From the Arab Spring Comes a More Unified Gulf Cooperation Council

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

For the Gulf countries, the ongoing Arab spring has meant a difficult period of adjustment. In recent weeks, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have grown increasingly assertive in the foreign policy arena, developing muscular responses to regional unrest.

Qatar has long charted an independent course, by steering a middle path between the duelling sides of the Arab Cold War. It has maintained its relationship with the United States while reaching out to members of the so-called “rejectionist” axis, such as Iran, with which it has a defence cooperation agreement.

Building on past successes – including winning the Middle East’s first ever World Cup bid – Qatar has continued to distinguish itself. It was the first Arab country to recognise Libya’s rebel government, and has made the most significant Arab contribution to the ongoing military intervention there.

All of this raises the question: what exactly does Qatar want? As the smallest Gulf state, Qatar has always been vulnerable. Hosting the largest pre-positioning US military base in the world offers protection. But unlike the rest of the region, Qatar has gone further, styling itself as one of the few Arab nations in tune with Arab popular opinion.

And as Al Jazeera – the Doha-based voice of the Arab revolutions – has risen in stature, so too have its Qatari sponsors. Qatar’s foreign policy has put Qatar on the map, making it considerably more influential than many believe it has any right to be.

Increasingly, though, Qatar has some competition. Saudi Arabia has become the unofficial leader of the region’s “counter-revolution”. Saudi leaders were taken aback by America’s unwillingness to stand by President Hosni Mubarak during his time of need. When Bahrain experienced massive protests – with nearly one out of every five citizens taking to the streets – another red line was crossed.

Saudi Arabia sees the uprisings as an unprecedented threat to regional security. Working through the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Riyadh has tried to devise a united Gulf response to a number of challenges.

First, the GCC put together a $20 billion (Dh73.4billion) aid package for Oman and Bahrain. On March 14, the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force, with troops from Saudi Arabia and police from the United Arab Emirates, entered Bahrain to help quell the protests there.

Not always known for seeing eye to eye on regional issues, the governments of the Gulf are coming together in the face of what they see as common security threats. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have repeatedly accused Iran of fomenting instability in the region, particularly in Bahrain, which has a majority Shiite population. This was reflected in a statement issued by GCC foreign ministers on April 3, in which they charged Iran with meddling and “violating the sovereignty” of member states.

For the UAE, with its large expatriate Iranian population, the relationship with Tehran is particularly delicate, with the two countries long enjoying extensive economic ties.

Outside the Gulf, the GCC is also showing unity. The bloc backed a no-fly zone in Libya well before the US did, with the UAE joining Qatar in sending fighter jets. These joint efforts have laid the foundation for greater GCC cooperation.

While Saudi Arabia remains, by far, the most powerful regional player, it has recognised the need for more multilateral responses. In the process, the GCC, which often seemed less than the sum of its parts, may – like the Arab League – find itself playing a more active, varied role in the Gulf as well as the broader Middle East.

But a more coherent approach doesn’t necessarily mean a more successful one. With the exception of Qatar, the Gulf nations have firmly put themselves in the pro-stability camp, at a time when the whole premise of Western-backed “stability” has been called into question. After all, the pre-revolutionary regimes of Egypt and Tunisia had always claimed that, despite all their faults, they could at the very least be counted on to stave off unrest and instability. But in the end, they couldn’t.

With much of the GCC coalescing into a more coherent bloc, Iran and its proxies are not likely to stay quiet. Already, the troubling sectarian divide has grown more ominous. Meanwhile, with revolutionary Egypt adopting a more independent, nationalist foreign policy, a “non-aligned” axis – also including Turkey, Tunisia, and Qatar – seems to be emerging. In short, the Arab Cold War has not gone away, but it has become considerably more complex.

Domestic changes – in this case, the drive toward greater democracy – often have significant implications for foreign policy, and the Arab spring is no exception. With America’s role in the region uncertain at best, the Gulf countries, for both better and worse, are going their own way. If stability is the intended destination, then they – and the rest of the region – may be in for an unpleasant surprise.