Is the GCC dead?

After the December 9 summit in Riyadh, it became clear that the GCC has lost its raison d’etre.

The Gulf Cooperation Council''s (GCC) Leaders are seen ahead of their Summit meeting in Riyadh
The 2018 GCC summit was held in Riyadh on December 9 [Reuters]

For the second time since the beginning of the Qatar blockade, 18 months ago, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit failed to bring together the leaders of the six member states to address the most serious crisis in its three-decade history.

Last year, the emir of Qatar was the only head of state, besides the host, to attend the GCC summit in Kuwait. In response, this week Qatar sent a low-level delegation to the Riyadh summit. It was yet another clear indication that the Gulf crisis is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Over the past 18 months, it has become increasingly clear that GCC members have developed diverging interests, foreign policy options, and threat perceptions, which have seriously undermined the organisation’s raison d’etre.

Threat perception

In 1981, Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the late ruler and brother of the current emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, suggested the establishment of a collective security organisation in the Gulf to ward off the threat Iran posed to the region. Just two years earlier, the conservative pro-west regime of the Iranian shah had been toppled in Tehran and a revolutionary regime had been established.

The new Iranian government had demonstrated its intention to export its Islamic revolution to the region, calling for the overthrow of Arab governments and inciting uprisings among the local Shia communities. The threat from revolutionary Iran had overshadowed that from secular, pro-Soviet Iraq, which had been supporting leftist movements in the Gulf for decades.

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Iraq saw a threat in the Iranian revolution as well and decided to act preemptively. Taking advantage of the political chaos in Tehran following the fall of the shah, it attacked in September 1980. With its invasion, Iraq sought to nullify the provisions of the 1975 Algiers agreement, by which it was forced to cede the strategically important Shatt al-Arab waterway to Iran.

Understandably, the Gulf states sided with Baghdad, pouring billions of dollars in cash into its economy in support of the war effort, which Tehran interpreted as an act of hostility. In response, it unleashed a series of destabilising acts against Gulf states, and particularly Kuwait, attacking Kuwaiti-bound ships to punish the state for its overt support for Iraq. To create a united front against the Iranian threat, the Gulf leaders met in Riyadh in May 1981 and announced the creation of the GCC.

In the following three decades, despite several internal disputes among the member states – some involving military skirmishes, such as the 1986 clash between Qatar and Bahrain and the 1992 Saudi attack on a Qatari border post – the biggest threat for the six GCC countries remained an external one: Iran (and to a certain extent Iraq, especially after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait).

This seems to have changed now. The revelation by the emir of Kuwait that his diplomatic efforts prevented military action against Qatar in the summer of 2017 sent shock waves across the GCC. Although there was a Saudi-backed coup plot against the Qatari leadership in 1996, this was indeed the first time that a full military invasion seemed to have been contemplated by members of the GCC against another member and in a coalition with a non-member state (Egypt).

Qatar’s break with the status quo

Collective security regimes and regional alliances are either about a set of shared values or about common interests and objectives. The dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE has revealed that the two sides have neither at this point; in fact, they have significantly diverging visions for the future of the region.

Since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani took power in Qatar in 1995, the country has sought a more independent foreign policy vis-a-vis its big sister, Saudi Arabia, and has tried to challenge the Saudi-favoured status quo.

To realise these two objectives, Qatar’s regional role was fundamentally transformed and a more dynamic and flexible foreign policy approach was embraced, allowing Doha to balance relations between its two big neighbours – Saudi Arabia and Iran – while maintaining close relations with the United States.

It was able to do this by hosting the largest US military base outside US territories at Al Udeid, while simultaneously establishing strong ties with some of US’ rivals, including Iran.

Qatar also pursued a more prominent role in the greater Arab world. In 1996, Al Jazeera was established, offering a unique media perspective, covering topics other news channels shied away from and hosting Arab intellectuals and political activists with a variety of political convictions. The channel quickly became the trend-setter in Arab society, swaying the public opinion and sparking major political debates.

Although not a democracy in itself, Qatar appeared to be championing human rights and freedom of expression and defending the cause of democracy across the Arab world. This set of liberal political values went against the very logic of the GCC, a club of rich, conservative and non-democratic countries. No wonder that other GCC countries, and Saudi Arabia in particular, viewed the growing influence of Al Jazeera with concern.

When the 2011 Arab revolutions broke out, Al Jazeera was absurdly blamed for orchestrating them. Peaceful protests by young Arabs won admiration worldwide, leading western governments, particularly the US, to consider abandoning traditional allies, such as President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the toppling of the Egyptian regime was a strategic loss. They viewed the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the biggest Arab country as a major security threat. In fact, the election of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt constituted a strategic shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. The three major regional powers in the Middle East (Turkey, Iran and Egypt) were now being ruled by unfriendly Islamic or Islamically-oriented governments.

With Yemen already in turmoil, Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt surrounded on all sides. Qatar seemed to have truly succeeded in challenging the status quo in the region and in engineering a new Middle East security architecture. A reversal of fortunes was quick to follow, however.

Unfinished business

In 2013, the revolutionary momentum began to fade across the Middle East. Egypt’s Islamists could not manage the transition to democracy and the army also could not resist the temptation to seize power. Backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, counter-revolution forces charged forward against Morsi’s government and ushered in the July 3 coup.

The events of that summer finally exposed the rift between the GCC countries. In the spring of 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, in a marked escalation against Qatar, which lasted nine months.

But lack of support from the Obama administration prevented Saudi Arabia and the UAE from taking further measures against Qatar. Then in November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw an opportunity.

The Trump administration enabled the alliance between the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi and then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to finish some unfinished business with Doha. The siege imposed on Qatar on June 5, 2017, hammered another nail into the coffin of the GCC.

Eighteen months into the crisis, the GCC – once described as the most successful collective security organisation in the Middle East – seems to have lost its raison d’etre. With no shared values, no collective interest, and no perceived common threat, there seems to be very little reason for the block to continue to exist.

Yet, nobody seems willing to pronounce it dead either. Qatar is still eager to keep its membership despite the blockade. The resurrection of the GCC would require grand statesmanship and wisdom, especially in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, but for now, there is no sign that there is political will to pursue that course of action.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.