West Asia

Cracks in the council

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Kuwait Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (right) welcomes Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani upon his arrival to attend the annual GCC summit in Kuwait City on December 5. Photo: REUTERS

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (centre) at the GCC summit in Kuwait City on December 5. Photo: YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS

The failed GCC summit points to a stalemate in West Asia that might last for a while, adversely affecting the economies of its members, and only a change in Saudi policy can reunite the squabbling kingdoms.

The aborted Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Kuwait scheduled for December 5-6 raises the question whether this regional integration project, until recently one of the more successful of such projects, has collapsed or not. When the GCC was formed in 1981, the main motivation was to address the perceived threat from Iran by raising the level of synergy among the member-states who had much in common. Even without hindsight it can be said that the threat from Iran was exaggerated.

It is paradoxical that Qatar, one of the founding members, has been compelled to embrace Iran owing to Saudi Arabia’s actions. In short, Saudi Arabia, while seeking confrontation with Iran in order to weaken its bete noire, has only strengthened it.

Let us look at what happened in Kuwait. The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah, 88, was working hard to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Qatar even before the blockade against Qatar was announced by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt on June 5, 2017.

That the summit was doomed was known for weeks. Bahrain had publicly declared that it would not sit with Qatar and called for suspending its membership. The UAE had signalled that it agreed with Bahrain. Bahrain, which is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia for its survival, would not have come out with such a demand without endorsement from Saudi Arabia.

Contrary to the expectations of Qatar’s foes, Kuwait invited Qatar’s Emir to the summit. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain sent Ministers to the summit. The Emir of Kuwait, showing exceptional patience and tact, received the Saudi Foreign Minister at the airport. But the three nations were determined to sabotage the summit. Even before it opened, the UAE formally announced that it had reached agreement with Saudi Arabia on tightening their links, militarily, politically, economically and otherwise—a clear signal that they were not interested in negotiated settlement with Qatar. The two-day “summit” ended on day one after meeting for 15 minutes.

However, the GCC Secretary General read out to the media excerpts from the “Kuwait Declaration” adopted at the “summit”. The full text does not seem to have been published even by the GCC secretariat. The “Declaration” pointed out that “yesterday’s events confirm the correct view of GCC leaders in establishing this Gulf edifice in May 1981, which stipulated that its supreme objective is to achieve coordination, complementarity and interdependence among its members in all fields to reach unity and deepen and strengthen ties in all fields”.

The “Declaration” stressed that the GCC has taken “important steps since its establishment 36 years ago towards achieving this goal”. Obviously, there is an attempt to mislead the public about what happened.

Contrary to the general impression, the current crisis in the GCC did not begin on June 5, 2017. The discord between Saudi Arabia and Qatar goes back many years. An unpublished border agreement signed in 1965 did not prevent a clash in 1992. A final border agreement was signed in 2001.

Saudi Arabia resents Qatar’s “independent” foreign policy and insists that Qatar should align itself with its big neighbour. It was primarily to protect itself from its neighbour that Qatar welcomed with alacrity the stationing of U.S. troops at Al Udeid, built by it at a cost of $1 billion in 1996. In 1999, the Emir of Qatar specifically requested the U.S. to station at least 10,000 troops there. Currently, the number exceeds 11,000.

The UAE resents Qatar’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood organisation. The UAE supported financially and otherwise the plot hatched by the military-led Deep State in Egypt to bring down Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected President in Egypt’s history.

Qatar and the UAE have supported opposing camps in Libya. The UAE takes seriously unsubstantiated media reports that Muslim Brotherhood leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi, living in Qatar, has been plotting against it. Qaradawi, 91, who has been sentenced to death by a court in Egypt, is unlikely to be working for a coup in the UAE.

Bahrain and Qatar have a history of discord and rivalry. Their territorial disputes over Hawar Islands and other territories go back to 1936. The disputes were resolved when both parties accepted the verdict of the International Court of Justice in 2001. But tension and ill-feeling continue.

The only non-GCC member to participate in the blockade of Qatar is Egypt. The government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi resents the support that Qatar extended to Morsi and to the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi was removed in a military coup in July 2013 when el-Sisi took over.

One significant actor from outside the Arab world is U.S. President Donald Trump. In March 2017, Trump hosted a lunch at the White House for Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s then Defence Minister. The prince and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, got on like a house on fire and an alliance was struck between the White House and the House of Saud.

In May, Trump went to Saudi Arabia, his first visit abroad as President. He was received with much fanfare and pomp by King Salman. It is believed that Trump was asked for, and had given his, endorsement to the proposed action against Qatar.

Trump left Saudi Arabia on May 22. Two days later, Qatari News Agency was hacked into and for a while it carried reports of the Emir calling Iran “an Islamic power” and claiming that Qatar had “good relations with Israel” during a speech at a military academy. The hacked story was widely covered in the media in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar has accused the UAE of having arranged and paid for the hacking operation.

While announcing the measures against Qatar, Saudi Arabia claimed that it was compelled to act because of “grave violations being committed by the authorities in Doha over the past years in secret and public aiming at dividing internal Saudi ranks, instigating against the State, infringing on its sovereignty, adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al Qaeda, promoting the ethics and plans of these groups through its media permanently….” Obviously, any argument that puts Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the category of promoters of terrorism is unconvincing.

The U.S. has pursued an incoherent policy in the matter. Trump tweeted in support of Saudi Arabia; his Secretaries of State and Defence pointed out to him that Qatar hosted the biggest U.S. air base in the region and that it was not in the U.S.’ interests to drive Qatar into Iran’s arms. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to mediate between Qatar and Saudi Arabia but stood no chance with Trump’s open support to Saudi Arabia.

But the U.S. has now concluded that Prince Mohammed bin Salman is overplaying his hand. On December 8, Tillerson said in Paris: “With respect to Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Qatar, how they’re handling the Yemen war that they’re engaged in, the Lebanon situation, we would encourage them to be a bit more measured and a bit more thoughtful in those actions to, I think, fully consider the consequences.”

Qatar has behaved with exemplary resilience and judgment and avoided retaliation. Qatar is still supplying gas to the UAE and has not sent out any of the roughly 300,000 Egyptians working there. Egypt worked overtime to prevent Qatar’s candidate from getting elected to the top post in UNESCO. Qatar, worried over a military move by Saudi Arabia, did take the precaution of asking Turkey to strengthen its military base in Qatar. Saudi Arabia did try to encourage a regime change by supporting a Qatari prince, but it was an inconsequential move.

India has scrupulously avoided saying anything to annoy either side, for understandable reasons. If hostilities break out, India will face the daunting problem of repatriating 8 million of its nationals, not to mention its dependence on the region for energy imports. The evacuation of 176,000 people from the region in 1990-91 was a formidable task accomplished competently. It is a pity that India lacks the diplomatic clout to mediate discreetly in the region, mainly because it has not cultivated personally the rulers and other influential persons.

As of now there is no sign of any reconciliation. The U.S. could have imposed a settlement if it had acted in good time. There is a stalemate that might last for a while, adversely affecting the economies of the member-states. Oman was supposed to host the next summit. It has declined and said Saudi Arabia will be the host. The GCC can be reunited only if there is a change of policy on the part of Saudi Arabia, with or without a regime change there.

K.P. Fabian, former Ambassador to Qatar, is writing a book on the GCC.

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