Qatar crisis could cause Gulf Co-operation Council to implode
Sunni council has always had divisions but numerous disputes could pull it apart
Saudi King, Salman bin Abdel Aziz (right) meeting with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson in July. Photograph: EPA/Saudi Press Agency
Founded in 1981 by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, the Sunni council was originally meant to counter threats posed by Iran’s Shia fundamentalist revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan, and future regional disputes.
While the council became an exclusive club for the Gulf’s hereditary tribal monarchs seeking internal security and external protection through military co-operation, the monarchs were not always of one mind and there was no equality among them.
From the outset Saudi Arabia, the largest and richest member, considered itself the senior partner and expected others to emulate not only its conduct of domestic affairs but also to follow its lead in regional and international relations.
Riyadh did not get its way. The others have had separate national interests and policies to pursue. For example, while Saudi Arabia and Kuwait financed Iraq during its war with Iran, Dubai, a constituent of the UAE, continued to trade with Iran.
Today Dubai is uneasy with the UAE’s stand on Qatar, dictated by Abu Dhabi, president of the UAE, creating tensions within the federation.
Qatar has been a maverick since 1995 when Emir Hamad al-Thani and his powerful wife Sheikha Moza ousted his father. Although Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, follows the puritan Wahhabi sect, the duo initiated liberal reforms providing for women’s rights and a written constitution.
The Arabic satellite channel, Al Jazeera, established in 1996, gave the tiny emirate regional reach while Al Jazeera English, launched in 2006, projected Qatar on to the world scene. Qatar also built al-Udeid air base for US central command use, providing the country’s rulers with both military protection and independence.
During the 2011 Arab spring, in spite of Saudi opposition, both Al Jazeera channels backed revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya, and since then have promoted the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab movement seen as a threat by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has patronised al-Qaeda-linked armed groups fighting in Syria but has angered the Saudis by supporting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. Both are regarded as “terrorist” by other Gulf Co-operation Council members. Finally Qatar has maintained ties with Iran, with which the emirate shares a giant gas field, in spite of Saudi pressure to cut connections.
These policies have been retained since Tamim, son of Hamad and Moza, took the throne in 2013.
Although Qatar joined the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi tribal rebels in Yemen, this did not placate aggressive Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and his assertive Abu Dhabi counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed, who have assumed power from their countries’ ailing rulers.
The two Mohammeds have prosecuted the deadly and devastating war in Yemen and launched the unwise and destructive campaign against Qatar which is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Without ceding Qatar’s independence, Emir Tamim cannot concede demands to close Al Jazeera and join the Sunni front against Shia Iran.
The row with Qatar has created serious splits within the GCC, with Bahrain backing Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Oman opposed to the campaign, and Kuwait trying to mediate. Washington is also divided. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson insists Qatar must cut aid to “terrorist” groups but argues the blockade is unjustified, while his boss Donald Trump supports the Saudi stand, ensuring continuation of a punitive policy which threatens the existence of the GCC, weakens Saudi Arabia, and strengthens Iran.