Gulf Roundtable: The Fight in the GCC
The longer the current spat within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) continues, the more the GCC’s carefully constructed image as a bright spot of stability in a volatile region is at risk, argued Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen. While there are signs that Gulf rulers at the center of the dispute recognize the need to eventually find a new modus vivendi, the fissures cast into relief by the crisis make a return to the status quo ante unlikely. While formal measures by parties to the crisis stand at an impasse, Ulrichsen warned that the parties’ ongoing informal measures to discredit and undercut each other may do lasting damage. Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, spoke at a CSIS Middle East Program Gulf Roundtable titled “The Fight in the GCC” on October 26, 2017.
GCC states have always had disputes and differences on policy, but they projected a united front on key issues, including a pro-Western political and security orientation.
Since the foundation of the GCC 36 years ago, member states have strived to establish themselves as safe and stable locations in which to conduct business. GCC states have always had disputes and differences on policy, but they projected a united front on key issues, including a pro-Western political and security orientation. That trait turned Gulf nations into highly valued regional partners for the United States. When the crisis kicked off this June, however, it exposed the cracks in this facade that had been deepening over the past two decades. The cracks were aggravated by regional turmoil post-2011, and they never fully mended after a 2014 intra-GCC dispute over Qatar’s regional policy.
The present crisis speaks to a number of important points of divergence within the grouping. One is the balance between Saudi Arabia and smaller GCC states. The size and financial resources of Saudi Arabia relative to other GCC members has helped shape an association that predominantly reflects Saudi policy orientations. This has at times constrained the independent policy leanings of some of the organization’s smaller members—most dramatically Qatar, but also to some extent Oman and Kuwait. Given that the primary catalyst for the current crisis was Qatar’s deviation from the Saudi-Emirati consensus, Ulrichsen argued that a likely outcome of the crisis may be greater wariness by Kuwait and Oman of being “shoehorned into a geopolitical straightjacket” or compelled to hew more closely to the Saudi-led positions on regional issues, including relations with Iran.
The risks of the more assertive foreign policy on display in Yemen as well as in the intra-GCC dispute are increased because there seems to have been relatively little contingency planning for the complications that have arisen.
The crisis has also exposed emerging differences between older and younger generations of GCC leaders. At the center of this spat are Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim, who was less than a year old when the GCC was formed, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who was born about five years later. Efforts at mediation are being led locally by an older generation, including some of the GCC’s founding fathers. These include Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait and Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who are 88 and 76 years old, respectively. Ulrichsen argued that the Gulf crisis reveals diminished risk-aversion among the rising generation of Gulf leaders, having “jettisoned a lot of the caution and consensus” that characterized the regional policymaking of their predecessors. A willingness to take risks may carry benefits in crucial areas, Ulrichsen acknowledged, for example in realizing the kind of structural reforms needed to diversify Gulf economies. However, Ulrichsen argued, the risks of the more assertive foreign policy on display in Yemen as well as in the intra-GCC dispute are increased because there seems to have been relatively little contingency planning for the complications that have arisen.
Uncertain prospects for external mediation complicate resolution, Ulrichsen said. For example, contradictory statements from various parts of the U.S. government have cast doubt over the reliability of the United States as a mediator, and the United Kingdom—the only other outside power with a history of engagement in the region—is preoccupied with the process of exiting the European Union. Ulrichsen suggested that, should U.S. efforts at mediation fail to gain traction, the most effective course may be supporting mediation efforts by Kuwait, the most credible regional actor.
One way to accelerate the return of relative balance in the Gulf, Ulrichsen proposed, could be for Qatar to offer a palliative measure to exhibit its willingness to recognize some of the Quartet’s grievances.
There are incentives for Gulf leaders to repair ties. Over the past 36 years, the GCC has facilitated the commercial intermixing and general interconnectivity of the region. Overarching common interests, such as the preservation of the tradition of conservative Gulf monarchies, still unite the GCC’s ruling houses. Ulrichsen suggested that one sign indicating that leaders recognize the need to find a means of working together again after the crisis is the fact that ruling families have largely refrained from personal involvement in exchanges of recriminations, relying instead on non-royal technocrats and surrogates. One way to accelerate the return of relative balance in the Gulf, Ulrichsen proposed, could be for Qatar to offer a palliative measure to exhibit its willingness to recognize some of the Quartet’s grievances. One such measure could be the relocation of Al Jazeera headquarters to London, Ulrichsen suggested. This is an area in which Qatar has previously shown a willingness to compromise. For example, as part of the resolution to the 2014 crisis, Qatar shut down Al Jazeera’s Egyptian channel, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr.
The longer the split endures formally or in practice, the greater the impact will be on the social and economic bonds that tie together the populations of an increasingly intermixed Gulf.
However, it is very difficult to imagine a GCC that returns to its previous form. While the trajectory of formal dispute mechanisms remains unclear, the continued pursuit of informal measures—including public relations and information campaigns aimed at discrediting the other side—threaten to leave lasting damage. For one, the harsh rhetoric back and forth provides fodder for opponents of all Gulf Arab states to besmirch their reputations. Further, the regional fissures could also threaten the unified pro-Western political and security policy that has connected the Gulf Arab states over the last century. Ulrichsen cited the growing ties of Turkey, Iran, and Russia with individual Gulf states, and the seeming disinterest of the United States, as a sign of potential drift. Damage will be done on the societal level as well. The longer the split endures formally or in practice, the greater the impact will be on the social and economic bonds that tie together the populations of an increasingly intermixed Gulf. It is on the level of fundamental trust, Ulrichsen concluded, that “the real damage long-term will be done.”