This past week, Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani made an unannounced trip to Iran, meeting with a range of Iranian officials including the president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi. The trip followed the foreign minister’s trip to Washington DC by only a few days. While the report on the meeting was fairly sparse, the central point put out to the media was that Qatar and Iran were maintaining close relations and that Qatar was offering to help foster discussions between Iran and Qatar’s Gulf Arab neighbors.
This type of meeting seems to fly in the face of the agreement reached this past January where Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt agreed to lift their economic embargo on Qatar. This Kuwaiti-brokered deal was reported to have brought the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council back together. However, the January agreement seems to have come about more out of exhaustion over the embargo than a genuine reconciliation of differences. This ongoing divide is not just between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. The member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are less cohesive than ever.
What is becoming clear is that the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are each looking differently at three types of threats to their rulers and internal and regional political power.
The first issue is external state-level states, namely Iran and Iranian-backed proxies.
The second is threats internal to the rulers from either democratic movements or Islamist groups who are unhappy with the ruling families.
The third threat is how to hedge against more diverse economic futures where petroleum product exports produce smaller and smaller revenues.
The political cohesion of Gulf Cooperation Council states has never been as great as promised or put forward in official communications. The weakening of bonds has been exacerbated, in part, by generational leadership changes in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. In addition, in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these ew leaders have discovered that there are limits on how military power can bring about political desires.
While the United States has always been a cheerleader for increasing the political and particularly the military cohesion of these states – particularly when Washington was pursuing a policy of “dual containment” against both Iran and Iraq – it has also realized its limits. This can be seen in the fact that U.S. military agreements for access and basing are made bilaterally with the states of the Gulf and not with a weak supranational organization.
The Biden administration’s increased focus on China and Russia as the drivers for U.S. national security policy, in large part at the expense of the Middle East, has also meant that the GCC states each are seeking how they are going to navigate the threats they perceive in the face of a lower regular presence of U.S. military forces in the region. The withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September and the ending of the combat mission for U.S. forces in Iraq by year’s end means that lower-level threats in the region may have to be dealt with, at least initially, by local forces and leaders. This has exacerbated differences about where the region should head, how its security should be guaranteed, and who should lead. The disagreements range from how best to deal with Iran, who to back in Libya’s ongoing civil strife, whether and how to proceed with relations with Israel, and the larger role of Turkey in the region. Expect less cohesion among the GCC states and more short-term transactional deals on limited issues.