Nader Kabbani—Director of Research, Brookings Doha Center; Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development: The Gulf crisis has entered its seventh month, disrupting trade, investments, and employment across the region and imposing economic costs on both Qatar and the blockading countries of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. There have been several windows of opportunity to resolve the conflict, beginning with the end of Ramadan three weeks after its start, once it became clear that the blockading countries would not achieve their goal of forcing capitulation or political change in Qatar. The most recent missed opportunity was the GCC summit this week in Kuwait. The conflict comes at a time when countries of the GCC face pressing challenges, including the need to reform their economies and other geopolitical challenges. The sooner they meet to resolve their issues, the better for their own collective interests.
Below, Brookings experts discuss their takeaways from the GCC summit and discuss the ongoing regional dispute.
Former Brookings Expert - Brookings Doha Center
Beverley Milton-Edwards—Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center: The GCC summit highlights the fact that the dispute has irreversibly weakened the GCC and exposed its weaknesses. A one-day summit in Kuwait could not possibly begin to redress the political, economic, social, and strategic damage done by the six-month dispute. The obvious downgrade of representation from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE also indicated an unwillingness to consider a resolution. Moreover, the GCC Secretariat and Secretary-General Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani has observed a media silence regarding ways to end the conflict.
In his closing remarks, GCC summit host and chief mediator, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah indicated his own frustration, declaring that the GCC mechanisms for dispute resolution would have to change to confront future challenges. The summit does not mark the “beginning of the end of the Gulf crisis,” but it could signal the demise of the GCC itself.
Kadira Pethiyagoda—Nonresident Fellow, Brookings Doha Center: The announced Saudi-UAE alliance separate from the GCC terminally weakens the grouping, already torn apart by the stoush regarding Qatar. This strengthens the hand of most outside powers in their ability to deal with individual GCC countries, particularly those under less Saudi influence, like Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. This will likely benefit India and China which are increasingly important economic and strategic partners to the Gulf states. Particularly from China’s perspective, states like Oman, whose relations with the United States are relatively weaker, may in future provide even greater opportunity for Beijing’s strategic entry. Chinese and Indian stances on regional conflicts, which sit somewhere in between U.S. and Saudi positions, and the Russia-Iran axis, may also receive better reception from states like Oman and Qatar if there is less pressure to adopt a unified GCC position. India’s reaction to the fracturing will likely be to re-emphasize its friend-to-all approach.
Noha Aboueldahab—Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center: Ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed less than 24 hours before the GCC summit convened in Kuwait. Despite this major historical turning point in the region, the GCC members did not issue a significant statement on Yemen. Instead, the fragile coalition of GCC states condemned the Houthis for killing Saleh, but did little to offer any plan that helps bring an end to the conflict. This deafening silence regarding the world’s worst humanitarian crisis caused by all warring parties provides no optimism for any quick resolution to the war in Yemen. The catastrophic transition agreement brokered by the GCC in 2011 allowed Saleh to retain much of his power. Once the current violence (hopefully) subsides, the GCC—or whatever is left of it—would do well not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Adel Abdel Ghafar—Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Doha Center: The GCC Summit provided an opportunity for Gulf countries to heal the rift that has divided them since June 2017; however, despite Kuwait’s best efforts, this opportunity slipped away. By not attending in person, Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini leaders are sending a signal to the region and the world that the ongoing rift is the new normal. This, coupled with the announcement that Saudi and the UAE will form a new political and military alliance indicates that they are moving to bypass the GCC all together, further weakening the organization and casting doubt on its future.
Ranj Alaaldin—Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center: It should come as no surprise that the GCC summit ended a day earlier than scheduled. Six months since the crisis erupted, there have been little, if any, indicators to suggest relations between Qatar and the blockading countries will be normalized anytime soon. If anything, the Gulf crisis has been sidelined by other regional developments, particularly, the regional and international focus toward Iran and its engagements in Lebanon and Syria. The institution of the GCC risks becoming irrelevant if the impasse continues. It could become the new normal, especially if the new UAE-Saudi economic and military partnership becomes an institutionalized, permanent regional fixture. However, that the summit itself took place is a positive step forward. While there may still be limited trust between the conflicted actors, there may yet be openings for further dialogue and, down the line, political and economic cooperation.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad—Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center: The summit attended by all member-states presented a formidable occasion if not to revitalize the GCC, but to reverse the impression of irreversible dysfunctionality—not least vis-à-vis the regional rival Iran. Instead, the last-minute undermining by Saudi Arabia and the UAE by downgrading the officials they sent and the creation of their own independent committee on the very same day, deepened the GCC crisis.
Riyadh’s inability to bring an end to the self-imposed conflicts over Yemen and Qatar, as well as to push Lebanon away from Iran, reflects its strategic ineptitude to devise a wise and workable containment policy towards an expansive Iran.