The Gulf Divide

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have effectively split the GCC in two

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The division within the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was put on clear display at Wednesday’s Islamic summit in Istanbul. It was reflected in the member-states’ level of representation at the conference, the political stands they took, and their attitudes towards the new pattern of alliances that is fast taking shape in the Middle East.

The Saudi-led camp, which includes Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sent low-level delegations headed by unimportant functionaries to the conference – the Saudi minister of state for religious affairs, the UAE’s minister of state for Gulf affairs, and another junior minister from Bahrain – despite the gravity of the issue being discussed.

On the other side, Kuwait and Qatar were represented by their heads of state. The Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad made a point of attending in person. Qatar’s emir, Tamim Bin-Hamad, did the same, not only because his country’s relations with Turkey have gone from strength to strength in recent months, but also because of the Saudi-led camp’s dismissive attitude to the summit and its extreme antipathy towards the Turkish-Iranian partnership whose emergence it demonstrated.

Oman — which takes a more-or-less neutral position while maintaining strong ties with Iran and developing relations with Turkey – sent Asaad Bin-Tareq Al Said, the deputy prime minister for external relations, a cousin of the ailing Sultan Qaboos and a leading candidate to succeed him, at the head of a high-ranking delegation. This sent out a strong message that Oman would maintain its independent foreign policy, as did its high-level attendance at the recent GCC summit in Kuwait from which the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini leaders also absented themselves.

This division undermines the status of the GCC as an established and cohesive bloc and is likely to result in its rapid eclipse as a regional player. Divisions within the grouping have been growing steadily, while an alternative to it has emerged in the form of the new Saudi-UAE military and economic cooperation council. This was provocatively proclaimed while the Kuwait GCC summit was underway, and it was given a further boost by Wednesday’s high-profile meeting in Riyadh between top-level UAE and Saudi delegations. It remains unclear why the king of Bahrain – who has enthusiastically joined all Saudi-led groupings and initiatives, from the war on Yemen to the blockade of Qatar – was not invited to join the meeting or the new grouping.

Kuwait’s emir was deeply disappointed by the refusal of the leaders of the three countries to attend the GCC summit he hosted, according to Kuwaiti media reports, and his feelings are evidently shared by a great many ordinary Kuwaitis. He seems to have opted to gather beneath a bigger and more welcoming tent, the Islamic tent, to forge closer ties based on respect and cooperation with the two biggest Islamic powers — Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran — and to join them in combating terrorism, supporting the Palestinian cause and renouncing sectarian divisions and alliances. This signals a reversion to Kuwait’s historic position of backing pan-Arab causes, especially Palestine. Hemce its declared intention to open an embassy in Jerusalem accredited to the State of Palestine, a move that Qatar and Oman may emulate in one way or the other.

The Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini axis is pursuing policies that could lead to its isolation in the region and internationally, as they are based on appeasing the US and Israel at a time of rising anger against both in the Arab and Islamic worlds due to Washington’s support for Israel’s land-grabs and its killing of the peace process (including its spurning of Saudi Arabia’s own Arab Peace Initiative).

It is hard to fathom the thinking of the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While boycotting the Istanbul summit for a variety of reasons, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood, they sent a private jet to Istanbul to fly in Muhammad al-Yadoumi and Abdelwahhab al-Ansi – president and secretary-general of the Islah Party, the Brotherhood’s Yemeni chapter – for talks on joining the anti-Houthi alliance in Yemen.

The three Gulf states whose leaders attended the Islamic summit sought to dissociate themselves from normalization with Israel and from Trump’s provocative decision. That was wise. There are pivotal moments in the histories of nations when decisive action needs to be taken due to the seriousness and gravity of events. This requires tempers to be controlled and vendettas to be set aside, at least for a while. That is an elementary rule of politics, or so we would suppose.