GCC Reconciliation — The Path to Greater Regional Stability?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


In 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt cut their ties with Qatar over accusations of the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and terrorist groups in the region. Three years later, Qatar has been welcomed back into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with open arms during the annual GCC summit taking place in Saudi Arabia. It is not yet clear whether Qatar’s reconciliation with its Arab neighbors is a vindication of Saudi Arabia’s pressure on the small but economically powerful state, or whether Qatar’s stoic resistance in the face of an unrelenting economic and diplomatic boycott ultimately won out. Either way, despite lingering doubts about what actions, if any, Iran and Turkey may take in response, Qatar’s return to the fold, at least for the time being, ushers in an era of good feeling.

Writing for Asharq Alawsat, Saleh al-Zaid provides a brief history of the GCC’s early days, pointing out the motivating factors that led to the creation of the Council and the impact it has had over the last 40 years: “Since the 1960s, the Gulf region has witnessed many transformations, starting with the independence of Gulf countries and the emergence of the so-called Iranian Revolution in 1979 that gave birth to terrorist groups and caused instability, which in turn led to Gulf unity to face threats and challenges. As Tehran maintains its hostile policy towards the countries of the region and through its proxies, the importance of strengthening Gulf cooperation increases…. In 1981, the GCC was established to achieve unity among the member states and promote political, military, economic and media cooperation. The Council contributed to strengthening economic cooperation among its member-states and protecting and liberating Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion, in addition to its role in standing with Bahrain through the Peninsula Shield Forces and preventing Iranian interference.”

It may have been appropriate, then, as The National’s Khaled Yacoub Oweis reports, that on its 40th anniversary, the GCC member states, now led by a new generation, found the necessary strength to overcome their divisions: “The Gulf Co-operation Council summit was marked by the presence of a new guard in the two countries that have played important roles for reconciliation in the six-member group. Sultan Qaboos of Oman and Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait, elder statesmen and pillars of Gulf diplomacy, died nine months apart last year…. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, led the UAE’s delegation to the summit. Sheikh Mohammed said on Tuesday that ‘the spirit of co-operation is renewed for the benefit of our peoples.’ ‘In 1981, 40 years ago today, our Father and Founder of our country, Sheikh Zayed, hosted the first summit in Abu Dhabi with his brothers, the leaders of the GCC countries,’ he said. ‘The process of co-operation is the legacy of these leaders for their people. Today, the march is strengthened’.”

The rapprochement between the GCC member states has been seen as a win-win for all parties involved, with Jordan Times’ Amer Al-Sabaileh arguing that warming of relations, especially between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, “presents a united Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to the international community and an incoming Biden administration in the US to carefully consider returning to the previous nuclear deal with Iran. From the Qatari perspective, with all this American pressure, it is extremely difficult to remain allied with Iran and Turkey…. From the Saudi position, it is important for the Saudis to put an end to conflict within the GCC at a time when Arab countries are signing peace treaties with Israel and the impending transition in Washington. With a united Gulf, the Saudis will again be able to represent the Arab position and return to even a modified version of the Arab Peace Initiative, giving the Saudis a chance to play a major regional role. This reconciliation could also lead to Saudi Arabia playing a wider role in bringing Syria and perhaps even Iraq back into the Arab League.”

In a recent op-ed for Khaleej Times, Zuhair Al Harthi adds that looking past their differences shows signs of maturity and a recognition that the challenges lying ahead cannot be overcome unless the GCC members maintain their cohesion: “The statement is clear and sufficient. It became apparent that the era of flattery has passed and that speaking candidly is both useful and required. The pragmatic assessment reached by the Council’s states demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility and a high degree of courage. It also indicated a genuine awareness of the scope of the challenges facing them; they lived up to the occasion and were up to threats posed by the current state of affairs facing them. Regional circumstances and the critical nature of this historic phase call for profound solidarity, consciousness of the region’s history and an understanding of the geography’s sensitivity and complexity.”

Not all agree. For example, Arab News op-ed contributor Nadim Shehadi suggests that the different paths taken by the various GCC members may actually have made the Council more effective and consequential, rather than less, especially considering the range of issues facing each country and the region, including “political Islam, terrorism, peace with Israel, and relations with Egypt, Turkey and Iran. All these questions are entangled with the various conflicts and crises in the broader region: Syria, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq. Paradoxically, if the states comprising the GCC were more united, their potential role could diminish. Their diversity of opinions and individual relations with opposing factions puts them in a unique position to play a pivotal role in establishing peace throughout the region. When they compete, they make these conflicts worse, but if they reach a consensus and convince each other to support the same side, they would then lose that role. It is to their common advantage, therefore, to agree to disagree and turn their problems into opportunities.”

Given those differences, while many regional observers and commentators have celebrated these important developments for the region, some have been keen to point out any sign of daylight that may exist among the various countries. Included here are Turkish commentators like Daily Sabah’s Talha Kose, who is of the view that it is still too early to speak of “regionwide reconciliation,” sinceDespite the constructive atmosphere in the GCC summit’s aftermath, it is still too early to conclude that the tensions in the region will be resolved quickly…. The Saudi side is trying to adjust its regional policies and get ready for the Biden administration. Trying to contain Turkey and Iran simultaneously is not a practical strategy for Riyadh’s foreign and security policy priorities. While Abu Dhabi aims to sever Turkish-Qatari ties, Ankara expects more cracks in the Saudi-Emirati regional alliance…. The Saudi and Emirati officials’ conciliatory rhetoric is a constructive sign for the normalization in the region. For Ankara, the deeds of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will be more critical than their conciliatory rhetoric.”

While the GCC relationship with Turkey remains an important issue, the more immediate concern has to do with how GCC member states are going to approach Iran. Iranian daily Press TV has followed the GCC annual summit attentively and was quick to draw attention to a statement by Qatar’s former prime minister: “Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani has called on Iran and the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states to engage in talks amid the resolution of the Qatar crisis and the upcoming inauguration of a new US administration. In a series of tweets on Sunday, Hamad said that he had, during the escalation of tensions between Iran and the US under President Donald Trump, emphasized that the initiation of a Tehran-GCC dialogue could have ‘important consequences.’”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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