The annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit that took place January 5 in the Saudi heritage site of al-Ula marked a major breakthrough in efforts to resolve the protracted Gulf crisis that dominated the four years of the Trump era in the region.
For Qatar, the al-Ula summit (also called the “Sultan Qaboos bin Said and Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah summit”) was a major success given that the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt was lifted without Doha making anything like the concessions originally demanded of it in June 2017. Kuwait and Oman have also emerged as winners as these two “neutral” GCC states saw the Gulf dispute as undermining regional peace, stability, and prospects for greater economic integration in the Gulf.
While the “solidarity and stability” accord signed at al-Ula papers over the deepest rift in the Gulf in decades, it remains unclear whether the specific agreement to lift the blockade, which has not yet been made public, addresses the root causes that triggered the dispute in 2017. Tensions between GCC members may therefore continue, albeit in a less confrontational manner. At the same time, the summit marks an important step toward a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement even if the future of Doha’s relations with Bahrain and the UAE remain somewhat unclear.
The new leaderships in Kuwait and Oman, both of which came to power in 2020, believe in the need for an effective GCC to enhance cooperation and coordination among its six member-states. This is more important than ever in the age of SARS-Cov-2, which poses a common challenge to regional economies irrespective of geopolitical boundaries and which will likely require renewed cross-border cooperation as policy attention shifts toward the eventual post-pandemic recovery.
Kuwait, which championed Gulf and Arab unity, used its standing in the region to bring the blockading states and Qatar to a resolution. Its mediation efforts began at the outset of the crisis in 2017. With strong support from Oman, the Kuwaiti leadership never gave up hope that a diplomatic resolution might be found, even during times when the differences seemed unbridgeable. Although the Trump administration sought to claim significant credit for resolving the crisis in its shuttle diplomacy in late 2020, Kuwaiti mediation efforts no doubt played the critical role in achieving the breakthrough in al-Ula.
The two most important figures behind the blockade of Qatar — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and his Abu Dhabi counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) — worked closely after 2015 to direct their countries’ foreign policy agendas in directions that deeply unsettled the Kuwaitis and Omanis, as well as the Qataris themselves. Yet over the past year, the Saudi leadership has become wary of Abu Dhabi as an ally, and the two powers diverged on numerous regional issues, from the Arab Peace Initiative and normalization with Israel, to Yemen’s territorial integrity, to recognition of the Syrian government’s legitimacy. The two crown princes are thought to have not spoken for months, in contrast to their close alliance in the military intervention in Yemen in 2015, as well as the blockade against Qatar two years later.
Post-al-Ula, Saudi Arabia may well pursue policies on the international stage that are designed to create greater consensus and unity among important Sunni Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia, and Turkey, all of which have been at odds with the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis in recent years. Officials in Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar would welcome Riyadh embarking on such a new course that is less deferential to Abu Dhabi and based increasingly on consensus in place of confrontation.
But such a shift in Riyadh’s international orientation is not inevitable, and many unknowns loom on the horizon. There are concerns about what will happen to Saudi foreign policy after the eventual succession to King Salman, which will likely take place during the tenure of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who has been sharply critical of MbS and Saudi’s recent behavior. The al-Ula summit appeared to be carefully choreographed to help rehabilitate MbS’s image as a statesman, as opposed to the ruthless authoritarian responsible for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Yet his new image begs the question about how MbS might alter Riyadh’s foreign policy should he succeed his father as king. “Could the GCC agreement be King Salman’s way of making his son look statesmanlike, then he can abdicate in peace?” asked the Arab Center’s Imad Harb on Twitter: “Concern is what to do about UAE designs once he departs.”
While welcoming the outcome of the summit, Kuwaiti and Omani optimism for the GCC’s future should be tempered by the fact that a new Gulf crisis could always erupt in the future. Questions remain about the vaguely worded al-Ula communique, including about commitments, if any, Qatar made at the summit beyond agreeing to drop lawsuits against the anti-Qatar quartet.
As of now, it is not clear what will distinguish the al-Ula communique from the 2014 Riyadh Agreement, which ended an earlier diplomatic standoff with similarly invoked concepts of solidarity among the GCC states but failed to establish protocols and safeguards to verify compliance among its signatories. Without mechanisms to deal with future problems between GCC members, there are reasons to worry that the sort of power play that occurred in 2017 could recur.
The al-Ula summit may have ended the blockade, which was a symptom of the Gulf dispute but not necessarily its root cause, even if there is less scope in 2021 for the type of regional power play MbZ and MbS tried to pull off in 2017. If the factors behind the split — such as Qatar’s relatively liberal media landscape, closeness to Turkey, pragmatic relations with Iran, and willingness to work with various Islamist groups across the region — are unaddressed, it is possible that the parties to the dispute may continue to view each other with varying degrees of wary suspicion.
Nonetheless, from the Kuwaiti and Omani perspective, this GCC summit marks a step in the right direction. Officials in Kuwait City and Muscat have sensed a genuine desire in Saudi Arabia for a functional GCC at a time of much regional turmoil and uncertainty about Washington’s future Middle East policy. If MbS can demonstrate a capacity for regional engagement that has not been evident until now, last week’s summit could go far in repairing fractured ties.