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GCC: A glimmer of hope or condemned to history? Open in fullscreen

Stasa Salacanin

GCC: A glimmer of hope or condemned to history?

The GCC is still struggling on [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 June, 2019

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Analysis: The future of the GCC has been called into question with the current blockade on Qatar. Despite the current bad blood between member states, there have been some achievements.
It has been two years since the start of the current Gulf crisis, sparked by a blockade on Qatar by four regional neighbours. The spat has created a deep rift in the Arab world, with lasting effects that have been felt throughout the entire MENA region. The ongoing crisis has completely crippled the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), threatening the very survival of this organisation.

With no solution in sight many analysts claim that the days of GCC as a meaningful organisation are numbered, even several recent events have been seen, by some, as a glimmer of hope for the seriously wounded Gulf union, at least in the long run.

Warmer words during the holy month

The slightly warmer tones from some Gulf states could be heard last month, when Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa made a courtesy telephone call to Qatar's Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani to mark the first day of Ramadan.

After two years of heavy words between the two countries, this news rather surprising, as was the arrival of a Bahraini and Saudi delegation to Doha for the Asia Cooperation Dialogue meeting on 1 May. Finally, high ranking officials from all six Gulf states met in Mecca on 30 May participating at three emergency summits - the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Arab League, and the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) - initiated by Saudi Arabia to consider recent developments in the region.

However, these events may lead to a false impression of a sudden improvement in relations and reconciliation among once brotherly Gulf states. It would be naïve to expect that one phone call or courtesy handshake may resolve the accumulated resentments. After all, Qatar's foreign minister has questioned the hard-line statements on Iran by some Gulf states.

The ongoing crisis has deeply affected the GCC, which unfortunately deteriorated into an unfunctional and meaningless organisation but it will probably not be dissolved.

Qatari presence at the meetings were interpreted by some as a signal that Doha is leaving the door open to the possibility that in the future Gulf nations could find a common language and carry on with cooperation through the GCC or some other future regional arrangement. Qatar, as well as other GCC founding members, would thus never walk away from the organisation that once they helped to create.

The future of the GCC

Rory Miller, professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar, recalls that the main goal of the GCC was to provide for the physical and economic security of member states albeit in a very imperfect way. But from the Qatari perspective, instead of security and prosperity, Doha has faced with unprecedented threats to its sovereignty coming from its closest brotherly neighbours.

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"The blockade has created a vacuum that has led to insecurity, disorder and instability with no framework inside the region that local actors can use to defuse problems or promote cooperation," Miller told The New Arab.

Tarik Yousef, a senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development programme and the director of the Brooking Doha Center, fears that there is a growing risk of GCC becoming another failed regional integration project in the Arab world.

The blockade has created a vacuum that has led to insecurity, disorder and instability with no framework inside the region that local actors can use to defuse problems or promote cooperation.
- Rory Miller, professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar


"In the past few decades, we have witnessed several cooperation initiatives that did not survive major internal political rifts or external geopolitical shifts and became overtime zombie organisations that exist only in name," he told The New Arab. For a long time, the GCC proved to be the exception to that pattern in the Arab world but the bloc is increasingly facing the same outcome.

However, at a regional level, GCC committees have continued to function and meet regularly. While in most cases these meetings avoid addressing any political issues, the representatives from all GCC members are involved.

Yousef said that continued functioning of the GCC at ministerial and committee levels is essential for sustaining the public perception of the bloc's relevance and providing momentum for the organisation.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy and an advisor at Gulf State Analytics, notices that there have been many pragmatic workarounds. He said these have been aimed at ensuring there remains at least a minimum of cooperation on issues of mutual interests, while keeping "alive the possibility that the organisation could one day begin to recohere if political conditions ever permit".

For Yousef, these meetings cannot be a substitute for resolving the fundamental rift within the bloc. Low-level bureaucratic engagement, moreover, risks providing false comfort to countries, while the underlying problems that require attention get ignored and further undermine the GCC's future.

Therefore, making any conclusion about the possibility of saving the bloc through such occasional meetings are simply premature and unrealistic.

Deep mistrust 

The blockade is still in place and a solution appears distant. Qatar and the Quartet states (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) are deeply entrenched in their positions creating making it difficult to reverse the current rift. A long list of demands and accusations by the blockading powers have made the possibility of reaching a compromise virtually impossible.

It is unimaginable to expect Qatar to accept the ultimatum to shut down Al Jazeera, for example, or make a U-turn on its foreign policy in order to please its neighbours. After successfully responding to an imposed blockade, there is a view that Qatar is better off without its former GCC allies, although lowering tensions in the neighbourhood would also be beneficial.

It is hard to reconcile the presumed achievements of these low-cost summit efforts to contain the dispute.
- Tarik Yousef, a senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development programme


On the other hand, it would be highly embarrassing for Quartet states to simply walk away from the spat and lift the blockade, thus neglecting the past two years of intense pressure it has applied on Doha and the accusations against the Gulf state.

Therefore, it is difficult to imagine how the trust between the parties involved in the row could reappear.

Irrelevance

Miller expressed serious doubts that the GCC can ever return to what it was before the blockade, even if committees meet or the six member states send senior figures to occasional summits on major regional issues such as happened in Mecca on 30 May.

Yousef added that if anything, the optics at the Mecca summits and subsequent public statements by officials suggest that even the minimum political investment required to give the appearance of coherence and avoid public controversy may not be available to the bloc now.

So, although GCC is not a functioning organisation, it may well limp on through as a framework for certain interactions but nothing substantive that is going to profoundly influence the experiences of the peoples and governments of the Gulf, Miller noted.

"It is hard to reconcile the presumed achievements of these low-cost summit efforts to contain the dispute with the growing divergence of policy preferences and outcomes within the bloc on critical security threats and geopolitical shifts," Yousef explained.

From Miller's view, the GCC is thus only relevant as a reminder of a time when it served as a framework that facilitated, albeit imperfect, cooperation between local actors - all of whom still have disagreements with each other. Leaders of those countries were willing to use the GCC framework to find compromises and to deal with other through mainly economic priorities. That was quite an achievement, though an underestimated one.


Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.  

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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