The January Gulf Cooperation Council summit, held in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, marked the end of a deep and highly divisive rift between Qatar and its neighbors. The split was at times so acrimonious that it seemed reconciliation would never be possible. Yet, just as quickly as the rift began, so it was healed, but with none of the major problems between the parties having been seriously addressed.
Today the GCC is once again “united” and Gulf media outlets praise and support “sisterly” countries in effusive displays of solidarity. But the GCC is far from united, and it is hard to know where the organization heads from here.
It is probably too soon to ask such questions; the heat from recent disagreements may need more time to cool before discussions about the GCC and its role in the world can begin. But the biggest problem has yet to be addressed: Ever since its inception, the GCC has struggled to identify a role for itself in regional, or global, affairs.
In fact, the GCC simply struggles to identify what it is full stop. Is the GCC a security alliance of likeminded states, such as NATO? Or is it an economic and cultural powerhouse like ASEAN? Or is it a political and economic bloc like the European Union? The best answer to all these questions is not really, but it could be if the member states wanted it to be.
The GCC is a loosely defined conglomeration that stretches to cover a swathe of social, political, economic, and security issues that concern six states that share cultural, social, and geographical ties. At some points these states cooperate, and at others they compete. At times of cooperation the GCC is a relatively effective body that can mobilize huge fiscal resources to meet the numerous challenges that have beset the Middle East, especially in recent times. But when its members are in competition, the GCC is reduced to a talking shop that is weaker than the sum of its parts.
Given that the GCC was designed primarily to face down the threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran, supported with U.S. military and political muscle, there was always a strong external element to any idea of what the GCC should be. Indeed, the United States did much to define the bloc’s security mission in the years after it was established. Perhaps this is the main reason for the GCC’s confused identity: Its member states knew what they were supposed to be against, but none really knew what they were for.
The GCC was never built to deal with mass internal dissent in the Arab world of the type that arose in 2011 from the collective failures of decades-old regimes that had stagnated politically and economically. That Iran’s political and military strategists capitalized on the region’s fractured polities, where Tehran held some residual political (and religious) support among local populations, merely compounded the problem.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings, the Gulf states (in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) complained to the United States for not doing enough to preserve the old regional order. The United States’ seeming waning commitment to the region only accelerated the GCC’s fracturing, as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all sought to fill the space left by Washington as the regional order began to shift dramatically. All three countries interpreted stability in wildly different ways, lacking any sense of shared responsibility or vision for how the region and its political order should look. They sponsored militias and counterrevolutions and blocked each other’s interests throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Without a unified vision, identity, or security mission (other than what was externally influenced) the GCC states have all chosen different pathways to cope with the drastic social and political upheavals that have spread across the region over the past 10 years. The major break concerning Qatar’s rift with its neighbors was primarily centered around this point. As regional security declined rapidly after the Arab Spring uprisings, the secure wealthy states of the Gulf all differed in their reactions to the revolutions and wars that swept across the Arab world and set about a course of doing what was best for themselves rather than the collective.
And so, the GCC’s internal rift came about because there was never anything that united it in the first place – no set of guiding principles to adhere to, laws to follow, or obligations to meet. This lack of collective vision was exposed in 2011 upon the GCC’s first major regional “internal” test. But it had been there since 1981, a time bomb waiting to go off once the conditions were right. The mixture of pervasive regional insecurity mixed with a U.S. president who seemingly knew little about the region, or failed to consider its nuances, produced the perfect set of conditions for the GCC to fracture.
However, the strategic and legal incoherence of the GCC is exactly the reason why it now survives, and why its members reunited so suddenly. Because Qatar hadn’t broken any rules, there was nothing officially to solve – procedurally it was easy for other GCC members to accept the Qataris back into the fold because there were no procedures to follow. All that was required was for the Gulf’s leaders to determine the problem was over, and it was over.
What is left, though, is a lot of anger and resentment fueled by four years of propaganda and misinformation and a GCC with its dysfunctional realities laid bare for all to see. But the organization has survived, for the most bizarre of reasons, which is that its lack of shape and form means that it can endlessly adapt to be whatever its members wish it to be. For this very reason the GCC will continue to be a constant feature of regional politics. Indeed, it may be more important in the future, perhaps when the United States and China become jointly the biggest players in the region and the Gulf states learn to use their collective weight to bargain between Washington and Beijing.