Middle East in Focus
Almost three years since severing their diplomatic ties with Qatar, three of the other five Gulf Cooperation Council members — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain — in addition to Egypt, have been signaling that they are willing to work with Qatar to overcome their concerns and find a mutually satisfying compromise. Disagreements with Qatar range from its close relationship with Iran and, increasingly with Turkey, to its ongoing support of the Muslim Brotherhood, moves widely considered as threatening the peace and stability in the Gulf region. The Saudi monarch had extended a personal invitation to the emir of Qatar to attend the meeting, which took place in Riyadh. The fact that Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani declined to attend underscores the state of relations among the six members of the GCC and the difficulty of the path ahead.
In the run-up to the annual meeting, many hoped that leaders of the GCC countries would use the opportunity to patch up their differences, leading one regional daily—Gulf News—to remind their readers, “Whether it be in the political sphere, culture, economics or on the fields of sports, whatever the differences of the individual nations, the GCC has always stood strong.... One needs look no further than the recent Gulf Cup as an example of healthy competition when it comes to football.... Let that determination and unity of purpose on the football pitch serve as a timely reminder to the GCC as a whole of what’s possible if teamwork is the watchword. When decisions are made quicker, the GCC will have the ability to impact real-time events. So, too, when it comes to implementing decisions within a reasonable time frame and having a more meaningful impact on the people who live in the Gulf region.”
Asharq Alawsat’s Abdullah Al-Haida expresses a similar hope, while highlighting the fact that the GCC is already operating at a high level of cooperation despite the disagreement over Qatar’s relationship with Iran and its continuing support of the Muslim Brotherhood: “The Gulf leaders… know best how to resolve the differences and even the disputes that emerged among the members of this family.... The Council continues to collaborate on the ‘Gulf Interpol’ project, based in Abu Dhabi, and the joint military exercises, conducted under the umbrella of the Peninsula Shield Force, also persist. Work on establishing a common market is ongoing as well. This shows that, regardless of the progress made in solving the Qatar crisis, the Council remains cohesive and continues to function and enhance its members’ security.”
For some, though, the summit was a lost opportunity and did not produce the desired result, especially considering the absence of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Expressing disappointment at the perceived snub, a recent Khaleej Times editorial noted that the gathering of the heads of state would have been “a great opportunity to put the past behind and start afresh…. It wasn't to be, though.... Instead of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who was invited via a written message from Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, it was the country's Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani who headed the Qatari delegation at the Riyadh summit. Bahrain's Minister of Foreign Affairs Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa says he's disappointed at ‘Qatar's lack of seriousness in ending its crisis’, maintaining that the Qatari PM did not have the authorization that could have contributed to solving the crisis.”
Commenting on Qatar’s absence in an op-ed for the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram, Ahmed Mostafa characterized the annual summit as “business as usual,” adding that, despite the efforts of the other GGC member states, Qatar doesn’t seem interested in joining their efforts “to scale down tensions in the Gulf region, from seeking a political solution to the Yemen crisis to anticipated dialogue with Iran. Qatar is on the margins of this, though the Qatari-linked media has been pushing stories over the last few days to make it look as if Qatar’s position is the main issue in the region. The Qatari emir’s abstention from the GCC Summit meeting was an indication of the size of the issue for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Even though any future negotiations with Iran would require a unified Gulf front, the three GCC members do not trust Qatar’s commitment. Qatar will not relinquish its close relations with Iran, and it has also been cementing its ties with Turkey in an unprecedented way.”
Still, the heads of state gathered in Riyadh did manage to produce some positive results, yielding in some positive reviews of the summit. One of those, also highlighted in a recent editorial by The National, lauded an agreement to “increase military and security co-operation within the GCC.... The GCC's track record in certain areas of co-operation proves that when nations decide to work together, great feats can be accomplished. For instance, trade in the region has multiplied more than 24 times since 2003, rising from $6 billion to $147bn last year. GCC states are also looking to draft legislation for greater economic integration over the next six years, a plan that includes the creation of a monetary union. This is a heartening measure at a time when the future of other political blocs, such as the European Union, are facing [threats to] cohesiveness from within.”
Taking a more patient and historical approach to the current state of affairs within the GCC, Saudi Gazette’s Ekleel Badr Sallam expresses optimism about the eventual reconciliation between Qatar and the rest of the GCC member states, without becoming complacent about everyone’s responsibility to work towards that goal: “Sooner or later relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar will improve, and we all look forward with optimism to achieving the aspirations of the Gulf people for unity. However, the situation will not change unless Qatar responds positively and maturely to demands that it normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.... Acting individually will not make any state strong enough to be able to face and overcome crises without solidarity with its neighboring countries, especially, when those neighbors are interconnected and share the same geopolitics, traditions, religion, blood, political system and language.”