Three years have passed since the Gulf crisis erupted. In this current era, in which the Gulf Cooperation Council is essentially a toothless intergovernmental union, the complex relationships between Arab Gulf states and their multifaceted internal rivalries have undergone drastic changes. Over the past 36 months, such transformations in the Gulf’s geopolitical landscape seem to have somewhat institutionalized. As we look at the future of the Gulf region, there is basically no reason to believe that the relations between Qatar and the blockading states can be restored to what they were prior to mid-2017.
Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, hopes that the dangers of this disease could bring the six GCC members together have proven to be misplaced. At a time in which the blockading states are using the pandemic as a reason to open more doors to Syria’s Ba’athist regime, Israel, and even Iran, there is no indication that they are considering easing their stances against Qatar, their fellow GCC member-state and erstwhile ally.
As the GCC’s Secretary-General Nayef Al Hajraf recently explained, the combination of COVID-19 and the prolonged blockade of Qatar represent “unprecedented” challenges for the council. In reference to the virus, he said: “This matter makes it imperative for all of us as the GCC system to enhance joint action and collective preparedness to deal with the post-coronavirus world with its economic, health, security, and labor dimensions in order to protect our people and preserve their gains.”
On top of the GCC remaining broken, concerns about tensions between different Arab Gulf states escalating are justified, despite all the Kuwaiti and Omani efforts to help resolve the Gulf crisis. The fake news campaign this month, in which stories circulated about a supposed coup d’état attempt in Qatar, underscored how far away the blockading states are from easing their friction with Doha. This is the case despite much speculation last year about the GCC summit held in Saudi Arabia leading to a widening rapprochement, or at least a détente, between the Riyadh and Doha.
Although the blockading Gulf states and Qatar are under pressure from Washington to re-unite under the banner of GCC unity, American efforts to resolve this Arabian feud have proven utterly futile. The U.S. administration has been unable to bring the key GCC leaders to any common ground. Perhaps the main reason pertains to the zero-sum nature of this crisis that the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi imposed as well as the high level of personal enmity that shapes these two leaders’ relations with Qatar’s Al Thani royal family.
Despite the dim prospects for any settlement of the GCC feud, it is a safe bet that the U.S. will continue trying to bring both sides to a resolution. As General Anthony Zinni recently stated, “internal regional cooperation” in the Gulf is essential from the standpoint of America’s security interests. General Zinni explained that not only the Qatar crisis but also tensions in U.S.-Egypt relations stemming from the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011 have undermined the potential for Washington and its Arab allies to formalize a security arrangement and defense structure in the Middle East.
It is important to note that the GCC’s Qatar rift is not the only issue between Arab Gulf states which has recently worsened. Saudi Arabia and Oman have tensions in their relations, underscored by the sensitive situation in Yemen’s easternmost al-Mahra province, where the Saudi military presence has grown. More recently, in late May 2020 the Kingdom waged information warfare against Oman, accusing Muscat’s chief diplomat Yusuf bin Alawi of having a phone conversation with the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi about plans to carve up Saudi Arabia in coordinated protests. Allegedly, these plans were made in tandem with Qatar and Jordan.
That the Saudis launched this information attack against Oman nearly three years after the Qatar News Agency hack of May 2017, which triggered the Gulf crisis, is perhaps too much to be a coincidence. Targeting Oman’s top diplomat, and doing so at this particular time, is extremely suspicious. In a tweet, the Gulf scholar Kristian Coates Ulrichsen raised the following question: “Who in the Gulf might want to put pressure on Oman, and seek to take down Yusuf bin Alawi, just at the moment when he and Oman were again becoming increasingly central to regional diplomacy?”
Below the surface it appears clear that Oman’s new leader is under pressure from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to toe the Emirati and Saudi lines vis-à-vis Qatar, Yemen, and Iran. Given the Sultanate’s own economic weaknesses, it appears to be a safe bet that Oman’s wealthier neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula are seeking to coerce and compel Sultan Haitham into aligning more closely with the Saudis and Emiratis against Doha. Notable is that Alawi has been playing a critical role in terms of regional diplomacy and Omani efforts to help various Gulf states bridge their gaps in order to reach new understandings. The Saudis accusing Alawi, who had just met the Qatari ambassador to Oman, of conspiring against their country is highly problematic for Omani efforts to promote diplomatic solutions to the Gulf crisis and frictions in GCC-Iran relations.
At this point it is too early to tell whether Saudi Arabia and Oman are on the verge of a major crisis in their relationship that will follow the trajectory of Riyadh and Doha’s schism. Nonetheless, it is extremely probable that the GCC’s Qatar rift is here to stay, at least assuming that the leaders in Doha, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi maintain their power. Three years into this Arabian feud, experts agree that the decision to blockade Qatar led to severe damage to the GCC as a sub-regional institution that cannot be mended, at least not anytime in the foreseeable future.
Even if a treaty is signed that restores relations between Doha and the blockading states, the root causes of this feud cannot be eliminated with the stroke of a pen. As Qatar defied the Saudi-imposed order in the Gulf and engaged with anti-status quo actors across the region from Hamas to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in ways that made officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi livid, the blockade was an effort by the Saudis and Emiratis to rein in the Qataris. Three years after stabbing a fellow GCC member in the back, the blockading states in the Gulf have to realize how their actions merely emboldened Qatar to be more aggressive in its pursuit of an independent foreign policy and its defense of its national sovereignty. In this sense, the siege of Doha just made Qatar more autonomous, which is exactly the opposite outcome of what the blockading powers sought when they cut off their relations with their fellow GCC member-state in June 2017.
Clearly, there is no functional GCC anymore. No longer do the Arab Gulf states have the means to collectively protect themselves from external threats. At a time in which COVID-19 is ravaging countries worldwide, U.S.-Iran brinkmanship remains intense, and nightmarish wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen rage on, members of the GCC are forced to make unilateral and bilateral plans for countering existing threats. The possibility of the sub-regional institution ever returning to what it was prior to mid-2017 is extremely small. As the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula prepare for a future in the post-coronavirus era, it will perhaps be worth asking if a new institution could be created to achieve what the GCC was supposed to do.