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GCC rapprochement brings opaque alliance back in step Open in fullscreen

Abdulhadi Ayyad

GCC rapprochement brings opaque alliance back in step

GCC rapprochement was hard won (Getty)

Date of publication: 12 December, 2014

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Gulf alliance agreement to support Egypt is a policy shift for Qatar, but will allow the country the freedom to flex its soft-power muscles again and the countries of the region to focus on more immediate threats.
This week's 35th annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Doha should mark an end to months of tension between GCC members and a return to business as usual for a regional alliance committed to rule by hereditary monarchies.

This patching-up of relations seems to have been possible only after a significant policy shift by Qatar. A number of regional issues had set the country at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular. None was more important than Egypt.

     GCC rapprochement will allow member states to focus on what they regard to be a more immediate threat: Iran
The roots of these tensions - that at one point led Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to recall their ambassadors, an uncharacteristically brazen move for an alliance that likes to keep its internal dealings opaque - go back four years to the start of the Arab Spring and GCC members' competing reactions.

Qatar's outspoken support of the Tunisian revolution placed it at odds with Saudi Arabia, which would ultimately shelter deposed Tunisian despot Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Nevertheless, all Gulf states were happy to see Ben Ali exit the scene in Tunisia without making too much of a fuss. What followed was far more sensitive.

It was Qatari support for the revolution that swept through Egypt on 25 January 2011, that would eventually drive a wedge between the erstwhile friendly - and highly interdependent - Gulf states. The fall of the Mubarak regime threatened to destabilise an economic order that could have spelled trouble for the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

It also heightened fears in those countries of the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood - the largest identifiable political force in the Middle East - and its potential growing influence in the Gulf.

Qatar's refusal to join an economic blockade on Egypt's post-Mubarak government was all the provocation the Saudis and Emiratis - Bahrain effectively acted as an adjunct to Saudi Arabia - needed to escalate the situation.

The dispute over Egypt was the single most important flashpoint within the intra-GCC crisis. While differences of opinion between the GCC states extended to other Arab Spring countries such as Libya, none was as high stakes as Egypt.

All about Egypt

Alongside its huge geostrategic significance and cultural prestige, Egypt, with an expatriate population that numbers in the millions in the Gulf, is also a nerve centre of the Brotherhood, a diffuse political-social network that was freed to its potential thanks to the Arab Spring.

Its rise to power from the ashes of tyranny made many rulers in the Middle East nervous. Given Qatar's support for popular revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, it was natural that the small Gulf peninsula would come to be identified with the Brotherhood, which capitalised on the Arab Spring, despite there never really being any kind of special bonds tying the two together.

The concessions therefore that Qatar has made in order to reconcile with its neighbours have been considerable.

Only months after a campaign against it by media outlets loyal to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power after ousting the elected Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, the small Gulf state has signed up to a communique proclaiming total support for "the people and leaders of Egypt".

Specifically, the convening heads of state declared on 9 December their willingness to help stabilise Egypt and assist its junta in tackling the wave of violence presently sweeping the country.

Such a turnaround was likely hard for Doha, but, according to Imad Mansour, professor of international relations at Qatar University, the country's leadership was itself being sensitive to domestic demands. Gulf countries are closely connected on the popular and familial level. Qatar's only land border is with Saudi Arabia; the country had little choice but to reconcile with Riyadh.

GCC support of the Egyptian government could also further one important shared external objective.

"No one wants to see Egypt go the way of Syria or Libya," said Marwan Kabalan, a political analyst at the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.

For Qatar, there are also important returns on the agreement. The Qataris now have a freer hand to flex their soft power muscles in places like Lebanon and North Africa, without having to worry about negative media campaigns funded by their neighbours.

"They can return to being a mediator in regional crises instead of being a party to them," said Kabalan.

In addition, while Qatar may tone down its support for the Egyptian Brotherhood, there is no suggestion that the country will have to abandon groups such as Hamas, with whom relations are likely to remain robust.

Immediate concerns

Indeed, this is consistent with the position of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, whose address to the 35th summit explicitly included both a call to address the root causes of extremism and to support the Palestinian cause.

No member state of the GCC, meanwhile, seems keen on extending their internal disputes to the rest of the Arab world.

GCC rapprochement will also now allow member states to focus on what they regard to be more immediate threats in their own backyard. And despite a groundswell of violent Islamist fanatics of the al-Qaeda variety, it is the spectre of Iran that haunts Gulf countries more than anything else.

Seen from the Gulf, Iran has exploited Houthi grievances in Yemen to its own advantage while extending its influence over Iraq and Syria.

Most worryingly to Gulf countries, Tehran has made dramatic progress in building bridges - particularly over the Islamic State group - with a West that looks more inclined than ever to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran, and at the same time less willing to defend the Gulf.

Finally, a plethora of internal social complications - a bulge of unemployed youth, hobbled and extraction-based economies and growing social disenchantment - only serve to highlight the GCC states' need to act fast. Compared with this, disagreements over Egypt became minor.

Plans for a joint navy and shared anti-terrorist police force, also announced at the this week's summit, would have an immediate relevance to the people of the Gulf countries.

But these run the risk of going the way of the Common Gulf Currency, now fading into a distant memory after being put on the backburner in 2007. That story highlights some of the major issues plaguing the Gulf coalition: over-jealous guarding of national sovereignty, coupled with bureaucratic paralysis, go a long way to derail the best laid plans.

The heads of the Gulf countries have, however, committed to go "beyond cooperation, towards integration" at this latest summit, and this will be one promise that it would be hard to walk away from.

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