GCC Summit Highlights Tensions with Qatar, Iran

  • 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

December 13, 2018

The Gulf Cooperation Council, an organization founded in 1981 uniting Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, held its annual meeting last week, despite an ongoing internal dispute. Qatar has been isolated from the rest of the GCC since the Summer of 2017 over Doha’s alleged support of terror organizations and its perceived coziness with Iran. While GCC summits in the past have focused on the possible expansion of the Council to include Jordan, Morocco, and Yemen, this year’s meeting mainly underscored a commitment to hold the Council together and demonstrate its steadfastness.

Commenting on the somber mood of the meeting, Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed singles out Qatar’s intransigence as one of the main reasons for the current impasse: “Today’s summit could not conceal the dark political cloud hanging over its head. It also strongly poses a question over the future of the GCC as doubts rise over the value of this union. It was established to protect itself against any foreign attack and it succeeded in uniting ranks against Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It however, failed miserably in deterring attacks from within itself…. A wedge has been driven in the GCC and if the current situation continues, it will be doomed without return. It would not be too much to hold Qatar responsible for this problem and it alone can end these tensions. It is unlikely that it will alter its behavior unless a miracle were to happen and reconciliation to be struck.”

A Khaleej Times editorial strikes a more optimistic tone by arguing that the group’s unity is shown in its stand against Iranian mischief-making, as well as against Qatar’s alleged misdeeds: “Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region only makes the Gulf Cooperation Council stronger. The group’s resolve is greater and the confidence in individual and collective capabilities is growing by the day. The bloc will not be shaken by a member that seeks to court extremists while claiming all along that it is in the interest of the greater good while it foments ideological extremist thought and action…. The bloc has the potential to become an economic powerhouse like the EU. A change of heart from both Qatar and Iran is what the GCC seeks – an end to the militant mindset, and the war economy they promote. Is that too much to ask in the cause of peace and justice for the people of the Gulf?”

Raghida Dergham makes a similar argument in an op-ed for The National, while discussing why, despite internal differences, the GCC summit still went ahead: “Going ahead with the annual GCC summit in Riyadh, at the insistence of Saudi Arabia, carries a message of principle essential to the council and its six-member states. Preserving continuity is a strategic decision, regardless of who attends…. By holding the summit, the message is that the GCC is ‘bigger than Qatar’ and that the considerable benefits of the bloc must be preserved…. Iran would like to see the GCC unravel, in light of the regional balance of power and rivalries. Iran regularly proposes establishing a regional security structure that would include it, Iraq and the GCC. That, however, would require dismantling the GCC and mean Iran dominating the Gulf’s security.”

A recent Gulf News editorial alleges that the Qataris created the current crisis at the behest of Iran to shake confidence in the GCC: “Collective action will help Gulf states meet the aspirations of the citizens of the GCC, and deepen the Gulf integration that was the main goal of leaders who established the Council in 1981…. Qatar tried to throw a spanner in the works. The Qatari emir chose to stay out of the meeting, despite receiving an invitation from King Salman. Doha instead sent its state minister for foreign affairs. The success of the meeting highlighted the irrelevance of Doha, which continues with its refusal to accept the fair demands of the Arab quartet, which has been boycotting Qatar since June last year for its support for terror groups and its cozy relations with the Iranian regime.”

That Iran’s increased influence in the region is foremost in the minds of the GCC member states is evident in this Arab News op-ed written by the Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg. Mr. Aluwaisheg dedicates a good portion of his commentary to the various military and security communiques and agreements coming out of the meeting: “GCC military cooperation is based on a mutual defense treaty that was reached in the early days of the organization. It is bolstered by working with strategic partners such as the US and UK. This week, and the following weeks and months, will witness significant GCC-US military meetings on ballistic missile defense and cybersecurity, together with multi-discipline security meetings on Iran and countering terrorism. More than other recent summits, a lot of space in the communique was dedicated to the GCC’s foreign partnerships, reflecting the organization’s growing regional and international role.”

The Iranians, for their part, have criticized the GCC’s attitude toward Tehran, while highlighting the Council’s internal disagreements, as this Press TV report demonstrates: “Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman has slammed ‘baseless’ statements of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), saying that the council has turned into a front for proclaiming the policies of some of its member states. In a statement on Monday, Bahram Qassemi reacted to accusations leveled against the Islamic Republic during the 39th GCC summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, by expressing regret about the continuation of the council’s ‘unconstructive approach’ toward Iran…. Iran believes that the positions announced during the Riyadh summit do not necessarily reflect the stance of all of the council’s members.”

To drive that point home further, Fatemeh Salehi, writing for Tehran News, ascribes Qatar’s reluctance to fully participate in the GCC, as well as its recent decision to withdraw from OPEC, to what he alleges is the instrumentalization of the Council by Saudi Arabia: “The [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council has not taken any effective steps since the Persian Gulf crisis and has become an organization like OPEC in recent years. The shared aspect of both organizations is the presence of Saudi Arabia and its efforts to guide the goals and priorities of OPEC and the Gulf Cooperation Council on the basis of its own interests…. The Arab countries set up the [P]GCC originally believing that they could achieve a cultural, political, and social unity, but eventually, like the Arab League, it became a fragile alliance due to differences in views and positions on a variety of issues.”


  • 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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