As the Gulf’s pre-eminent political, military and economic powers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have reached a strategic alignment that is transforming regional politics. Emile Hokayem examines what their ambitions could mean for the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Gulf Cooperation Council leaders meeting 2017. Credit: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security

The annual summits of the Gulf Cooperation Council are usually quaint affairs, where pledges of Gulf brotherhood and solidarity mask the complexity of political, security and economic integration.

Things were quite different this year. Inter-Gulf tensions were on full display at yesterday’s summit in Kuwait, as the crisis pitting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (joined by Egypt) against Qatar since June 2017 continues to rattle Gulf politics.

The boycott of Qatar by its closest neighbours follows years of rivalry and mistrust. Qatar’s regional ventures and sense that political Islamism was the Arab world’s future clashed with the conservative preferences and interests of its Gulf adversaries. The boycotting quartet imposed tough political and economic sanctions on Qatar, and issued a list of demands to be met before any accommodation could be reached.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia can’t claim victory against Qatar – which has so far shown resilience and cohesion – but at the moment, this is a case of ‘good enough’ for them. Qatar has had to curtail its regional activities and focus on weathering the storm, a foremost and costly priority for its policymakers. For the quartet, both the cost and importance of the crisis are diminishing. And while regional and international powers have been displeased with a dispute they see as unnecessary, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are too important to shun.

The origins of this dispute relate as much to Qatar’s assertive regional policies and theatrics as to the ambitions of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Indeed, the Gulf’s pre-eminent political, military and economic powers have reached a strategic alignment that is transforming regional politics.

Kuwait, which served as the host of the summit and is the main mediator in the dispute, has a strong interest in preserving the GCC as the foremost regional organisation, in part to fend off regional threats but also to manage Gulf rivalries. The emir of Kuwait insisted on holding the summit despite negative vibes from Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama. The three governments sent representatives out of respect for the host country but at a significantly lower level of seniority than in previous years as a reminder of their discontent. The proceedings themselves ended after a mere 15 minutes, when it became clear that the attending Qatari emir would offer no concessions.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia insist that he must. They argue that the GCC has underperformed at most levels, has allowed Qatar to pursue inimical policies at no cost and has failed to counter Iran. Their security and prosperity, they reason, are best served through new, more effective regional arrangements.

The institutional shape of this alliance is still unclear: the two countries have cooperated militarily in Yemen and the UAE has pointedly elevated the profile of a joint committee. Both countries have partners and instruments to project power, but turning these into more formal arrangements will be a massive challenge, as Saudi Arabia has realised with the difficulty of putting together and operationalising the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition.

The demise of the GCC is now a distinct possibility. If it happens, it won’t be a formal death, but a slow slide into irrelevance.

This article is part of a series of posts providing analysis and commentary from IISS experts throughout the IISS Manama Dialogue, to be held in Bahrain on 8–10 December 2017. 

For full coverage of the proceedings visit the IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 website. For a flavour of the debate on social media, check out #IISSMD17.

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