Tuesday’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Riyadh was a stormy affair, writes Abdelbari Atwan. The sullen-faced member states’ Foreign Ministers engaged in several disputes and disagreements and then came the announcement that Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were all withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar, alleging that Doha has been “meddling” in their own internal affairs.
In a joint statement, the three countries said they had made ‘major efforts to convince Qatar to implement a November 2013 agreement not to back anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals – via direct security work or through political influence – and not to support hostile media.
This move is unprecedented since the GCC’s establishment more than 30 years ago. The reasons for Qatar’s problem with its Gulf colleagues are: Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and the sympathetic coverage of the movement by Al-Jazeera television which is Qatar’s main media vehicle. The TV station has also been harshly critical of the present regime in Egypt which seized power after the military coup which overthrew President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Bahraini, Saudi, UAE triangle has been pumping more than 20 billion dollars into the new Egyptian regime, and the Saudi king was the first well-wisher to recognize and congratulate Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after the army toppled President Morsi.
The State of Qatar, in an official statement released by the Council of Ministers, said that it would not withdraw its ambassadors in response and would remain committed to “preserve and protect the security and stability” of the Gulf countries. A further reason for friction is that Qatar and Oman have refused to further calls by the Saudis, Bahrain and the UAE for increased economic, political and military union among the GCC countries.
The withdrawal of the ambassadors has made the breach public and marks a new stage for the Gulf Cooperation Council; three groups are emerging and it is no longer possible to hide this division.
The first group, the Saudi-Bahrain-UAE group is the largest and most powerful militarily and financially. The second consists of Qatar, alone. The third is two neutral countries: the Sultanate of Oman, which has displayed diminishing enthusiasm for membership of the Council, has strongly opposed the plan for a common currency as well as a more formal union and maintains strong ties with the Saudis’ nemesis, Iran.
Oman’s companion in this group is Kuwait, which prefers not to take sides in the dispute with Qatar. Having said this, Kuwait probably leans more towards the first group and would act as mediator between it and Qatar when it hosts a Gulf summit on the 24th of this month.
The crisis begs the question of whether the GCC can continue in its present form or if the three groups will divorce or perhaps re-invent themselves in a looser federation or confederation. The question that arises now is whether Qatar’s rivals will seek to take further action against it.
A well-placed Gulf source told us that one reason for the current stand-off is that Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah (described as Dove of Peace in the Gulf) is currently recovering from surgery in a hospital.
More serious measures against Qatar might follow: Saudi Arabia and the UAE could close their borders with Qatar, and their air space to Qatari planes. They might even consider economic sanctions.
While the idea of military actions seems highly unlikely, it is nonetheless a remarkable circumstance in the context of this story that the UAE is currently hosting a large number of Egyptian troops for joint military exercises. It is possible that these exercises are to do with a potential attack on Iran, but the timing suggests that is not the case. The Egyptian leadership has accused Qatar more than once of having threatened its national security.
It may be also be useful to recall that in the past , the same Saudi-Bahrain-UAE alliance conspired in the 1995 military plot to oust the father of the present emir of Qatar. We do not wish a war between brothers , but we must point out the facts and it is certainly the case that history generally repeats itself, and sometimes faster than we expect.