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Is there a future for the GCC?

The Gulf Cooperation Council’s establishment in 1981 occurred when the six member-states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — saw a need for an effective collective security institution. To varying extents, these Arab sheikdoms all saw the nascent revolutionary Iranian regime as a danger. They worried about how spillover of the Iran-Iraq War could threaten their vital security interests. At that time there was much logic behind the idea of these Western-partnered monarchies coming together within framework of the GCC.

Nearly four decades later, however, there is every reason to challenge the assumption that the GCC in its current form is a necessary or even relevant organization. The “GCC seems to have lost the very foundations of its existence,” Dr. Marwan Kabalan, Director of Policy Analysis, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, recently argued. “With no shared values or common interests and without agreement on threat perceptions, there seems to be very little impetus left for the block to remain.”

The blockade of Qatar, which began three years ago, has exposed the GCC as an entirely dormant institution. Considering that three member-states linked up with Egypt (a non-GCC country) to impose a siege on Qatar, which was a founding GCC member, it is entirely evident that the institution lacks any teeth. Moreover, this was the second time in three years that the GCC has been unable to prevent three of its member states from turning on a fourth, after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha for nine months in 2014. Although the GCC has a dispute settlement mechanism, at no point in 2017 was it activated, whether to express political grievances with Qatar or as a channel of mediation to settle those differences.

Although denied by officials in Doha, reports and rumors have surfaced that Qatar is considering exiting the GCC. Purportedly, Kuwaiti diplomats have been urging Qatar to not leave the council. Regardless of the veracity of these claims, there is still an important question to consider: If Qatar cannot count on the GCC to serve its purpose, which is to protect each member-state from threats, what incentives do officials in Doha have for keeping their country in this organization? It is legitimate to ask if, from a Qatari perspective, the benefits of remaining a member outweigh all the costs.

From a security standpoint, Qatar’s most important partners and allies are not in the GCC: the U.S. and Turkey. In terms of trade/economics, China, India, Iran, and Japan are far more important partners for Qatar than the three GCC states that cut ties with Doha in mid-2017. Thus, it would not be too surprising if Qatar leaves the GCC in the not so distant future. Just as Qatar decided in 2018 to leave OPEC, which was partially due to Doha’s desire to free itself from transnational institutions that are under de facto Saudi leadership, Qatar exiting the GCC could be understood within the same context.

The GCC crisis of 2017 came out of nowhere from Doha’s perspective. In fact, Saudi leadership was quite cordial to Qatar between the resolution of the GCC spat of 2014 and the ongoing blockade that began in mid-2017. King Salman’s visit to Doha in late 2016 underscored how much progress Saudi Arabia and Qatar had made in their bilateral relations, at least judging from the surface, and explain why so many Qataris were taken by surprise when Saudi Arabia began its hostile campaign against Doha.

It is difficult to imagine Qatar ever trusting Riyadh again as an ally or partner in the region. Given that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom all expect will become the next King of Saudi Arabia, is only in his mid-30s, Doha can expect him to become a ruler who stays on the throne for many decades to come. With MbS ruling Saudi Arabia for possibly another 50 years, could Qatar ever consider realigning with his country?

In a hypothetical situation in which Qatar exits the GCC, where would Kuwait and Oman find themselves? Would it be more likely for these two Gulf states to join Qatar in leaving the institution, or would they stay in a GCC that would only have five member-states? The Kuwaiti and Omani governments and societies have observed the past three years of the GCC crisis and wondered what the Arabian Peninsula’s new geopolitical order means for their countries. Whether either Kuwait or Oman will receive the “Qatar treatment” from the Saudi-Emirati axis is a question on the minds of many in Kuwait City and Muscat.

Kuwait has its own institutions that are far more democratic than those of the other five GCC states. Consequently, the Saudis and Emiratis have long been frustrated with Kuwait’s political system. While the Al Sabah rulers have gone to pains to maintain Kuwaiti neutrality in the GCC crisis, some Kuwaitis have voiced pro-Qatar positions that infuriate authorities in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi who would like to see the Kuwaiti government silence these citizens.

At the same time, Kuwait has a healthy and cordial relationship with Turkey and in some ways with Iran too. Also, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s tacit partnership with Israel are becoming increasingly difficult to deny, Kuwait remains committed to opposing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. If there is a future in which Qatar is no longer in the GCC, there have to be concerns in Kuwait City about more Saudi/Emirati pressure coming down on Kuwait to embrace more of the core tenets of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s current policy agendas across the Middle East.

From Oman’s perspective, the blockade of Qatar has damaged the GCC’s political, social, diplomatic, and economic fabric in ways that are extremely unfavorable. Despite some commentators implying otherwise, Oman has always favored a strong GCC. Yet the Omani vision for the GCC has differed significantly from those espoused by the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Officials in Muscat have long believed that individual member-states of the council need to be free to make many foreign policy decisions on their own, as sovereign states, while also working together to achieve greater economic integration among the six monarchies. There has long been a concern among Omanis that Saudi Arabia seeks to assert itself as a hegemonic power in the Arabian Peninsula that does not always respect the sovereignty of the GCC’s smaller countries.

As Oman has sought to maintain its good relations with Qatar, pragmatic ties with Iran, and a neutral position in Yemen’s civil war, Muscat has been concerned about the Saudi and Emirati leaders pressuring the Sultanate in an effort to push Oman into closer alignment with the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis. Similar to Kuwait, Oman has concerns about being the target of a coordinated campaign waged by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Years ago Saudi Arabia reportedly began attempting to convince the Trump administration that Oman has grown too close to Tehran and that U.S. pressure should be put on Muscat in order to distance Oman from its Persian neighbor while bringing it closer to the Saudi/Emirati fold. According to one Omani scholar, Dr. Abdullah Baabood, the plan Saudi Arabia and the UAE have for Oman and Kuwait “goes way far beyond what they did for Qatar and it is much more sinister, reckless and dangerous.”

Ultimately, there are no easy solutions to the GCC crisis. If any of the GCC states leave the organization, there will still be tension between the different Arab Gulf regimes as well as their populations that have become increasingly nationalistic in recent years. The fundamental issues that have fueled this three-year-old feud will not disappear by virtue of Qatar — or even Kuwait and/or Oman — exiting the GCC.

Doha’s perception of the Saudi/Emirati axis posing a threat, as well Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s view of Qatar as a menace, will not change regardless of how the GCC evolves — or perhaps disintegrates — as an organization in the upcoming future. Nonetheless, Qatar, or any member-state, leaving the sub-regional institution would be extremely symbolic and illustrative of the fact that Arab Gulf unity is merely a concept on paper that no longer exists in practice.

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