. There are already indications that Washington will have to push for de-escalation in the Gulf. The newly-released US National Security Strategy calls for GCC cohesion: “We remain committed to helping our partners achieve a stable and prosperous region, including through a strong and integrated Gulf Cooperation Council.
As the US military wraps up its anti-ISIL operation in the region, the Trump administration will have to soon unroll its strategy on Iran. And that will have to involve a firm decision on the GCC crisis.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.