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The demise of the GCC

May 5, 2014 at 4:33 pm

The obituary was short and candid. We regret the passing of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); may it rest in peace. Though terminally ill for some time, some of its members opted for an assisted death when they pulled their ambassadors out of Qatar. Thereafter, the chief of the Dubai Police Force, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan, called unrepentantly for the formation of a new cooperation council to include Saudi, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan.

In his attempt to justify the need for this new strategic council, which omitted Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, Khalfan warned that in the absence of unity the ‘Safawi’ (Shi’ite) plan for the Gulf would be implemented. A new council, he argued, is needed to protect the Arabian Peninsula.

There is, of course, a noticeable disconnect between the official rhetoric and policies. Immediately after the United States and its negotiating partners, known collectively as the P5+1, reached an interim agreement with Iran in November last year several Arab countries rushed to normalise diplomatic relations with Tehran. Despite the grudging welcome given to the agreement by the Gulf States, the UAE was actually the first to do this. The country’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, visited Tehran on 28th November.

In mid-January, King Abdullah II of Jordan followed suit when he received Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Amman. Thus, after six years of frosty relations, Jordan and Iran decided to exchange ambassadors.

Then came Morocco in February 2014; four years earlier it had broken-off diplomatic ties with Iran for allegedly meddling in the internal affairs of Bahrain. Suddenly, as a show of goodwill, Rabat extended an invitation to Iran to a meeting of the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Committee, which oversees Muslim interests in the holy city and supports Palestinian aspirations to a state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

The upshot of all of this is that the more Iran’s relationship with the west improves the greater its acceptance becomes in the Gulf and across the region. With specific reference to the interim agreement an official Saudi statement read, “If there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear programme.”

If the GCC fears were really about a nuclear-armed Iran dominating the region it seems strange that its members should create the very conditions for those ambitions to thrive. The growing rift between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE and the other members of the council has done precisely that. Within a week of the withdrawal of the ambassadors from Doha, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran showed up in Oman. The declared result was a billion dollar agreement by which Iran would supply Oman with gas through an underwater pipeline. In geo-strategic terms the strengthening of bi-lateral cooperation between the two neighbouring countries cannot be underestimated since they control the two sides of the Straits of Hormuz through which 40 per cent of the world’s oil supplies passes.

This is not the first time that the Gulf States have miscalculated and created openings for their rival Iran. They supported the US invasion of Iraq which divided the country along sectarian lines and led to the installation of an Iranian-backed regime in Baghdad. Wittingly or unwittingly, they are creating a vacuum in the Gulf.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Iran, according to some reports, has contacted the Qataris to offer support and assistance after its row with its fellow Gulf States. While there is nothing to suggest that Qatar will change its policy toward the Iranian-backed regime in Syria, for example, it is nonetheless conceivable that the government in Doha would look favourably upon Iranian overtures. For one thing, this would allow for the resumption of relations, not least in the production and export of natural gas. Qatar, it should be recalled, has since the end of the 1990s pursued a policy independent of the GCC towards Iran. So if the Saudis do bar them from using their air-space, as some reports suggest, Doha may turn to Iran.

As it stands, all that is left now is the formal burial of the GCC. Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, has made it clear that relations with Qatar will not change if it does not change its foreign policy. That is unlikely to happen. Doha has insisted that the “independence of its foreign policy is a non-negotiable issue.”

While no member of the GCC has called explicitly on Qatar to change its media strategy and reconcile with Egypt’s military regime, there is no doubt that this is a fundamental demand. The reticence in Doha is as palpable as it is understandable. They understand fully that the Egyptian military is incapable of taking strategic regional decisions independent of Israel. As such, Qatar, it seems, would do much better by staying out of the proposed new council, of which apartheid Israel will be a member in all but name.