In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we wrote that Saudi Arabia and a handful of its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) peers' campaign to isolate Qatar had laid bare its members' conflicting imperatives. We also noted that in the long run, the blockade would weaken the fabric of the GCC in its entirety. The United Arab Emirates' announcement at the 38th GCC Summit that it and Saudi Arabia are planning their own cooperation council reinforces our forecast.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has stopped cooperating. In fact, the bloc may be fragmenting. Kuwait hosted the 38th GCC Summit on Tuesday, but only one member — Qatar — sent its head of state to the gathering. Moreover, the GCC members decided to cancel the second day of the planned two-day summit. Yet perhaps most concerning for the GCC's future was the United Arab Emirates' announcement that it and Saudi Arabia were planning their own cooperation council for security and economic affairs. Things have been tense in the bloc since Saudi Arabia and some GCC peers' started a campaign to isolate Qatar over differences in regional policies. Of course, the GCC has been beset by squabbles among its six members — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — since its inception. But the Emirati announcement shows that the Qatar crisis is leading to a rebalancing in the bloc, one that's emblematic of the larger geopolitical forces pulling the GCC apart.
The recent strife within the GCC is driven in no small part by prevailing concerns that the United States will no longer guarantee the security of states in the Middle East. Washington is trying to reduce its military footprint and to enable allied countries to take the lead in shaping regional events. Consequently, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate's regional rival, Iran, has been able to take advantage of the situation over the last 15 years and shape regional events in its favor. Primarily, it has boosted its capabilities against Saudi Arabia by strengthening ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon and President Bashar al Assad's government in Syria, taking advantage of the new political paradigm that favors Shiite parties in Iraq, and supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Is it any wonder that this recalibration is forcing Saudi Arabia to push back against Iran regionally, including in its relationship with Qatar?
Saudi Arabia — and to a lesser extent the United Arab Emirates — is also going through substantial reforms to diversify away from its reliance on oil revenues and reshape its domestic economy. In both countries, there are concerns over potential opposition as well, particularly around Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's consolidation of power and Islamist parties in the northern emirates. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have reason, then, to clamp down on Qatar over both its independent media, which often exposes these domestic issues, and its support of Islamists across the region. Yet Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are not without their own support. Thanks to the close relationship between Washington and Riyadh under U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, both countries have a freer hand to confront Qatar and Iran more broadly, and their campaign to isolate Qatar will remain strong.
For Qatar's part, maintaining close ties to Iran, supporting Islamists regionally and gaining credibility for its relatively independent media are critical to the bedrock of its foreign policy: standing against Saudi hegemony on the Arabian Peninsula. That's why its independent streak, too, will remain strong, even in the face of the blockade Riyadh and Abu Dhabi started. Qatar's 2018 budget, announced Dec. 5, will focus on using the country's wealth to withstand the campaign against it by its fellow GCC members. The economic pressure on Doha is also forcing it to establish new supply chains and economic relationships that go beyond the GCC. Qatar has already forged closer ties to the Turkish government, inviting another regional power to establish influence on Saudi Arabia's doorstep. (Turkey did so quite literally with a military base.) On Nov. 26, Iran, Qatar and Turkey signed a trade agreement to get around the blockade. And Qatar has decided not to follow its GCC peers and introduce a bloc-wide value-added tax on Jan. 1.
All of this contention points to the decline of the GCC's importance, which will have long-standing consequences for its members as well as the greater Saudi-Iran tussle for regional influence. Kuwait, for example, has tried exceedingly hard to patch up relations between Qatar and the rest of the GCC during the latest dispute. Even at Tuesday's GCC summit, Kuwait's emir called for a new GCC charter and the introduction of a mechanism to resolve disputes. But the Kuwaiti royal family is in a bit of a bind: The country is susceptible to Iranian influence and its political system is one where domestic opposition groups can channel their voices into strong action against the government through the parliament. This limits the royal family's ability to move closer to the Saudi-UAE axis against Iran or crackdown as strongly on Islamist groups, as both can become politically potent forces. Kuwait's Shiite parties are often the government's own allies, too. So the GCC has meaning for Kuwait — it's a bulwark against Iran. Hence why Kuwait has long tried to mediate disputes between Qatar and its larger neighbors, and why the bloc's decline could have dramatic ramifications.
Of all the GCC states, Oman perhaps has the closest ties to Iran and the weakest bond with the GCC. But much of the Omani political system has been built around the aging Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose health is always a concern. Qaboos in 2013 threatened to leave the GCC if it became too integrated. But once Qaboos dies, the line of succession is unclear. For the next leader of Oman, the experience of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Qatar is a concerning one: Saudi Arabia acted swiftly and strongly to bring the young Qatari leader under its influence and have him toe the line on the Saudi-approved regional foreign policy. Oman's future leader could be next.
For all of its members' differences, the GCC has continued to exist. Ironically, the bloc was originally designed to defend against a more assertive Iran following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Yet the pressure that Iran has put on the GCC states' relations has changed, and some countries, such as Qatar and Oman, have even found political and economic ties with Iran more attractive. Despite these divisions and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate's attempts to isolate Qatar and forge their own path — one that like-minded Bahrain could join in the future — the GCC is likely to continue existing in name and for meetings. What's clear, however, is that the GCC's relevance as a multilateral institution is on the decline and it will never be the same, as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others begin using different frameworks to forge Middle East policy.