Will common sense prevail in the Gulf Cooperation Council?

By Harry Hagopian
July 11, 2017

Talk about political maladroitness and a reluctance to read the signs. Indeed, the #GCCCrisis should never have been tackled in this dramatic way in the first place. Instead, it should have been dealt with calmly, sagaciously and discreetly. However, almost six weeks into this conflict, it seems to me that the 13 demands, masked as grievances, that were submitted to Qatar by the quartet have now been transmuted into six overarching principles.

For me, this is encouraging news. It does not translate into victory or defeat by one side or the other, but it underlines a growing pragmatism by the quartet – consisting of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – that they had possibly overreached themselves in imposing stringent and unrealistic demands upon another GCC member-state. So perhaps relinquishing maximalist – read impractical – expectations and adopting a conciliatory tone that encourages dialogue and enhances win-win solutions could be a more auspicious answer to this internecine feud between ‘brothers’.

Moreover, this #GCCCrisis has highlighted anew the deep fault lines between the Arab States and the paralysis of their institutional mechanisms. Arab countries have been divided between those who oppose the sanctions against Qatar, those who want desperately to be neutral in a war between two rich countries, and those who support those measures. Add to that the blackout of the Arab League and one wonders if the Arab leaders could ever agree on a common cause.

As for the European Union or even individual European nations, I would suggest that their otiose political posturing was remarkable. Germany was the only leader country that made clear its opposition to any breach of the sovereignty of Qatar. In fact, the German Foreign Minister showed more initiative that the whole of the EU put together.

Then there was the United States. Despite the political tantrums of the President, it is both the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Secretary of Defence James Mattis who resisted the temptation to break the rules and further endanger the region with ill-considered statements – or in this case with tweets. Mind you, as Robert Malley, Vice-President for Policy, wrote recently, “[Mixed messaging from Washington complicates its efforts to resolve the Qatar crisis because] it’s hard to resolve contradictions among allies if you can’t resolve the contradictions in your midst”.

Much as I have tended to tilt toward the Qatari position due to what I deem to be the unjustified bullying of this tiny emirate by the quartet, I recognise nonetheless that a number of issues in Qatar need study and reform. But as Robert Blecher, Acting Program Director for Middle East and North Africa and Special Adviser on Economics of Conflict, wrote also, “By virtue of their relative size (both geographic and financial), Qatar will always be weaker [than Saudi Arabia]. But not weak enough to make finances and business deals the decisive factor in this contretemps”. However, let me add that any self-examination requested of Qatar should also ineluctably apply mutatis mutandis to the other countries in the region. As one colleague reminded me with nervous clarity, is this not a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

So assuming we are all rational enough to understand that menaces and threats do not make for a peaceful Gulf region and could even boomerang against it, let me share with readers the contours of my roadmap out of the crisis.

The GCC members should earnestly discuss the issue of terrorism, as well as the funding of those groups that some GCC members might deem as terrorist-driven whilst others view them as freedom-fighters. Such an airing of differences is fundamental for the future of the GCC, not least because of the contradictions amongst them. The UAE, for instance, have a rabid hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood whilst Qatar thinks differently.

We must also be clear that the Islamist threat is a deeper concern for the UAE than for Saudi Arabia whose key alarm centres on Iranian hegemony. This is not made any less gung-ho by the endorsement of a new and young Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia whose impetuosity has already led the kingdom into a Yemeni morass.

So it might in my opinion be possible to tweak relations with Iran, not to downgrade them, and to put them on a par with those of Kuwait, the UAE and Oman that enjoy fluid commercial ties with Tehran too. It might also be possible to reach an amicable agreement with Turkey to downgrade their military base. However, what remains unacceptable is the demand to shutter Al-Jazeera. One could possibly revisit its editorial policy, concomitant with a revision of the editorial policies of Sky News Arabia and Al-Arabiya in the UAE. One tangible outcome would be to avoid mutual attacks and recriminations.

But the GCC leaders cannot pull this off on their own. What would be helpful is a mediator who enjoys enough clout with all sides. This is why I would suggest that the USA – though not its President – remains the only power who could act both as mediator and facilitator of this process and become the guarantor of its continuity and enforcement. No other country or group – Arab or European – would fulfil this role. Moreover, this will go hand-in-hand with the setting up of a mechanism for the alternative resolution of disputes that would address any future storms in teacups without resort to non-negotiable and legally dubious measures.

Could this inchoate framework work in real terms? Whether it does or not depends not only on wily negotiations and astute compromises but more so on the willingness of all six GCC countries to salvage their Council and not jeopardise their future for the sake of personal gains or regional dividends. If one is to believe that the GCC is one house for all, then its inhabitants should behave as residents of the one house too.

Like those desert storms that blow in forcefully as well as unexpectedly and then disappear almost as suddenly, I trust that the next few weeks will witness a calming down of this storm. Common sense must prevail soon.

* See the earlier article, 'Analysing the GCC crisis' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/24115), 30 June 2017.

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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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