BY: SOPHIE OLVER-ELLIS
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), comprised of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar, was founded in 1981 and rapidly constructed in response to regional socio-political volatility caused by the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. The central objective of the GCC was to be a regional counterweight against states such as Iran. But due to its rapid formation, the Council lacks formal institutional design and policy approaches to regional socio-political and economic issues, which would go unaddressed over the subsequent decades. Indeed, over the last decade, there have been attempts to streamline the GCC into an economic bloc by creating a customs union, a single currency entitled the ‘Gulf Dinar,’ a common market alongside closer political integration. However, these economic strategies have yet to materialise, and the increasing political tension between member states is dividing the GCC, with its future hanging in the balance.
Historically, there have been points in time where the longevity of the bloc and that of its members have come into question. This has been particularly the case for Qatar, who is no stranger to being branded the rogue state of the GCC due to it’s alleged bankrolling of terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda and Hamas, strengthening diplomatic ties with Iran, and openly criticising their GCC counterparts, especially Saudi Arabia, on their state-sponsored news outlet Al Jazeera. This alleged activity of Qatar resulted in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE cutting diplomatic ties with the state, because, in their view, the Qatari government was meddling in the internal affairs and sovereignty of their nation. As a result, in 2014 the country was considered a political and security threat to the Arabian Gulf. This diplomatic stalemate was overcome, however, through the Kuwaiti government mediating a solution, whereby Qatar had to make several concessions such as relocating Islamist dissidents to London and Istanbul, alongside closing down the Al Jazeera branch in Egypt. The Council reconciled, trade routes were re-established, diplomatic ties restored, and the GCC survived.
Fast forward to June 2017, when hostility replaced reconciliation and Bahrain called for suspension of Qatar’s membership to the GCC. The crux of this most recent crisis is rooted in similar issues as before, which is the Qatari state harbouring key Muslim Brotherhood members alongside supporting groups and media outlets that threaten the stability and security of the already volatile region. Spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, who ironically also has a strong history of covert support and financing of extremist groups such as ISIL and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the GCC sought to impose a trade embargo on the Qatari state through implementing an air, land and sea blockade. To end this punitive strategy, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt presented a list of 13 demands that were to be met by Qatar within 10 days, which included shutting down the state-run Al Jazeera news network, ceasing close diplomatic ties with Iran and cutting financial support to Islamist groups. Qatar was also required to align their military, socio-political and economic policies to that of other GCC members and cease interacting with political groups that oppose the region’s national governments. Qatar refused on the basis that the demands violated international law and threatened their sovereignty.
With the blockade now entering its forty-third week, it will be much more difficult to repair the socio-political and economic fractures between these states; none of these developments bode well for the future of the GCC, especially as its member states are looking to form ties with other countries. For example, the UAE recently announced that they had formed a separate committee with Saudi Arabia, whereby they will cooperate on economic, political, cultural, trade and military matters and thus, could make the role of the GCC within these states redundant. Additionally, Qatar has looked to strengthen its ties with Jordan and the United States of America. With Jordan, for example, despite the downgrade of diplomatic representation at the beginning of the crisis, economic cooperation, trade, and investment between these two states has increased and expected to grow beyond its current estimate of 2 billion USD with the assistance of the Chamber of Commerce of both countries. While with the US, the government has advocated that all GCC states need to compromise, leading the US to open a strategic dialogue with the Qatari state. In doing so, the US declared Qatar an ally and is seeking to deepen their security and economic ties by combating terrorism through disseminating critical information, providing counterterrorism funding, while Qatar is investing more than 100 billion USD in the US economy.
Due to the growing socio-political volatility within the Arabian Gulf, doubt regarding the future of the GCC has increased, raising questions as to what is next for the member states amid the malfunctioning bloc. With its members looking to other countries to create socio-economic and political ties, the political economies of the Arabian Gulf are being re-drawn. The longer the crisis goes on, the greater the fractures will become between the member states – the once-powerful GCC could be making its final stand and heading for its demise.
Dr. Sophie Olver-Ellis is a political economist with a PhD from the University of Bath which focuses on the transforming political economies of the Arabian Gulf. She holds over nine year’s research experience with particular expertise on the changing social, political and economic structures of the Gulf region by exploring the changing dynamics within the oil economies and how they are preparing for the post-oil era.
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