The crisis symbolised by the withdrawal from Doha of the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Bahrain in March, 2014, was the first of its kind since the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and therefore set a precedent in terms of dispute resolution between the six member states. The disagreement that sparked the ambassadors’ withdrawal was among the most serious in recent years, and threatened to seriously undermine relations between the GCC states. The crisis certainly affected the GCC negatively at first – raising questions among member states, revealing shifts in their political agendas, and changing the balance of power in the region to some extent.
This chapter discusses causes of the crisis, and a review of its development and eventual resolution with the signing of the Riyadh Supplementary Agreement on 16 November 2014. This chapter suggests that the crisis will continue to affect the GCC in future. While the immediate crisis has passed, the loss of trust between the GCC states is likely to take some time to resolve. Nevertheless, the resolutions that emerged from the 35th GCC summit held in Doha on 9 December 2014 indicate a kind of convergence in understanding among the GCC countries on a number of regional issues. This convergence was arrived at in the context of various regional pressures on the member states and the Gulf region as a whole, stemming particularly from concerns around the emergence of the Islamic State and Iran’s nuclear programme. Finally, the chapter argues that resolution of the crisis is indicative of the maturity of the GCC states, and reflects their ability to focus on prioritising their own local interests. In the longer term, it seems likely that this maturity will enhance integration and strengthen the GCC.
Some might think that the rift between Qatar on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other, ended with the return of ambassadors to Doha a few days before the GCC’s 35th Summit meeting held in Qatar on 9 December 2014. Yet it seems likely that this unprecedented level of open disagreement between four members of the GGC will leave its mark on the organisation, possibly even leading to shifts in the organisation’s political agenda, and changes in the balance of power in the region.
This chapter tackles the GCC crisis and its causes, symptoms, and the mechanisms used to resolve it, which enabled the ambassadors to return to Doha. The author then examines the likely impact of the dispute, including the emergence of blocs within the GCC, the political maturity shown by all the states, but particularly by Qatar, the ways in which security concerns have unified GCC states, and the crisis of confidence suffered by the GCC countries as a result of the crisis.
The 2014 crisis
Divergence between the GCC states is not a new phenomenon. Differing viewpoints have sometimes led to disagreements between GCC countries, as is true of many other regional organisations. In the past, differences tended to be kept secret because of the nature of political culture in the Gulf region, but disagreements have occasionally been made public. Typically, these related to border disputes, competition between royal families, foreign policies, possible conflicts of interests, and security threats faced by member states. From time to time, differences have also arisen about the nature, role and performance of the GCC. Some of these differences have caused bilateral crises, leading to the withdrawal of one ambassador or another, as was the case when Saudi Arabia recalled its envoy to Qatar in 2002.
However, the 2014 disagreement between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, on the one hand, and Qatar, on the other, was one of the most significant yet. It seriously threatened the GCC’s activities, adversely affected its functioning and could arguably even have led to its dissolution.
In March 2014, three member states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain) took the unprecedented step of withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar.(1) This incident was the first of its kind in the GCC’s history, spanning more than three decades. The action was taken in response to a Qatari policy which the other three countries perceived as being incompatible with the security agreement signed by the six member states in January, 2014. Under that agreement, the member states had apparently agreed to a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of any other member state, either directly or indirectly, as well as a policy of non-support for any party, organisation or individual seeking to threaten the security and stability of any of the GCC states, whether through direct action, political influence, or by supporting hostile media.(2)
The three countries justified their decision by citing what they claimed was the Qatari government’s failure to comply with what is known as the “first Riyadh Agreement” which had been signed by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani(3) on 23 November 2013 during a meeting of GCC leaders in Riyadh.(4) A lot of secrecy surrounds this meeting; the details and subjects of the discussions are still not known, and the contents of the agreement have not yet been disclosed. However, there is little doubt that the Riyadh meeting and the agreement concerned the GCC’s reaction to the political instability across the Arab region as a result of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, which had stirred up muddy waters, and toppled the leaders of four Arab countries, promising shifts towards democracy and pluralism, as well as an end to authoritarianism and one-party rule.
The wave of popular protests spread to many Arab countries, including Bahrain and Oman, which are both GCC member states. In response, some GCC states tried to take action aimed at maintaining the status quo, stopping the waves of protest, and fortifying the GCC countries against their possible spread.
Despite these efforts, support for democratic processes and political Islam grew, particularly for the Muslim Brotherhood, which (thanks to its widespread organisational structures, and its ability to mobilise its members) benefitted from the uprisings, and won elections that followed the overthrow of totalitarian regimes.
Along with the general challenge of change and support for democratisation, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, was seen as undermining the legitimacy and potentially the political stability of some of the GCC states. While some of the GCC countries embarked on a quest to counteract the revolutions, and to contain the changes they had given birth to, Qatar supported the uprisings, as well as their effects on the region’s politics, economics and press freedom.
Qatar's support for the uprisings clashed head-on with the policies and efforts of other GCC states. Thus, the Riyadh meeting and first agreement were an attempt by GCC states to discourage Qatar from pursuing its policies on the Arab Spring. When Qatar continued supporting the popular movements and uprisings, the withdrawal of ambassadors represented a kind of political censure, urging Doha to stop acting in ways that conflicted with the interests of other GCC states.
In a statement issued by its foreign ministry, Qatar affirmed that it would not reciprocate by recalling its own ambassadors to the three countries, and stressed its keenness to maintain fraternal relations with the GCC countries.(5) Thus, while continuing to support the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar tried to engage with Saudi Arabia on the issue.
Several meetings were held between the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, and the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud. As a result, Saudi Arabia began seeking a solution to the crisis but relations remained strained between Qatar and the UAE. The UAE is publicly hostile towards political Islam, and considers most Islamic movements terroristic in nature. Eventually the dispute between the two countries went public, with social networks becoming virtual battlegrounds as well as platforms for exchanging views.
The ambassadors return
The crisis continued for nearly eight months, which witnessed strife and official boycotts, as well as a great deal of public confusion, all of which seemed to put the GCC at serious risk. There were hints that some countries might withdraw temporarily or leave the GCC altogether. Meanwhile, the leaders of Kuwait worked hard to heal the rift. The situation seemed to remain unchanged until 16 November 2014, when the three countries announced the return of their ambassadors to Doha. In the interim, however, the Riyadh Consultative Summit had taken place, at which the Riyadh Supplementary Agreement was reached.(6) It is worth noting that different parties refer to this variously as the Riyadh Document, the ‘Riyadh Agreement’ and the ‘Riyadh Supplementary Agreement’, with (again) no one disclosing the full contents of the document.
New blocs within the GCC
If we look at the positions of the different parties in the crisis, it becomes clear that when the ambassadors withdrew, the GCC was probably already on the verge of a crisis linked to the emergence of distinct political blocs with conflicting interests. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain were beginning to engage in a political struggle with Qatar, while Oman and Kuwait represent a non-aligned bloc within the GCC. So, for example Saudi Arabia and the UAE support the political regime in Egypt led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Egypt’s military elite, believing that this promotes stability and preserves their interests in the region. Al-Sisi has in return repeatedly praised them for their support.(7)
In addition, the UAE considers the Muslim Brotherhood issue to be related to its own internal security, especially after the State Security Court in Abu Dhabi handed down tough penalties to members of ‘a Muslim Brotherhood cell’ for attempting to overthrow the state.(8)
Nevertheless, the government of Qatar continued to back the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, denouncing what Sheikh Tamim described as a ‘military coup’ that had taken place in Egypt in July 2014.(9)
Similarly the Yemeni conflict also revealed the conflicting interests of the political blocs within the GCC. While Saudi Arabia considers the Houthis a terrorist group, the Qatari Government sees the group as a legitimate component of Yemen’s political scene.(10)
New political maturity
It can be said that with the resolution of the GCC crisis, and the return of the ambassadors to Doha, Qatar reached a new level of political maturity. It managed to bring an end to the crisis without changing any of its foreign policy principles or abandoning its allies. This was confirmed by Sheikh Tamim in a television interview broadcast by CNN in September 2014, in which he asserted that Qatar would continue with its policies, and maintain relations with its allies in the region, which many interpreted as a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.(11)
Meanwhile, in a speech at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, Qatari foreign minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah stated that Qatar had “chosen not to remain on the side-lines of history…deciding to play a significant role in world affairs, communicate with other countries, mediating in conflicts, work to end violent conflicts, and care for refugees”.(12)
In the same interview, Al-Attiyah affirmed that Qatar’s foreign policy is based on two fundamental principles. The first is independence, and the second is a commitment to supporting the rights of peoples to self-determination, justice and freedom. This explains Qatar’s support for emerging democracies that followed the Arab Spring. Al-Atiyyah’s statement (which was made just days after the ambassadorial withdrawal and Qatar’s decision not to withdraw its own ambassadors), indicates that Qatar was able to contain much of the crisis wisely and with political acumen, while remaining firm in its own stance.
Fears of terrorism
It is clear that threats to security will continue to be a factor in bringing the GCC countries together around a table and in minimising their differences. The potential dangers represented by both Iran and Iraq that first led to the emergence of the GCC in 1981 are not all that different from the fears of terrorism and the activities of the group known as Daesh.
Undoubtedly, these concerns played a crucial role in reuniting the GCC states, and enabled the ambassadors to return to Doha at the critical moment. Kuwaiti political analyst Ayed al-Manna indicated as much when he said: “We have become greatly obsessed with the issue of variation in foreign policy. Daesh controls one-third of Iraq and a third of Syria...Political differences [with Qatar] are no longer a priority; but emerging problems, especially Daesh which no one had mentioned a few months ago, are. We are in danger from the northeast of Syria to the northwest of Iraq, and this is a real warning for the GCC countries to settle their differences”.(13)
Speaking at the opening of the 35th GCC Summit in Doha, Sheikh Tamim called for the GCC to “face terrorism and extremism”. He said that “the phenomenon of terrorism witnessed by our contemporary world and the Arab region in particular” required taking “all necessary measures to confront and eradicate its roots and address its real political, social and economic causes”. He further called on the GCC states not to be preoccupied by “side issues”, stressing that “regional and international conditions are extremely complicated…and make us assume immense responsibilities,’ and asserting that political differences should not ‘affect the economic, social and media sectors, among others”.
From this it is possible to discern that in the final statement from the summit, fears of terrorism prevailed over internal differences and political visions. The statement affirms the GCC’s united stance against terrorist attacks, and the dangers that these pose to Arab countries as well as to the international community. The GCC leaders also clearly condemned the crimes of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against the Syrian people, while confirming the GCC states’ collective support for the “Egyptian road map”, including al-Sisi, the Egyptian government, and the people of Egypt, in their efforts to achieve stability and prosperity. Clearly, this indicates a change in Qatar’s stance towards Egypt based on the security threats in the region.(14)
A crisis of confidence
The return of the ambassadors may have ended the initial crisis, but a crisis of confidence among the members, along with their conflicts of interest, is likely to linger for some time to come. While the resolutions of the 35th GCC Summit, indicate a level of convergence and understanding on certain issues, it is important to remember that, while these were significant, they were reached under pressure and to some extent fell below expectations. This might indicate that some of the consequences of the crisis are still playing out.
The GCC countries still hold different positions on a number of matters. There is no common vision on the nature of the threats facing member states or on their sources, let alone on how to deal with or address such threats. There is no unified position on relations with Iran and its nuclear programme, or even on the steep decline in oil prices which could adversely affect most of the GCC countries, with some member states refusing to reduce their levels of production for the sake of restoring some balance to the global oil market.
Undoubtedly some of the smaller GCC states will adopt policies that aim to serve their own interests and secure their place in the regional balance of power. Oman’s hosting of secret negotiations on the nuclear issue between Iran and the West (represented by the P5+1 countries), is just one example of GCC countries adopting unilateral foreign policies to further their own interests in a highly complex region. Qatar has also adopted its own bold unilateral foreign policy, which may intersect negatively with those of the more conservative GCC countries in future.
Nevertheless, several factors also indicate that the crisis of confidence may not last. The mistrust between the governments could decline if the bonds between the GCC countries are consolidated at the levels of the citizens, trade, education and common culture, as well as kinship ties, geographical location and their shared history. One of the main reasons behind the crisis of confidence is the lack of a concrete system within the GCC to clearly regulate and govern relations between member states. For example, it took more than three decades for an agreement on the security of the GCC countries to be signed. However, neither the terms of that agreement (the first Riyadh Agreement) nor of the Riyadh Supplementary Agreement have been announced; thus their details are known to the leaders of those countries alone.
The absence of mechanisms to resolve disputes between member states in cases of disagreements in perspective could also affect the GCC negatively and obstruct its development and growth. In addition, no institutional activities or structures have yet been created to follow up on the implementation of resolutions taken at the GCC summits. Similarly, apart from the whims of its leaders, no court, structures or policies regulate the activities of the GCC in any way. In addition, no systems, laws, regulations, institutions, policies or joint mechanisms ensure that the GCC’s citizens have a say and that their voices are heard.
The challenges faced by GCC countries – fears of terrorism and potential threats from neighbouring countries – succeeded in both creating convergence in the foreign policies of member states and in reuniting them. This convergence may be temporary, however, and its causes may disappear once the current challenges are overcome. Unless a strong and clear system can be introduced to regulate relations between member states, streamline their interests, and connect their foreign policies, the different agendas of the political blocs that have emerged within the GCC are likely to reappear.
The clarity and maturity shown by the GCC states in relation to the 2014 crisis is highly significant. Undoubtedly, this maturity – if it is affirmed by ongoing consolidation at the levels of the citizenry, trade, education, research, culture, kinship ties, geographical proximity and shared history – has the potential to strengthen the concept of integration, and unite the GCC’s interests and their foreign policy positions.
*Islam Khalid Hassan is a researcher in the Gulf Studies Programme at the Qatar University.
1. BBC Arabic (2014). “‘Ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain withdraw from Qatar”, [In Arabic] 5 March. http://www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/middleeast/2014/03/140305_gulfstates_qatar_envoys
3. Fathi, H: (2014) Egypt…and the Riyadh Agreement, [In Arabic], 19 November. http://www.alwafd.org/مقالات-الرأى/507-حسام-فتحي/772286-مصر-واتفاق-الرياض
5. Al-Asadi, Shafiq and Mohammed Al-Malaki Ahmed (2014). UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar…and Qatar’s government did not follow suit, [In Arabic], Al-Hayat, 6 March. http://www.alhayat.com/Articles/919019
6. Al-Arabiya.net, ‘Riyadh Supplementary Agreement restores GCC embassies to Doha’ [In Arabic], 17 November. http://www.alarabiya24.com/ar/news/17916/%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B6-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%83%D9%85%D9%8A%D9%84%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D9%8F%D8%B9%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A
7. Al-Waziri, H and S Hassan (2014). Al-Sisi Receives Two Ministers from Saudi Arabia and UAE…and Lauds the Support of Their Countries, [In Arabic], 1 November, Al-Watan http://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/588670
8. Baabood, Abdullah (2014). An Analysis of the Positions of the GCC Countries on the Crisis in Egypt [In Arabic], 5 September, Al-Jazeera Center for Studies. http://studies.aljazeera.net/reports/2013/09/201395113744690201.htm.
9. Al-Thani made this comment while being interviewed by Chrstiane Amanpour after he addressed the United Na