The future of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is extremely unclear six months into the bitter Qatar crisis. On December 4, Kuwait hosted the GCC’s annual summit, which marked the sub-regional organisation’s lowest point in its 36-year history.
Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani attended, but absent at the summit were the Bahraini, Emirati, and Saudi heads of state. The summit fell apart within hours, underscoring the internal damage within the GCC as a result of its Qatar rift.
Looking ahead, the million-dollar question is: Will there be another GCC summit ever again?
Kuwait’s Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who has engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States, is committed to preventing the GCC’s de facto dissolution. The emir has the full support of his people in addition to all of the parties involved in the Qatar crisis, Oman, and virtually the entire international community.
Sheikh al-Sabah is very committed to helping the two sides reach a rapprochement; Kuwait suffered a war on its soil only 26 years ago, and the Kuwaitis want the parties to the GCC dispute to address their problems through dialogue, fearing the prospects of escalation into a military confrontation.
In his speech, Kuwait’s monarch sent a number of important messages, stressing the need to continue the GCC meetings despite the six-month-old Qatar rift. Additionally, he called for the formation of a committee that would look into modifying the GCC’s statute to establish a clear mechanism for resolving disputes between member states.
In a new era of Middle Eastern history in which the GCC is a totally ineffectual institution, wars in Yemen, North Africa, the Levant, West Asia, and the Horn of Africa will leave the Arabian Peninsula's sheikdoms in a more vulnerable position.
Significant was the establishment of the first inter-committee organisation among GCC members that did not include all six. The UAE announced the formation of a committee for Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia to cooperate in military, economic, cultural, and political domains. In other words, it is essentially intended to fulfil the GCC’s exact purpose since its 1981 birth.
The committee is to be chaired by the ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and to operate completely separately from the GCC. The National reported that the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, stated that the UAE and Saudi Arabia “have passed beyond the usual diplomatic ties and could be considered as one”.
Given the extent to which Bahraini foreign policy is under Riyadh’s thumb – and to a lesser extent Abu Dhabi’s – it is probably safe to bet that the archipelago nation will join this new partnership as well. Some observers of the region believe that this committee will mark the start of a “new GCC” compromised of the Gulf countries blockading Qatar.
Such realignment within the Arabian Peninsula raises important questions about Kuwaiti and Omani relations with both Qatar and the Saudi/Emirati/Bahraini axis. Both determined to focus on efforts to maintain good relations with all Gulf states – including Iran and Iraq – Kuwait and Oman see the GCC’s potential collapse as extremely unsettling. A breakup of the Council would severely set back both countries’ interests in terms of economic integration and counterterrorism cooperation among other domains.
To be sure, the Kuwaiti and Omani royal families will be eager to maintain their alliances and close relations with the Al Saud royals in Saudi Arabia and with the UAE. Yet, both Gulf states also see the Qatar crisis within the context of Riyadh’s efforts to assert greater dominance within the GCC at the expense of the smaller Gulf states’ sovereignty and independence.
For years, both Kuwait and Oman have opposed the Saudi/Bahraini-backed idea of a Gulf Union. In Kuwait’s case, this has been due to the implications for its relatively democratic and transparent political system which would change under a de facto Saudi-led Union. As for Oman, it is largely because of the likely ramifications for Muscat-Tehran relations, which are important for the Sultanate’s future natural gas interests.
In Saudi-Kuwaiti relations there is some friction over the oil-rich Neutral Zone. Perhaps tension between these two countries will worsen as an outcome of this month’s summit. Officials in Saudi Arabia have also expressed disappointment with Kuwait for not joining the blockade of Qatar six months ago and with Oman for hosting secret talks between American and Iranian officials which led to the watershed nuclear deal.
At a time when regional security crises pose a threat to the six GCC members, the failure of the parties involved in the Qatar crisis to resolve the dispute comes at the expense of all Gulf countries’ vital interests. In a new era of Middle Eastern history in which the GCC is a totally ineffectual institution, wars in Yemen, North Africa, the Levant, West Asia, and the Horn of Africa will leave the Arabian Peninsula’s sheikhdoms in a more vulnerable position.
Next year is set to begin with the six GCC states in a diplomatic deadlock as the Yemeni civil war continues to rage, particularly in the aftermath of the killing of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh at the hands of Iranian-allied Houthi rebels. Will 2018 be a year in which the GCC states experience unexpected and unpleasant surprises due to the damaging impact of the Qatar crisis’on the Council? Or can the Gulf dispute’s involved parties meaningfully capitalise on the Kuwaiti emir’s efforts to broker a settlement? In any event, 2017 will be remembered as the worst year for the concept of Khaleeji identity since the GCC’s establishment 36 years ago.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.