The litmus test was the participation by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. King Salman’s letter of invitation to the emir was perceived as some sort of an olive branch for reconciliation. But Qatar’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sultan bin Saad Al Muraikhi represented the country at the summit.
The calculation by the hot headed crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE that Qatar would pack up is turning out to be a historic blunder. Qatar had some trying times but it has successfully weathered the harsh embargo by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the boycott is now hurting its enforcers. Qatar “celebrated” the anniversary of the boycott in June by banning the import of goods from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt (which had cut diplomatic and transport ties on June 5, 2017.) Ironically, Iran has been a beneficiary as Qatar established diplomatic relations with Tehran and began importing Iranian products.
Qatar also strengthened its alliance with Turkey, which stepped in as provider of security for Doha. And Turkey checkmated any plans that Saudis and Emiratis might have had to use force to bring the Qatari emir down on his knees.
The emir’s absence from the summit in Riyadh yesterday underscores that he is not in a mood to forget and forgive. Equally, Kuwait and Oman also have issues to settle with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There is tension between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia over two oil fields – Khafji and Wafra – that are jointly owned by the two states, which have a capacity to produce more than half a million barrels per day, but have been closed since 2014 and 2015, respectively. The dispute is over the sovereignty over the so-called Neutral Zone on their border, which has been undefined for almost a century.
The Saudis are not relenting. “We’re trying to convince the Kuwaitis to talk about the sovereignty issues, while continuing to produce until we solve that issue,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg in an interview in October. Similarly, Saudis and Emiratis have stationed troops in Yemen’s southern province of al-Mahra that borders Oman although the region has no presence of Houthi rebels. Oman considers the move an infringement on its national security. Interestingly, instead of the Sultan of Oman, Deputy Prime Minister for the Council of Ministers Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmood Al Said represented the country at the GCC summit.
To be sure, like Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s banquet in Shakespeare’s play, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi killing provided the backdrop to the GCC summit. The GCC states (including Qatar) have not criticized the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) but they would know this is a developing story and it has dented Saudi prestige irreparably, especially with the US Senate is at loggerheads with the Trump administration. The big question for the Gulf region would be as to where Saudi Arabia is heading. (See the blog by Thomas Lippman What Now For U.S. Policy And The Crown Prince?)
Of course, if the GCC disintegrates due to these contradictions, Saudi Arabia will be the big loser, because it will be a reflection on its regional leadership. But do the Saudis understand it? The remarks by the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir at the end of the GCC summit showed no sign of remorse.
He said, “The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are keen that the crisis with Qatar will have no impact on the Council (GCC). But this does not mean relinquishing the conditions imposed on Qatar.” Doha should stop supporting terrorism and extremism and avoid interfering in other countries’ affairs and needed to fulfil the Arab countries’ conditions to open the way for its return to the full-fledged work in the GCC. “The stance towards Qatar came to push it to change its policies,” he added.
The leading Saudi establishment writer Abdulrehman al-Rashed fired away at Qatar on the day of the GCC summit. In a column entitled Is it Time to end the GCC? in the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat (owned by royal family members) he wrote:
“Qatar… has been putting obstacles in the GCC path and it has succeeded where Saddam and Iran have failed: It managed to destroy and rip it [GCC] apart… It organized an internal and external opposition against the United Arab Emirates. It is now the primary financier of the greatest attack against Saudi Arabia and it stands behind the politicization of Khashoggi’s murder… Today’s [GCC] summit could not conceal the dark political cloud hanging over its head. It also strongly poses a question over the future of the GCC as doubts rise over the value of this union… A wedge has been driven in the GCC.”
The disarray within the GCC undoubtedly calls attention to the decline of US influence in the Middle East region. At the end of the day, the Gulf states have not paid heed to repeated US entreaties for GCC unity. Ideally, GCC should have provided today for the US strategy a strong platform for launching the regime change project against Iran. On the contrary, GCC is split down the middle, with Qatar, Oman and Kuwait getting along just fine with Tehran. While addressing the summit in Riyadh on Sunday, the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad hit the nail on the head when he said, “The most dangerous obstacle we face is the struggle within the GCC.”