Gulf Cooperation Council members meeting

The New GCC: Divided and fallen

In recent months, the Arabian Peninsula has witnessed a significant breakdown in already-strained Gulf Cooperation Council relations. Despite Qatari envoys meeting with GCC counterparts for the first time since the blockade began in June, it now looks as if the crisis will continue for the foreseeable future with the Council unable to effectively mediate. The war in Yemen also continues to lack signs of meaningful progress, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia signalling the creation of a new alliance external to the once close-knit regional bloc, potentially due to frustrations surrounding the GCC’s posture on the campaign. 

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

In recent days several major developments have taken place across the Arabian Peninsula, where the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit has been convened between the Council’s six member states in Kuwait City, and promptly closed. In the run up to the Summit, questions emerged as to whether the meetings would even go ahead as some members, notably Bahrain, increased their anti-Qatari rhetoric and threatened to boycott the summit should Doha continue its controversial foreign policy course. On December 5th, the summit closed a day early amid turbulence after a likely fruitless closed session between the delegates.

Kuwait has publicly insisted that it will continue to mediate the ongoing Qatar-Saudi split that has paralysed the GCC, however at this stage the crisis appears to be more entrenched than ever. Despite genuienly laudable efforts by the Kuwaiti administration, the lack of the region’s historical deal-broker, Sultan Qaboos of Oman, has left the Council facing its most severe internal conflict with only inexperienced mediators available. This crisis, coupled with wider regional instability in the face of a resurgent Iran and a stalled war in Yemen, is threatening the viability of the once-successful GCC as Saudi Arabia pushes member states to further alienate Qatar.

Ongoing uncertainty over the future of the GCC is likely to persist, and regional tensions are expected to remain elevated for the foreseeable future. Where previously the bloc had pushed for extensively integrated customs, currency and central banking unions, it now represents polarised foreign policy strategies and general internal division. In a move that may signal the beginning of the end for the bloc, United Arab Emirates announced on December 5th the creation of a new military and trade alliance with Saudi Arabia, separate from the GCC. While Riyadh has yet to confirm this announcement, it is a likely indicator of Abu Dhabi’s declining faith in the GCC and a possible attempt to start fresh, without often troublesome and unaligned Qatari involvement.

Future GCC meetings may now be little more than symbolic in nature, as divisions between member states deepen further and prevent meaningful reform.

The UAE’s announcement came on the morning of the summit’s commencement, where Qatari envoys met with their Saudi-coalition opposite numbers for the first time since the air, land and sea blockade of Qatar began in June. The GCC has experienced major turmoil following the blockade imposed by Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Driven by a necessity to secure other import sources, Qatar has turned to Turkey and Iran in a move which many fear has pushed the tiny peninsula nation into the Iranian geopolitical orbit rivaling Riyadh in a quest for dominance of the Gulf region.

The new Saudi-UAE alliance is likely also linked to the war effort in Yemen, as the coalition states seek to advance their strategic goals without GCC restrictions or input. Tensions in the campaign theatre are elevated following the death of former president Ali Abduallah Saleh on December 4th. The Saudi-led coalition’s push to counter Iranian-backed Houthi expansion in the region has resulted in a tactical quagmire and devastating humanitarian crisis. Most worryingly for the coalition, what was intended to be a low-tech counterinsurgency action at arms length from the Kingdom has developed to a stage where Houthi forces are sporadically firing long-range missiles into the heart of Saudi territory, and now claim (questionably, given the extreme ranges involved) to be targeting nuclear power construction facilities in the UAE.

The announcement of this trade and military alliance likely signifies a weakening of the GCC bloc as a cohesive foreign policy alliance. Although the agenda of the Kuwait City summit has remained private, it is likely that the Yemen conflict dominated the discussion, leaving little space for identifying a solution to the Qatar crisis. Future GCC meetings may now be little more than symbolic in nature, as divisions between member states deepen further and prevent meaningful reform. It is also likely that upcoming OPEC summit set for June 2018 will suffer from the fallout of an increasingly divided Gulf bloc, potentially impacting economic reform and oil prices globally.

Although Qatar was able to meet with the blockading countries at the summit, it is unlikely that the situation will be resolved in the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have continued to sound robustly anti-Qatar rhetoric, blaming Doha and Iran for the current state of instability in the region. The new alliance itself has also caused tension within more closely aligned states, with Kuwait having already expressed its opposition to the development. Overall, a separate Saudi-UAE alliance demonstrates the significant weakening of the once close-knit GCC fraternity.

Suggested reading list on this topic:

Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.