Rifts in the Gulf, What Lies Ahead?

The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar has the potential to turn into a genuine diplomatic crisis.

GCC Summit 2013

The young Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, at just 33 years of age faces the biggest test of his short reign. Surrounded by leaders more than twice his age, in a region where age and experience receive automatic deference, Qatar’s Emir is in a difficult position. Fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are demanding that Qatar cuts off ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and expel its spiritual leader, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who currently enjoys Qatari hospitality.

Although Tamim’s father Hamad – who ruled Qatar for 18 years before abdicating his throne – stands behind him, the temptation will be for the Emir to show that he is equal to his peers and stand firm against what are perceived by Doha as bullying tactics.

Indeed that is exactly what Qatar has done, referring to the recent move as being motivated by concerns that are unconnected to the internal matters of her Gulf neighbours. Qatar’s diplomats have exhorted the country not to back down, according to one official ‘Qatar will not let go of its foreign policy, no matter what the pressures are. This is a matter of principles which we will stick to, no matter the price.’ 

But the reality is that Doha must do something to alleviate the pressure placed upon it. Whilst Qatar’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood and spiritual leader Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is long standing and highly developed, this key source of tension between Qatar and its neighbours needs to be addressed. Qatar would do well to quietly order out  some Brotherhood members who have sought refuge in Doha following Egypt’s regime change, whilst simultaneously publicly affirming its commitment to GCC security and stability.

This would be seen as a positive step by Qatar towards trying to fix the rift, and may go some way toward restoring full diplomatic relations with its neighbours once more. But should Qatar decide to continue digging in its heels, the consequences for both itself and the GCC will be quite severe.

How the Regional Players Stack Up

Saudi Arabia has been the most assertive of all the Gulf states in recent times. This is mostly due to its fear of Iran, who the Saudis perceive as having turned the tide of the Arab spring in its favour. In fact the recent aggressive Saudi foreign policy stance stems from a zero-sum view that any regional issue which does not fall into line with Saudi interests is a gain for Iran or for the Muslim Brotherhood, both of whom would love nothing more than to see the Al Saud regime crumble.

To make matters worse, on key issues such as Iran, Syria, and Egypt the United States, Riyadh’s main security guarantor (the US) has hardly been a stalwart ally, compounding Riyadh’s fears of abandonment, and convincing the Al Saud that they must take regional security into their own hands.

In these uncertain times Riyadh has become impatient and those regional actors who stand in its way are likely to receive short shrift. Qatar is one such actor, and Riyadh, alongside the UAE will truck no compromise with Doha on this issue. The likelihood is that they will lean more heavily upon Qatar until it is forced to give way. ‘Negotiating my way or the highway will not work with Qatar’ noted Nasser al Khalifa, Qatar’s former Ambassador to the United States, but it will be difficult for Qatar to remain steadfast when Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates are able to pull so many diplomatic and financial levers at its expense. The resulting spat shows a new regional order that is emerging. At the GCC’s heart is a core triad of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who take a very similar line on a number of security issues, most notably Iran, Egypt, Yemen, and to some extent Syria.

Outside of this core lies Kuwait, now playing the role of regional mediator and stabiliser, and whose ruler Sheikh Sabah has formed a close tie to Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim as a regional mentor. Meanwhile, the Sultanate of Oman has drifted far away from the GCC consensus, particularly on the question of Iran where it has resolutely pursued its own policies in disregard of Riyadh’s wishes. And Qatar, previously the quiet obedient appendage of Saudi, but now transformed into a fabulously wealthy, activist regional player with a particular fondness for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Collective Security Suffers

The most important question is whether this divide between the core triad and the disparate periphery hampers GCC collective security efforts. The answer is that it does, and if this spat between the triad and Qatar escalates it will have long lasting and deleterious effects on the GCC as a unitary political and security actor.

Attempts to integrate the six countries further would be set back years. Qatar isunlikely to be interested in further security cooperation for the time being, and Oman would remain singularly unenthused at engaging with the activist triad. Kuwait would be left in a difficult position, ever desirous of a more stable regional order it would find the balancing act between the core and the periphery difficult to maintain.

This destabilisation leads to only one outcome, which is the empowerment of Iran at the expense of a divided and weak GCC. Questions over cooperation on Syria, missile defence integration, joint information sharing over suspected individuals with terrorist links are all areas for major concern.

This raises important questions for Western policy makers, most important of which are whether UK and US postures in the Gulf should be adapted to a GCC which struggles to prioritise its own security concerns. It is a source of deep concern that current commitments to the Gulf following extensive multilateral consultations such as the US-Gulf Security Forum, and Operation Ferocious Falcon (which involves the cooperation of all Gulf states and a number of international partners), are now in need of revision.

Secondly, a reprioritisation of diplomatic engagements with the Gulf states needs to be considered, UK policy is heavily premised upon building bilateral relationships with all six member states. Despite the preference of Gulf states themselves to engage bilaterally with outsiders, from a macro standpoint it cannot work in a deeply divided Gulf. Thus strong UK links to Qatar may well undermine existing relationships with Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, and it must be considered whether the collective strength of the GCC is more than the sum of its individual parts. A policy of non-alignment with any GCC actor is, in the context of the zero-sum politics in the Gulf, seen as an insufficient indicator of diplomatic support.

Ultimately there are no good scenarios that emanate from the current crisis, even if the UAE and Saudi get their way, relations with Qatar will be damaged for some time to come, and there is little benefit to be gained. Ayatollah Khamenei will surely be looking on in amusement.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

Michael Stephens

Associate Fellow

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