Break Up in the Gulf

On March 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain announced that they had withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar, claiming that Doha had been violating a clause in the Gulf Cooperation Council charter banning interference in the domestic affairs of fellow GCC members. The decision, unprecedented in the GCC’s history, hints at significant changes to come for the GCC and the balance of power in the Gulf.

The dispute between GCC members had been simmering for a while, and it was only a matter of time before it boiled over. In December, during a GCC Summit in Kuwait, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had been close to singling out Qatar for its alleged financing of terrorism in Syria and elsewhere. But, at the last minute, the Saudis pulled the plug to avoid embarrassing their Kuwaiti hosts. They opted instead to give Doha a stern private warning. A couple of weeks before that, Saudi leaders scolded new Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim during a meeting in Riyadh that was arranged by Kuwaiti leader Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad. The 33-year-old Tamim was asked to make serious adjustments to his country’s foreign policy, including that the country stop allegedly funding al Qaeda­–affiliated groups in Syria. The young Tamim reportedly agreed, but requested some time to make the necessary changes.

Tamim eventually managed to reduce Doha’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. But, realizing that it had lost in Syria, Doha doubled down on outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in the region, including Hamas. In addition, it continued efforts to cozy up to Iran and Turkey, support the Al Houthi rebels in Yemen, and test the waters with Hezbollah. In doing so, Doha was touching every nerve and ringing every alarm bell in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, where officials were doing all they could to finish off the Muslim Brotherhood (including labeling it as terrorist group and propping up Egypt’s military chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, by paving the way for his presidency).

No wonder, then, that the Bahrainis, Emiratis, and Saudis soon accused Qatar of trying to undermine the GCC and recalled their ambassadors. But where does this leave Qatar? Tamim has two options, neither of which is good. He can either fully comply with the wishes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE — which would cost him his relationship with Qatar’s old guard, including his father — or consolidate his role by working with his father’s allies and freeing his country once and for all from the shackles of Saudi influence and an increasingly irrelevant GCC.

Tamim might not survive the first scenario, given how difficult it would be to confront not only his family but also the enormously influential ex-prime minister and foreign minister Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani. But the second option wouldn’t be easy, either. In that scenario, Qatar would more forcefully ally itself with Iran, with which it already has strong economic ties. It would also get politically and economically closer to Oman, which already has friendly relations with Tehran. But that wouldn’t come without costs either. The Sultanate is essentially in the GCC doghouse for refusing to adopt the group’s standard line against Iran. Should Qatar join that club, it will be hard for it to ever reverse course with the GCC.

Should Qatar become friendlier with Iran and Oman, it would signal the death of the GCC and herald a new power alignment in the Gulf. It would also severely complicate U.S. plans in the Middle East. For some time, the United States has encouraged the Arab Gulf States to think and act more collectively to enhance Gulf security. But with increasing tensions among GCC members, including possible divorces, this goal seems increasingly unrealistic. Washington may come to see that its Gulf allies will not be able to provide regional security anytime soon and, as a result, think twice about plans to reduce the U.S. political and military footprint there. 

Qatar’s spat with its Saudi and Emirati neighbors also creates another policy dilemma for the United States. Washington has strategic relations with all three states, which will become difficult to manage if they aren’t on speaking terms. It is possible that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could even lobby the United States to help shut down money flows out of Doha under the guise of counterterrorism. But Washington might not be receptive. Qatar hosts the Al Udeid Air Base and the Combined Air and Space Operations Center, which coordinated all of the U.S. attack and surveillance missions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, although the U.S. Treasury Department and State Department may show readiness to entertain Saudi and Emirati punitive measures against Doha, the Pentagon will probably put the brakes on any such plans. 

In the coming days, the departure of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar will likely trigger rushed consultations among the Arab Gulf States. And these will probably lead to some sort of political settlement to defuse the crisis. But make no mistake about it, this is a new political era in the Arab Gulf, one in which individual states are charting their own courses and where the idea of unity, no matter how hard Saudi Arabia pushes for it, is rapidly fading.

Bilal Y. Saab is resident senior fellow for Middle East security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, specializing in the politics, security, and defense-industrial affairs of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Gulf and the Levant.

Image: Heads of States of the Gulf Cooperation Council sit at a round table in Bayan Palace for the opening session of the 34th GCC Summit hosted by Kuwait Dec. 10, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)