THOUGH Riyadh and Doha seem tilted to get closer to signing a deal to end the Gulf dispute, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt still charter certain reservations. Yet apparently, because of the strategic withdrawal of the US role in the Mideast has nonetheless contributed to the tension among the GCC, as the Saudi and UAE-led quartet of countries sanctioning Qatar felt that the United States would not rush to Qatar’s aid. Both internal and external factors have influenced the scope of relations among the GCC States. The competition between Qatar and the UAE has broad and lasting repercussions. The GCC dispute (which sparked in 2017 when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE imposed harsh sanctions on Qatar) enters its fourth year without any real sign of detente, ensuring that those rivalries will shape dynamics in the wider region for the foreseeable future.
Since June 2017, Qatar, a small Gulf country with rich gas reserves, has been facing a tight blockade from its neighbours, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, which are backed by Egypt. The Gulf dispute is one of the newest conflicts in the Middle East, yet it has quickly become entrenched. It appears to have reached a stalemate, but one that all the governments can live with, and sometimes even benefit from (rather than the ‘hurting stalemate’ often seen as a prelude to conflict resolution). The animosity between the relevant leaders has become highly personal, and the media and social media discourse about the dispute has sunk to a level of insult rarely seen in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE cut diplomatic and trade ties with Doha and imposed a sea, land and air blockade on Qatar, claiming it supported “terrorism”. The four countries claimed that Qatar worked to support “terrorism”, maintained intimate relations with Iran and meddled in the internal affairs of other countries. Qatar responded by saying that there was “no legitimate justification” for the actions taken by the four countries. It added that the decision was a “violation of its sovereignty” and that it would work to ensure that it would not affect citizens and residents.
Over the past many years, there has been a tussle among the GCC member states over their relations with Palestinian Authority (PA). This tussle represents a rift among the three GCC groups. At one end is Qatar, which has been growing ever closer to Iran and Turkey following the diplomatic and economic blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE in June 2017. The second bloc represents the growing alliance between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE. The last is the neutral bloc of Oman and Kuwait, which have chosen to set themselves apart from their neighbours.
This division/cleavage is one of the keys to understanding the core of the foreign policies of the Gulf States and specifically their relations with the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people. One of the major implications of these intra-Gulf rifts is the growing element of competition in their foreign policies, which not only affects relations between the blocs but also within them. In the past two and a half years the hostility between Qatar and the UAE has been unmistakable. When Qatar encountered logistical issues in transferring financial aid to Gaza, the UAE leadership stepped in to establish an unusual collaboration with senior Hamas officials in Gaza, including Yahya Sinwa.
And yet, for political, economic and ideological reasons, Riyadh, Dubai, Doha and Ankara are locked in a push-pull to set the rules for a Middle Eastern region long in turmoil. While the two overlapping rivalries drive and define this engagement: a split within the Gulf pitting Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the UAE against Qatar and Turkey; and competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In strengthening their relationships in the Horn, Gulf States and Turkey hope to secure both short and long-term interests. Such has been the origin of the crisis when Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted to impose a set of conditions on Qatar that, for all practical purposes, would have forced Doha to relinquish its ability to decide its own domestic and external affairs. This continues to be the case as the two insist that Qatar has to abide by certain conditions in order for them to accept an accommodation that presumably would end the crisis.
In a latest Bahrain-Qatar spat, Doha has claimed that on 09 December, four Bahrainian fighter jets violated its air space — a claim that is denied by Bahrain. Some Gulf analysts blame the UAE for the lack of progress, arguing that Abu Dhabi is holding the Saudis back from accepting a settlement to the crisis. Indeed, Abu Dhabi is particularly inflexible when it comes to reconciliation with Qatar; but this alone does not explain why the Kuwaitis, with their vast experience in dealing with intra-Gulf disputes, so far have failed to make any progress in their mediation efforts.
A resolution, therefore, appears inevitable, yet it could come surprisingly quickly, since ending the dispute would depend on a handful of senior leaders whose views could change. The peaceful settlement of the dispute would benefit all of the Gulf economies and would be welcomed by many of their citizens, especially those who have families spanning the political divide. The US may also have an opportunity to bring the parties together if it presses ahead with a proposed conference on a Middle East Strategic Alliance in 2019 — although this initiative has already been postponed more than once and does not seem to be a real priority for the regional powers involved. Saudi King Shah Salman has called the General Secretary of the GCC to invite the Gulf leaders to a summit slated for 05 Jan 2021. The body’s 41st summit is due to take place in the Saudi capital Riyadh amid hopes that it could witness an agreement to end a diplomatic crisis that has seen Qatar come under a blockade by three of its fellow GCC members for three-and-a-half years now.
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.