May 25 marked the 39th anniversary of the founding of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Across the Gulf, the occasion was welcomed as an opportunity to reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic might spur and heal an institution – the GCC. June 5 marked the third anniversary of the air, land and sea blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt on Qatar. Over the last weeks, rumours that Doha might be considering leaving the GCC intensified after news of an attempted coup against the Al Thani royal family were shared by Saudi Twitter users and media outlets. It was later dubbed a Saudi-led disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the royal family. Asked about the veracity of those rumours and the future of the GCC, Qatar’s Deputy Foreign Minister Lolwah al-Khater not only labelled allegation of a Qatari secession “wholly incorrect and baseless”, but added that,
“Qatar hopes the GCC will once again be a platform of cooperation and coordination. An effective GCC is needed now more than ever, given the challenges facing our region”.
At the forefront of the challenges mentioned by al-Khater is COVID-19, the pandemic that has been debilitating the world. The impacts it will have on gulf countries’ foreign policy decisions is far from certain.
As Ambassador Gerald Feierstien from the Middle East Institute notes, COVID-19 might have a stabilising effect on the GCC:
“as governments in the region grapple with the domestic fallout of the pandemic, their priority will certainly be ensuring internal stability rather than sustaining regional competitions”.
The very story of the GCC, however, suggests otherwise, meaning the security dilemmas that inhibited the GCC role as a multilateral body are likely to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 emergency.
Historically diffident allies
Bringing together Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman, the GCC was formed in Abu Dhabi in 1981, during the Iran-Iraq war. Originally, the Council was created with two goals in mind: coordinating resistance to outside intervention in the Gulf while boosting free trade among its member states.
As time went by, the GCC promise of serving as a coordinated bloc faltered as its member states started relying on external powers -first and foremost the United States- as security guarantors. Washington’s military and economic support were crucial for two reasons: to maintain the bloc security against rival neighbours such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran, but also to secure the GCC states against one another’s expansionist aims.
The outsourcing of military security to external guarantors such as the US posed a security dilemma in an organization that had originally been created to resist any outside intervention in Gulf affairs. At the same time, the political ascent of Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) in the UAE and of Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in Saudi Arabia meant trust started giving way to diffidence within the GCC, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE moved to dominate the bloc’s political agenda. The economic blockade of Qatar, therefore seen as an attempt by the part of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to put Doha -“problem child of the Gulf”- in line, after repeatedly criticizing Qatar due to its pursuit of autonomous regional policies such as the support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The impact of COVID-19
It can be argued that the GCC is increasingly a hostage of the Saudi-Emirati power play, and the spread of Coronavirus risks dealing a fatal blow to an already weak institution.
Faced with the health hazards and the economic downturn caused by the spread of the virus, countries in and outside of the Gulf have been prioritizing domestic over external policy considerations. This is especially true for the United States, now grappling with the devastating economic recession caused by COVID-19 as well as with the countrywide protests erupted after the death of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of the police.
The emergence of these fault lines will likely force the United States to shift its attention inward. An even more drastic American disengagement from the Middle East is hence to be expected in the coming months.
This will have immediate consequences at the GCC level. Lacking the presence of an external security guarantor able to secure the GCC both from external threats and internal power dynamics, the security fears of smaller GCC states are likely to accelerate, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue vying for dominance within the bloc.
Possible Scenarios: A fragile alliance
Qatar will be forced to look to other guarantors to reduce its reliance on the whims of the GCC and minimize the effects of the blockade. It will reasonably turn to Ankara, particularly emboldened as a result of Erdogan’s aggressive military campaigns in Libya and Syria. The masterminds behind the 2017 blockade, on the other hand, will have little to no motivation for bringing the standstill to an end: if it is true that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE will have to focus their energies on dealing with the domestic fallout of COVID-19, it is also true that, as the Yemeni case teaches, flexing their muscles on the regional arena has been a recurrent way to divert the attention away from the many domestic challenges both countries face.
The idea that bold foreign policy actions may bolster internal legitimacy in times of crisis is one of the reasons why it is unlikely that the Qatar blockade will end any time soon. Rather, the COVID-19 emergency may cause the GCC members to further entrench in their initial positions and exacerbate the security dilemmas that have long prevented the effectiveness of the GCC.
By Global Risk Insights