GCC News Roundup: Qatar leaves OPEC, Saudi Arabia reshuffles cabinet (December 1-31)

The logo of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is seen inside their headquarters in Vienna, Austria December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

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Qatar to leave OPEC in January

On December 3, Qatar announced that it would leave OPEC in January in order to focus on gas, denying that the decision was political. However, Qatari energy minister Saad al-Kaabi said at the time that the oil business “is controlled by an organization managed by a country,” referring to Saudi Arabia.

Qatar’s decision comes amid the continuing blockade that it has been subjected to by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt since June 2017. As Qatar produces only around 600,000 barrels of oil per day, its withdrawal is not expected to have a significant impact on OPEC’s market influence. That being said, its decision indicates Qatar’s intention to pursue a more independent energy policy going forward.

Saudi Arabia reshuffles cabinet

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman reshuffled his cabinet on December 27, appointing a number of new ministers and security officials. Many of the new appointees are supporters of Prince Mohammed bin Salman. One of the more notable moves was the replacement of Adel al-Jubeir as foreign minister by former finance minister Ibrahim al-Assaf.

The cabinet shakeup comes in the wake of significant international controversy stirred by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October. However, a Saudi official stated that the changes were required by law, due to the closing of the cabinet’s four year term.

UAE reopens embassy in Syria

The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Syria on December 27, having previously closed it in 2011 following the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. UAE foreign affairs minister Anwar Gargash said on Twitter that “The Arab role in Syria has become more necessary in light of the regional, Turkish and Iranian, presence.” The move is also seen as a step by the UAE toward normalizing relations with Assad.

Bahrain upholds 5-year jail sentence for activist

Bahrain’s high court decided on December 31 to uphold a five-year jail sentence for human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. Campaign groups were quick to decry the decision as “political persecution” and “utterly outrageous.”

Rajab is a critic of the government who was highly involved in pro-democracy protests in 2011. He was convicted in February 2018 for social media posts criticizing Saudi Arabia’s air strikes in Yemen and the use of torture in prisons. Rajab is already serving a two-year sentence for comments he made about torture during an interview and is facing several additional charges.