Confusion in the Gulf

Confusion in the Gulf

Stefano Silvestri
The hardship of the positions against Qatar taken by the Saudis, the UAE and Bahrein is unprecedented and was immediately followed by Iran's major openings to Doha. Hopefully diplomatic mediators will manage to put a curb on the crisis

*In the picture, the national flags of the 6 GCC member states

Are we perhaps witnessing the end of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the organization that brought Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrein, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman together? The hardship of the positions against Qatar taken by the Saudis, the UAE and Bahrein (which are associated with Egypt and other countries and minor factions) is unprecedented and was immediately followed by Iran’s major openings to Doha (which have not yet been implemented) and by Ankara’s announcement regarding its deployment of new troops in Qatar, where a major military base is already set up. The other states of the GCC, Kuwait and Oman, have not joined the collective condemnation and have instead offered their good offices to negotiate an end to the crisis (although Oman in particular is currently looked down upon by Riyadh due to its refusal to intervene in the Yemen war, as well as due to its traditionally more open policy towards Iran).

What is the Gulf Cooperation Council?

The GCC is a strange entity, with strong elements of cohesion, especially when it comes to defending the dynastic nature of these regimes, but equally vast elements of dissent, although these have never in the past impeded a recomposition of the group’s solidarity or the establishment of major joint actions, such as the creation of the PSF (Peninsula Shield Force). The recent collective intervention in Bahrein was a major sign of unity of intent. However, the unity of the GCC has always been subjected to severe tensions at critical times of political and strategic change in the region. We have witnessed this in the diverse reactions to the Arab spring and, subsequently, to the developments in Iraq and Syria. However, the current crisis could go beyond the previous crises, as it seems to have arisen from an opposing view of key opportunities and strategic decisions. It is certainly no coincidence if, at least initially, the accusations against Qatar were mainly for being an ally and protector of terrorists of ISIS, which, until then, was perceived and accepted as a common enemy.

The GCC is a strange entity, it has some strong elements of cohesion, especially when it comes to defending the dynastic nature of these regimes

Interpreting the intention of the U.S.

The change is likely a result of the Saudi interpretation of the United States’ strategic orientation. An extreme realpolitical interpretation of the regional orientations of the new American administration seems to be outlined, as they would be exposed to the Saudis by Donald Trump. Identifying the fight against terrorism as a far-reaching target over all others (including those of regional balances) and identifying Iran as the enemy to be destroyed are strong indications that the Saudis have certainly received with great interest and, perhaps, excessive enthusiasm. They seem convinced of the strong possibility of resolutely assuming an offensive against Iran, directly or, more likely, indirectly, through Iraq and Syria, and to be able to downsize organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The decision to act could have been accelerated by recent visits by Iranian leaders to Iraq and by the victory of moderate Hasan Rouhani in the Iranian presidential elections, in the fear that this could increase the country’s international acceptance. However, such a Saudi-American deployment, which would also include Egypt and, at least potentially, Israel, would end up being directed not only against Iran and the Shiites, but also against a large part of the Sunni, especially those recognized in the multiple nuances of the Muslim Brotherhood. This cannot but concern countries such as Qatar or Turkey, which have always maintained significant links with those entities.

Trusting diplomatic mediators

Hence, a split that could prove to be more serious than usual, especially if the external involvement in the GCC crisis were to increase: Qatar’s Foreign Minister is currently in Moscow. It is unlikely that everything will resolve with the use of military force: the presence in Qatar of the largest American base in the Middle East, a Turkish base and elements of the British RAF unacceptably complicate the military picture. President Trump himself, after having initially approved Saudi action, must have been better informed about the situation and now seems aligned with his government in the demand for negotiations. However, this forced simplification of the Gulf’s political framework, which wipes out all the nuances and ambiguities that had so far formed the basis of consensus and cooperation, risks leaving very dangerous divides, destroying all prospects of inter-Arab solidarity. It is now to be hoped that diplomatic mediators will manage to limit the crisis, if not solve it altogether. However, if this is not the case, we will have to prepare ourselves for a more violent infra-Sunni conflict, overlapping with what is happening between Shiites and Sunnis, and terrorists.

The resulting change is most likely a result of an interpretation on the part of Saudi Arabia of the strategic orientation adopted by the United State