On December 5, Kuwait hosted the 38th Summit for the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Intended for two days, the proceedings were summarily wrapped up in the space of an hour, a result of the relatively low levels of the delegations sent to Kuwait from the other GCC states. With the exception of Qatar, no other head of state attended the Kuwait Summit 2017. The fact that other Gulf leaders decided not to attend is now accepted as evidence of the failure of mediation efforts led by Kuwait’s Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah.
The communique issued at the end of the abbreviated meeting made no mention of the months-old crisis in intra-Gulf relations while the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a new alliance coordinating their political, military and economic ties. This new, parallel intra-governmental pact is now chaired by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The GCC Summit: Peak Crisis?
The latest crisis in intra-Gulf relations has created the greatest threat to the existence of the GCC since its founding in 1981. Kuwait has tried to contain the fallout from the crisis since it broke out, with the Emir of Kuwait even suggesting that the alternative to his country’s mediation efforts would be the possibility of military action against Qatar. Further afield, and motivated by the Gulf’s strategic importance to the globe as a source of energy and financial powerhouse, a number of world powers sought to help contain the crisis, including the United States, Russia and France, yet as with Kuwait’s efforts, these attempts at mediating the crisis also failed. For the countries leading the blockade, there would be no compromise with Qatar, which must completely capitulate and fulfil a series of demands that include closing Al Jazeera and other media outlets; limiting diplomatic ties with Iran; and turning over political dissidents from the four blockading countries resident in Qatar. The Qataris regarded these and other demands as unacceptable infringements on their own national sovereignty.
That the Summit went ahead at all cannot be taken for granted, especially given that the Emir of Kuwait had lobbied intensely for the highest possible levels of participation up until a few days before the event took place. The Emir of Kuwait also refused to consider a change of venue, out of fear that allowing such a change would be a prelude for the exclusion of Qatar, particularly since Bahrain has repeatedly asked for the suspension of Qatar’s membership in the alliance. Taking all of the above into consideration, Kuwait’s announcement that it would host the Summit as anticipated and as scheduled led to the impression among many that Sheikh Sabah had arrived at a breakthrough in the crisis, with observers expecting that the Kuwaiti Emir’s efforts would result in heads of state of all Gulf States attending.
The Communique: a Break with Reality?
The absence of the heads of most member states was not the only indication of failure for the 2017 GCC Summit. The three GCC states implicated in the blockade refused to even acknowledge the reality of the crisis during the deliberations both during the Summit and in the ministerial level discussions that prefigured it; helping to destroy any hope that the meetings of the GCC leaders would facilitate a resolution to the crisis. Instead of a resolution to the crisis, the communique issued at the end was simply a proforma, dry two-page text empty of any context or substance. Ironically, the final statement not only ignored that there was an existential crisis facing the GCC, but instead spoke of the need of preserving the peace and strengthening ties between the peoples of the six member-states. Notably, Qataris are now barred from entering either the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, while Bahrain now requires visas for Qataris, contravening a freedom of movement charter that has been established practice for decades. The break with reality goes further still. The communique also referred to the hopes for an “ever-stronger union” particularly in terms of greater economic and trade integration, and reaffirmed the aim for a customs union and a single market by 2025. Yet the document completely ignored the embargo presently placed on one member by three other member states.
What this charade illustrates, beyond any doubt, is that the three GCC members which have led the blockade on Qatar want to turn the alliance into a toothless, vacuous body turning out empty soundbites completely divorced from reality.
The GCC: a Future?
In this most recent summit, the GCC could not successfully bring all of the six heads of state together to a single meeting in Kuwait. In the meantime, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have announced their plan to “go it alone” and set up a parallel regional grouping while Bahrain is demanding that Qatar be pushed out of the Council. Where once the Gulf Cooperation Council had proven itself to be one of the more successful frameworks for inter-Arab action, the 2017 crisis has brought its very existence in the future into question.
One clearly visible result of the crisis is the emergence of two distinct blocs within the GCC. While the first, formed by the group leading the blockade on Qatar, seeks to establish completely uniformity and harmonization across GCC foreign policies, the second, which includes Qatar and Oman, want to improve the independence of the smaller members. Kuwait, meanwhile, is seeking to chart an equivocal path between these two camps. Ultimately, the Kuwait Summit served only to highlight the depth and intensity of the divisions that cut through the GCC.
The increasingly menacing risks facing the Gulf States, and particularly those states leading the blockade on Qatar, seem to have no effect on shifting their focus. In Yemen, the Saudi-UAE coalition has failed to achieve any of its aims as the humanitarian situation becomes increasingly dire. Meanwhile, US president Donald Trump, whom the blockading countries had been relying on to support their efforts against Iran, has shown himself willing to plunge the entire Middle East into chaos by declaring his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Coupled with a momentum for a normalization of Arab states’ relations with Israel, Trump’s brinkmanship will be a source of great embarrassment for his allies on the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, in the space of a single month, two Arab statesmen who were believed to be in the pocket of the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi pact—former Mubarak-era cabinet minister Ahmad Shafiq and Lebanon’s Saudi-installed Prime Minister Saad Hariri—have shown a willingness to break ranks with their Gulf paymasters. Lastly, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have also failed to create Western public momentum in favor of their isolation of Qatar, even despite the vast sums they paid for a smear campaign in the Western media.
The failure of the 2017 Kuwait Summit has announced to the world that the Gulf Cooperation Council has gone into complete and total paralysis. One possible outcome is the outright collapse of the regional alliance, and its break-up into two distinct factions. It marks an ironic departure from the intentions stated by Saudi Arabia five years ago to move the GCC towards greater integration on the path to the unification of its member states. In contrast, Riyadh is today driving the fragmentation of the GCC by its pursuit of both the isolation of Qatar and its establishment of parallel, competing bilateral blocs.
Given the refusal of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to accept any of the mediation efforts to resolving the crisis, it seems clear that the countries involved want to establish the status quo as the norm. Their aim is not to achieve a set of goals, but to drain Qatar economically in order to bend its will. This course of an economic war of attrition meanwhile, only came about after the earlier plans to intervene militarily in Qatar proved unfeasible. With Qatar working to inoculate itself against this economic blockade, its neighbors are flailing about across the region and beyond. They have failed in Yemen; failed to successfully drive forward secession for Iraqi Kurdistan; miscalculated their outright reliance on Trump; and have been humiliated by the fiascos surrounding former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the mysterious deportation of Egyptian statesman Ahmad Shafiq.