By Norman T. Roule
Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah gestures during a news conference with Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, following the annual summit of GCC, in Kuwait CityBy HAMAD I MOHAMMED / REUTERS. @Adobe Stock Images.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt broke diplomatic relations with Qatar and formed the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ). One year on, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) headquarters remain open in Riyadh, but for many scholars and Gulf watchers, the organization’s future is in doubt. While the GCC organization is not yet irrelevant, history shows that it has enjoyed few achievements as a security alliance and limited, albeit not insubstantial, successes in advancing regional economic integration. Most troublesome, however, is the fact that it has been largely unable to mediate conflicts involving its member states, most especially Qatar.

The GCC was established on May 25, 1981, as a security alliance during a time of tectonic regional political and military developments. Of its six members, three (Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE) had been independent for only a decade. However, these six states faced a series of common threats that encouraged collective security.

First, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty undermined pan-Arab solidarity and the credibility of the Arab League as a body capable of representing Gulf countries’ interests. Second, Iran had grown more hostile in the wake of its Islamic Revolution. The 1981 Iran-inspired coup attempt in Bahrain heightened concerns about the Islamic Republic’s ability to radicalize and exploit Shi’a populations throughout the Gulf, while the Iran–Iraq War and the prospect of a US–Iran conflict underscored the need for collective defense. Finally, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the growing presence of Russian and Cuban advisors in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and Moscow’s efforts to inflame East Africa ignited concerns that the region would become a cockpit of Great Power competition.

The six states shared multiple characteristics that provided a strong foundation for integration. Culturally, they enjoyed a common language, a common religion, and tribal affiliations. Politically, they were all led by monarchies supported by similar administrative structures. Militarily, the various states were relatively weak residents of a dangerous neighborhood. Economically, the countries were sustained by the export of oil, gas, and petroleum products in a sellers’ market that saw little competition among producers.

However, the six states also brought historical grievances and suspicions that would challenge integration. National boundaries remained unclear but increasingly important given the impact on each nation’s oil holding. Furthermore, unlike the European Union (EU), which includes several powerful states, the GCC would inevitably be dominated by Saudi Arabia, a fact that unsettled the other members.

The tumult of the GCC organization’s first decade highlighted the ongoing need for security integration as the Iran–Iraq War raged, Iranian missiles landed in the Saudi–Kuwaiti neutral zone, and the tanker war brought the United States and Iran to the brink of open conflict. In 1984, GCC leaders established a common defense unit, the Peninsula Shield Force (PSF). While some saw the PSF as the first step toward a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)–like structure, the Saudi-based “rapid reaction force” never supplanted the role of member states’ militaries. The 1990s opened with continued threats from Iran and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which shattered illusions that the GCC could provide for its own defense in the face of a well-armed adversary. Since then, deploying the PSF to stabilize Bahrain in 2011 was the GCC organization’s only real security success.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the GCC organization made real strides toward economic integration. The 2000 GCC summit approved a proposal allowing Gulf nationals to work in any member country. One year later, GCC leaders agreed to accelerate efforts to develop a customs union, a joint market, and ultimately a common currency. Beginning in 2002, the GCC states began pegging their respective currencies to the US dollar. And by 2008, the GCC organization had facilitated the elimination of barriers to the movement of labor and capital between its members and began to discuss a free trade agreement with Europe. However, with the failure to establish a central bank, hope for further economic integration quickly faded. While GCC leaders have been willing to reduce business barriers, up until this point they have been unwilling to tolerate any loss of economic sovereignty.

From the beginning, the GCC organization proved unable to resolve a series of sharp internal disputes among member states, most especially between Qatar and its neighbors—although there have been other disputes that have not involved Doha, mostly around borders (i.e. Saudi Arabia-UAE, Saudi Arabia-Kuwait).

The decades-long confrontation between Bahrain and Qatar over the Hawar Islands and Zubarah further demonstrates the fragility of GCC cohesion and the limitations of the GCC organization as a mediating body. In 1986, after Qatari troops detained Bahraini officials and Dutch workers on one of the islands, the intervention of GCC leaders—not the GCC organization—prevented further escalation. The issue flared up again in 1996 and was seemingly resolved by an International Court of Justice ruling in 2001, but it arose again when Manama reasserted its claim to the islands in 2017.

A 1992–93 border quarrel between Riyadh and Doha led to skirmishes that left several dead and resulted in Qatar’s boycotting the 1994 GCC summit.Qatar and Saudi Arabia also supported opposing sides in Yemen’s 1994 civil war, foreshadowing their stances post–Arab Spring. But Qatar’s June 1995 coup proved to be a watershed moment for the GCC organization. Over the next two years the new emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani,repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE of plotting countercoups. Finally, in 2005, Doha stripped Qatari citizenship from five thousand members of the Bani Murra tribe that straddled the border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Ostensibly done to rid the country of a Saudi-supported threat, this action represented a symbolic blow to GCC efforts at integration.

Fueled by gas wealth, Qatar’s GDP more than doubled to $17 billion between 1995 and 2000. Empowered by these new riches, Sheikh Hamad sought to demonstrate his country’s independence from Riyadh. In 1995, Qatar opposed the appointment of a Saudi as GCC secretary-general and boycotted the GCC summit’s closing session; rumors circulated that the tiny emirate was considering withdrawing from the GCC organization altogether. One year later, it angered its neighbors by permitting Israel to open a trade office in Doha. Qatar also strengthened ties with GCC antagonist Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest independent gas field, providing 60 percent of Doha’s export revenue.

Sheikh Hamad also sought new mechanisms to expand Doha’s regional influence. In 1996, Qatar offered to fund a new US airbase at al-Udayd, which reduced Doha’s reliance on the GCC security umbrella and provided Qatar with a powerful tool it could leverage to obtain US diplomatic support. That same year, Sheikh Hamad sank $150 million into a new satellite television station, al-Jazeera, to counter GCC-backed regional and international media critiques. Constrained only in its reporting on Qatar, al-Jazeera corroded intra-GCC relationships by flooding the airwaves with unfavorable reporting on Doha’s neighbors. Al-Jazeera further infuriated the GCC by providing an open platform for antagonists like Osama bin Laden and Muslim Brotherhood figure Yusuf al-Qaradawi and demonstrating a clear anti-American bias, which complicated its neighbors’ increasingly sensitive ties to Washington.

Qatar’s close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood illustrates the inability of GCC member states to develop a common approach to ideological threats. Although it closed its own Muslim Brotherhood branch in 1999, Qatar continued to back the Brotherhood’s many regional affiliates despite the objections of its neighbors. When regional regimes faced the prospect of Islamist-instigated unrest during the Arab Spring, Qatar increased its support for the movement to extend its own influence—a move that was quickly perceived as a direct threat to the survival of Gulf regimes. Qatar’s strong financial support for Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, for example, infuriated other GCC states that had maintained strong relations with Hosni Mubarak. Absent a common understanding on the Brotherhood, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi found themselves supporting allies in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria who were opposed by Qatar-funded opponents.

Emir Hamad’s 2013 abdication in favor of his thirty-three-year-old son Tamim sparked hopes of a restart, but these were quickly dashed when Doha provided a safe haven for allies of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. In response, Qatar’s neighbors compelled the new emir to sign agreements in 2013 and 2014 that stipulated noninterference in the internal affairs of GCC member states and an end to Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Yemeni oppositionists. Diplomatic pressure eventually led Qatar to expel Muslim Brotherhood figures and Emirati dissidents, shutter al-Jazeera’s branch in Cairo, and join other GCC states in backing the restoration of ousted president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government in Yemen.

Despite these steps, Qatar’s neighbors, already concerned about the tiny emirate’s ties to Iran, became increasingly suspicious of Sheikh Tamim’s making overtures to Turkey. In 2015, Doha increased intelligence cooperation with Ankara and allowed the Turkish military to establish its first base on the Arabian Peninsula since the Ottoman era. Qatar also backed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the 2016 coup attempt and subsequently became the second-largest investor in Turkey. For Qatar, its political, military, and economic partnership with Turkey enabled it to expand its regional footprint and, in the eyes of other GCC states, to sustain the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist actors in Libya, Syria, and Tunisia.

The final straw for Saudi Arabia and the UAE came with reports that Qatar had arranged the release of a Qatari hunting party held hostage in Iraq by paying as much as $500 million to a witch’s brew of bad actors, including Iran’s Quds Force, Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi militia Kitaeb Hezbollah, and the Syrian Islamist group al-Nusra. The idea that Qatar would allegedly fund so many longtime adversaries enraged many in the region who saw themselves under attack by these very groups. After weeks of diplomatic skirmishing in which the GCC organization played no role, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the Maldives, and the UAE cut diplomatic ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017. Egypt and Yemen soon followed.

Although some analysts claimed the Saudi crown prince initiated this move, it would be more accurate to say that the demands responded to regional leaders’ deep sense that militant Islamists and their ideology represented an existential threat. Indeed, the ATQ justified the boycott with claims that Qatar had supported al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Houthis, and Iran-backed militias.

In July, the ATQ gave Qatar ten days to comply with thirteen demands. These included that Doha reduce its ties with Iran; close the Turkish military base; sever ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and those designated by the international community as terrorists; shutter al-Jazeera and a handful of other pro-Brotherhood news sites; repatriate and cease contact with Bahraini, Egyptian, Emirati, and Saudi oppositionists; and pay unspecified reparations.

But perhaps the most important demand was that Qatar align its “military, political, social, and economic policies with the other Gulf and Arab countries, as well as on economic matters, as per the 2014 agreement reached with Saudi Arabia.” In short, Qatar was being asked to end three decades of pro-Islamist foreign policy making. Doha rejected the demands as an attack on its sovereignty.

Events since that time have been unsurprising. Qatar’s vast gas wealth enabled it to survive the blockade, and the Qatari people rallied around the emir amid reports of Saudi- and Emirati-inspired coup attempts. Iran and Turkey filled the commercial void following the loss of GCC products. At this point, neither side can back down without considerable loss of face, which is simply not acceptable in a period of political instability. The relative youth of the leaders involved also means that this fracture will shape their regional paradigm for years to come.

Doha’s robust outreach campaign to rouse support in the United States and Europe produced little. Qatar’s ties to Turkey have questionable strategic value, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–dominated Iran offers few benefits to Qatar beyond stable joint exploitation of the gas field the two countries share. In June 2018, Qatar demonstrated its intent to maintain a course outside the GCC by claiming to seek membership in NATO, which quickly rejected this odd request. Despite periodic claims by Qatar’s allies that the blockade has been a failure, the economic and political costs of the blockade remain insufficient to compel the ATQ to back down.

The rupture also encouraged a new regional economic and political coalition involving Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Manama, and Riyadh. Kuwait and Oman remain outside the group and are likely to stay outside. While Kuwait would certainly endorse most of the thirteen demands, it is unlikely to abandon its position as mediator. Oman’s fragile economy, geographic position, and history have produced relations with Tehran and the Houthis that Muscat argues can be used to calm regional tensions.

So, what does this mean for the future of the GCC organization? In short, the GCC organization’s effectiveness has long been limited to economic issues, but its inability to promote economic integration will delay solutions to important, if long-standing, problems. The GCC states all face the need to promote policies that will encourage employment opportunities for their youth-dominated populations. The best way to do this would be to develop a regional approach to a series of common problems including bloated public sectors, weak intra-GCC transportation systems, and the lack of data transparency. As the ongoing VAT Reform indicates, some collective structural evolution is possible, but this is likely to be increasingly rare.

Thus, the GCC organization may not be dead, but it will remain in stasis until the Qatar crisis is resolved. Gulf leaders no doubt appreciate the GCC organization’s potential for cooperation, and they will be reluctant to abandon a structure that has symbolic significance and could play a limited role in the future. Restructuring the organization to reflect regional political realities is unlikely. Although some suggested as recently as 2011 that Morocco and Jordan be allowed to join the group, the problems associated with any new formation would be significant, and it is unclear what problems any new configuration would solve.

The turmoil in the Middle East will not end in the foreseeable future. To ensure stability, the Gulf needs a structure to promote regional economic reforms, a mechanism to develop a common framework against militant Islam, and a forum to demonstrate unity against Iran. With the majority of boundary disputes that once plagued the region now resolved, the GCC organization could be a useful player in these efforts, although its members will not allow it authority such as that enjoyed by NATO or the EU. But even this aspiration will remain on hold until Qatar ceases policies that so many of its neighbors consider harmful to their long-term security and regional unity is restored.