Salvaging the GCC

The Kuwait summit could have a defining influence on the bloc’s future

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Even if the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s forthcoming summit, which is supposed to convene in Kuwait on Wednesday, does not prove to be its last, it is certainly set to be the most bizarre and contentious of the 37 summits held since the six-member organization was founded in 1981.

With less than three days to go, Qatar’s three Gulf detractors – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – had yet to confirm that they had even been officially invited to the summit, let alone whether they would attend. Qatar and Oman acknowledged receiving their invitations without formally announcing their acceptance of them.

Moreover, the preparatory meeting of foreign ministers, which normally draws up the agenda for such summits and drafts their closing statements, had not been held as of Sunday evening, and no announcement had been made of it going ahead on Monday.

Conflicting accounts of what is going on behind the scenes have been leaked to the Kuwaiti media. It has been reported that the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin-Hamad, has agreed to publicly apologize to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for the harm his country did to its neighbours. Alternatively, it has been claimed that the Gulf crisis will not be discussed at all at the summit and is being deliberately kept off the agenda.

If the summit goes ahead, the level of attendance will be a key indicator of its importance or otherwise. Will the Saudi delegation be headed by the monarch in person, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman, or a lesser figure? Will the UAE be represented by the ruler of Dubai Muhammad Bin-Rashed, as in most previous GCC summits, or will the stage be taken by Muhammad Bin-Zayed of Abu Dhabi – or even after a prolonged absence, by the nominal head of state Sheikh Khalifa Bin-Zayed?

The same can be asked about the Qatari delegation. Will the emir show up in person, or get one of his brothers to stand in for him in order to spare his hosts embarrassment and avoid confrontations and rows? And might Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who habitually stays away for such gatherings, make an exception in this case in order to demonstrate support for the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad? That is what he did in 2014 when he led his country’s delegation to the GCC summit Doha after the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain declined to attend in person, sending their foreign ministers instead, because of quarrels with the host country.

Senior Gulf sources say the Kuwaiti emir, who has been making strenuous efforts to reconcile Qatar and its critics, insists on going ahead with the summit and formally issued invitations to the other Gulf leaders to attend after his patience ran out. He sought to get them to face up to their responsibilities, stating that this may be the last GCC summit he hosts in his lifetime.

The same sources expect that the public proceedings of the summit will be largely ceremonial, with any rows and arguments between Qatar and the countries boycotting it taking place behind closed doors.

Nobody following Al Jazeera’s coverage over the past few days will have noticed any change of approach on Doha’s part or any inclination for a truce with the Saudis and Emiratis. Quite the contrary. The channel has been siding with the Houthis in Yemen against former president Ali Abdallah Saleh who has suddenly found favour with the Saudi-led coalition. It has also accused the UAE of detaining Egyptian presidential hopeful Ahmad Shafiq just as Saudi Arabia did with Lebanese premier Saad al-Hariri. This Qatari media escalation does not suggest that Al Jazeera’s political master is about to make an apology or offer concessions at the Kuwait summit, let alone accede to his detractors’ demands – foremost of which is closure of the said channel.

One thing is for sure. This GCC summit will be different to any other. It will be closely watched by the media because of the surprises it could spring, and could have a defining impact on the regional body’s future course for better or worse.