Analysing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis

By Harry Hagopian
June 30, 2017

It is now four weeks since this latest crisis between Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt on the other, erupted on 5 June 2017. In fact, many observers had known for quite some time that there were latent tensions amongst the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which was established in 1981.

One way of cataloguing the divergences within those six countries would be to place Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain in one corner, with Oman and Qatar in another corner, and Kuwait rather awkwardly occupying  the middle ground. This is not a description of their economic links but rather of their political discords that are centred broadly on relations with Iran, the support or enmity toward movements or persons sourcing themselves in some way or other from the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the muzzling of Al-Jazeera satellite TV.

Mind you, the world had witnessed a previous rehearsal of this crisis in March 2014, but it did not reach the stringent level of blockades and sanctions that are – to pick a phrase from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – neither reasonable nor actionable. However, the recent changes in the patrilineal succession structures of Saudi Arabia, the increasing closeness between the Crown Princes of the Kingdom and the UAE, as well as the bling-friendly visit of President Donald J Trump to Riyadh last month, all coalesced to bring this crisis to a head.

So what are some of my salient observations as the world struggles with a new Arab-focused #GCCCrisis?

Many commentators on social media refer to this spat among neighbours with the hashtag #QatarCrisis. But it is not only a crisis affecting – and weakening – Qatar. Rather, it is also one that impacts – and weakens – all Gulf countries. This is why it is more of a #GCCCrisis for me. In fact, it oversteps the Gulf toward North Africa if we consider that Egypt is one of the countries aligning itself with this frontal attack against Qatar. One consequence is that the whole region is split today between those supporting one side or the other (largely as a function of their political interests or financial gains).

The reasons behind this crisis have been repeated ad nauseam and all are relevant. However, I would also suggest that another key factor to this turmoil is the interpretation of those different countries to the mood in the whole Arab World. The Arab Spring of 2010, much of which has almost withered away in a visible sense, was a brutal shock to many Arab leaders – in the MENA and the GCC – who witnessed their absolute and untrammelled powers being challenged by ordinary and oft-disempowered Arab 'citizens' who were merely seeking their moral dignity, economic subsistence and political public participation. Each country, or group of countries, applied its own tools to stymie these popular uprisings in order to restore their absolutist powers and top-down controls. Within the Gulf area, Qatar refused to 'play ball' with some of its neighbours in terms of interests and alliances and is now being punished for what is viewed by the tjree Gulf countries and Egypt as its 'uppity' independent behaviour.

Add to this heady counter-revolutionary mix the fact that the tiny Emirate of Qatar is rich and enjoys the formidable soft power and outreach provided by Al-Jazeera TV and its affiliates. It does not take a genius to figure out that the measures undertaken by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain attempt to crush any independent political impulses or free policy decisions by Qatar. But the measures undertaken against Qatar do not only relate to a fierce question of 'who is stronger' or who can checkmate the other more ably, but rather a question of challenging the sovereignty and independence of a state that should be allowed the freedom to follow what it deems are its own national choices and international interests.

The list of 13 non-negotiable grievances submitted to Qatar via Kuwait (as proto-mediator) last week and the moratorium of 10 days to abide by them are unnecessarily harsh and counter-productive. In any international crisis, mediation works best not when one party seeks to crush the other, but when the initial demands and subsequent negotiations aim for a win-win solution. Those demands do not aim for such a scenario but would emasculate Qatar of its national ethos and pride. They are incapacitating conditions (shourout ta'jiziyyeh in Arabic) that cannot possibly heal the rift between the protagonists.

There are concrete issues that need to be hammered out between the parties. The GCC is viewed as a family where divergences with the pater familias (Saudi Arabia) are not tolerated easily. However, Qatar cannot be subdued with such intimidating ultimatums and a ten-year oversight. What should happen is that the GCC countries would sit together alongside a mutually-accepted mediator to discuss those 13 demands, throw out the puerile ones that are draconian and frankly overdone, and then work on those ones that could enhance regional stability, reform the system of governance and empower the peoples.

Let me be quite clear! When Qatar is accused of harbouring close relations with Iran, I recall that this also applies to other GCC countries such as Kuwait and Oman. Moreover, economic relations between Iran and the UAE are at least as strong as those between Qatar and Iran. In fact, with trade exchanges of some $16 billion, the UAE has been one of Iran’s large trade partners despite legal tussles and bristling words since 1971 over the three Emirati islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb. And when Qatar is accused of being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist and jihadist groups, should one not point out that other countries, whether in the GCC or MENA, have also cooperated inside or outside government with some of those groups?

This is where I revert to a favourite verse from St Matthew’s Gospel, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3). Every GCC country has a history and it is best not to air one’s own dirty laundry in public without the wisdom of ample aforethought.

As Arab intellectuals and seasoned observers have reminded us time and again, the Arab World is alarmingly raddled with disagreements, tensions and subterfuge. But this latest #GCCCrisis, and the subsequent list of grievances, bring two essential and disquieting questions to mind. I wonder whether this tribal spat is solely about those 13 grievances alone, or is it really a precursor for the reconstitution of a new MENA region with a fresh constellation of alliances? There is a sense among many Arabs that new geostrategic realities leading toward key changes are being shoehorned into the whole region. After all, just look at Iraq today with Mosul being recaptured and Iraqi Kurdistan aiming for some form of quasi-independence. Just look also at the way that the Palestinian aspirations have been summarily shunted aside no matter the justifications, or the way that the Syrian regime is gradually being reinstalled along key parts of the country. I do not wish also to point out to the chaos in Libya or Yemen, or the hasty agreements in Lebanon, that together suggest new strategic and demographic realties.

Moreover, there is another disturbing factor in this crisis for me. Are those 13 stringent demands only a negotiating ploy by the quartet of ‘aggrieved’ countries whereby they ramp up the tensions only to negotiate a robust compromise with Qatar? Or should I stray into more unsettling zones? Describing Qatar as a “Trojan horse” within the group of Arab monarchies, Anwar Mohammed Gargash, a senior UAE official, stated that the alternative to an agreement is not escalation but a parting of the ways with Qatar. Do I therefore deduce that those grievances were deliberately pitched at such a high premium so that non-compliance by Qatar would become the only available option for it and therefore lead to its ejection from the GCC?

The #GCCCrisis is a high-stakes conflict with paternalistic overtones that cannot be allowed to rumble for long lest the whole edifice of the GCC unravels and leads to further instability not only for the GCC and MENA leaders but also for our interests in the West. More importantly too, another falling out would invariably affect the ordinary men, women and children in most of those countries who often end up bearing the brunt of oppressive and controlling dictatorships anyway. However, my own experience in the MENA and Gulf regions over many long years suggests that heavy-handedness can produce a boomerang effect and that silencing the messenger does not necessarily silence the message.

The GCC countries are today brimming with huge potential as well as natural resources that go beyond oil and gas fields. Just consider for instance the ‘Saudi Vision 2030’ economic plans, the Qatari ‘2022 FIFA World Cup’, or even the resplendent UAE development plans. Should much of this be imperilled for the sake of power and control by one side or the other?

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson admonished GCC leaders to adopt ‘measured and realistic’ steps that would facilitate a resolution of this recondite crisis. I pray that the GCC rulers and their allies would apply sagacity and sangfroid in resolving this crisis and ensuring that the storm they have created does not jump out of the teacup.

Who knows, Eid El-Fitr this week could perhaps serve as a motivating catalyst too.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a MENA and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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