The GCC Rift: Regional and Global Implications

Event Information


The Middle East Policy Council convened its 90th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, October 13th. More than four months after the Arab “quartet” of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt took measures to isolate Qatar, “The GCC Rift: Regional and Global Implications” assessed the underlying reasons for this fracture and pathways for resolving it. The panelists differed on the root causes of the conflict, and the utility of the United States as a broker of any resolution.

Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included Timothy Lenderking (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs, U.S. Department of State); Perry Cammack (Fellow, Carnegie Endowment); Ali Shihabi (Founder & Executive Director, Arabia Foundation); and David Des Roches (Associate Professor, National Defense University).

Mr. Lenderking emphasized the historic ability of GCC states to manage their differences as well as the benefits of unity for member states and allies like the United States, particularly during security crises like the first Gulf War. Despite Secretary Tillerson’s clear commitment to finding a resolution, Mr. Lenderking indicated that ultimately the key parties to the conflict should resolve it with the U.S. playing a supportive but indirect role. That said, he conveyed the U.S. position that a “common standard” should be applied to the quartet countries and Qatar such that demands agreed to by Qatar are reciprocated by other GCC states. He also indicated that Washington will continue to exert pressure for an expedient resolution, warning that allowing it to fester for an extended period of time would risk “institutionalizing the rift” and eroding shared interests.

Mr. Cammack reiterated that the quartet has three main grievances with Qatar: support for terror, relations with Iran and interference in the domestic affairs of other states. While he acknowledged there are legitimate concerns in these three areas, he defined the core of the conflict as a post-Arab Spring competition between Qatar and the UAE, with Saudi Arabia moving increasingly close to the Emirati position. This is because in nearly every Arab Spring uprising, the Qataris and Emiratis supported opposing sides, with Libya being the most extreme example. As the Muslim Brotherhood gained clout during this period – often with support from Qatar – the Saudis and Emiratis started to feel increasingly threatened, something that culminated in the removal of Mohammed Morsi from power in Egypt. Mr. Cammack views this event as a pivotal moment in Arab political history, and one that will cast a shadow on relations with Qatar for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Shihabi asserted that the quartet failed to clearly communicate the underlying reasons for the crisis and this led to a misreading of the conflict, particularly in the United States. He explained how familial clashes between the Saudis and Qataris going back to the mid-1990s set the stage for growing distrust in the decades that followed. Despite various efforts to build mutual trust, Mr. Shihabi suggested that the Qataris have been actively trying to subvert the Saudi royal family, something backed up by recordings seized in Libya after the fall of Qadhafi. In his view, the quartet would have been better served by explaining the history of efforts to build mutual trust and the perceived Qatari failure to honor these agreements as context for the partial embargo. This would have shown the extent to which Qatar has interfered in the internal security of its neighbors, often through outlets like Al Jazeera that have given voice to the Saudi opposition, without doing the same in Qatar. Despite these clear differences, he thinks that the countries will ultimately come together and that the U.S. can be useful by adding its prestige to any final agreement.

Mr. Des Roches offered a military perspective to the discussion, highlighting some of the security-related considerations that impact the U.S. approach to the dispute. In general terms, he cautioned against trying to view the GCC through the lens of NATO, as the mismatch in size between Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states means that the Saudis will always play an outsized role. He views GCC cohesion as a positive, in that it could lead to more efficient allocation of military hardware based on budgets and competency. He cautioned against changing U.S. policy around the selection of military bases and making this contingent on approving of the host government, as this limits U.S. flexibility to act. He also believes that the U.S. ability to force a resolution is limited but believes one will be reached, especially as GCC unity is so vital to counterterrorism efforts and containing Iran.

The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email


Event Speakers

Mr. Timothy Lenderking

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Department of State
Former Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy in Riyadh

Mr. Ali Shihabi

Founder and Executive Director, Arabia Foundation
Author, Arabian War Games and The Saudi Kingdom: Between the Jihadi Hammer and the Iranian Anvil

Prof. David Des Roches

Associate Professor, Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies, National Defense University
Former Director, Arabian Peninsula, Department of Defense

Mr. Perry Cammack

Fellow, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Former Policy Planning Staff, Secretary of State John Kerry
Former Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee


Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer

Chairman, Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman




Dr. Thomas R. Mattair

Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council


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