After the Doha Summit: is GCC reconciliation real?

The 35th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Doha, Qatar appears as a rare and positive momentum in the history of the GCC. However, Qatar's position remains convoluted and reconciliation remains improbable.

Roberto Iannuzzi
19 December 2014
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Bahrain 2013

Demotix/Brittany Somerset. All rights reserved.

According to its members, the 35th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit recently held in the Qatari capital Doha ought to be remembered as a symbol of true reconciliation in a time of unprecedented regional challenges. The summit was intended to give new momentum to the strengthening of the Gulf bloc as an influential union at regional and international level.

Assuming the GCC presidency for 2015, Qatar is eager to show that the worst crisis in intra-GCC relations since the Council’s inception in 1981 is finally over. The crisis, culminating when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014, was sparked by Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and throughout the Middle East in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring. Being feared and despised by both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the Islamist group ended up at the centre of a regional dispute that brought the GCC to the brink of dissolution.

At the Doha Summit, Qatar apparently accepted the final communiqué supporting the Egyptian regime and its President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a sworn enemy of the Brotherhood. The meeting, however, was hastily concluded, barely lasting one day instead of the two initially scheduled, to the point that a well-known Arab commentator sarcastically called it the shortest summit in the GCC’s history.

While Gulf countries have tried to sell the event as a new start in intra-GCC relations, the purported turning point occurred almost a month earlier. On November 16, an emergency meeting between Gulf leaders in the Saudi capital cleared the way for the “Riyadh Complementary Arrangement” whereby the Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini governments sent their ambassadors back to Doha. The deal was labelled “complementary” in reference to a previous one penned in Riyadh in November 2013 and yet never implemented by Qatar, according to its adversaries.

Qatar’s contentious position in Middle-Eastern affairs

Like the first agreement, the new one remains murky, as its content has never been published. Nevertheless, according to several sources, it obliges Qatar to stop “meddling” in its neighbours’ internal affairs. Especially, Doha should no longer play host to GCC monarchies’ opponents, should stop naturalising some of them (particularly, members of Bahrain’s Sunni community), should forbid Muslim Brotherhood’s representatives to operate from the country, and should cease media campaigns against its neighbours – particularly al-Sisi’s regime. In return, Qatar obtained the ambassadors’ reinstatement and a green light to the convening of the GCC Summit in Doha, which some Gulf leaders were previously refusing to attend.

To what extent Qatar will renounce all support for the Brotherhood in the region, however, is not clear. Qatar’s connection with the group dates back to the mid-1950s, when some of its members arrived from Egypt. Yusuf al-Qaradawi – today probably the Brotherhood’s most prominent spiritual leader – left Egypt for Qatar in 1961. The Emirate’s ruling family received the group’s thinkers warmly, but limited their opportunities to exerting influence domestically. As the Wahhabi doctrine prevails among the tiny Qatari population, the Brotherhood had little effect on the country’s internal affairs. Paradoxically, this is in stark contrast to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia (and, to a certain extent, also the UAE), where sympathy with the group is common among the population, but contempt prevails at the government level.  

The hosting of Brotherhood members allowed Qatar to differentiate itself from Riyadh and expand its regional clout. With the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, the Islamist group’s power began to increase throughout the Arab world, culminating in 2012 with the presidential election of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a staunch ally of both the Saudi Kingdom and the UAE, had been overthrown at the beginning of the previous year. Consequently, while Doha eagerly endorsed the new government in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were horrified by Egyptian and regional developments. This provoked a serious deterioration in Qatar’s relationship with both of them. The conflict reverberated across the region, from the Maghreb to Syria and even Yemen.

In the Syrian civil war, Doha and Riyadh have supported competing groups, including jihadists, thus contributing to dividing the Syrian rebels and exacerbating the conflict in the country. In Libya, both Qatar and the UAE took part in the western military intervention against Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, but then patronized opposing sides in the creeping civil strife that followed.

The main bone of contention, however, remained Egypt. When the Egyptian army led by al-Sisi toppled Morsi in mid-2013, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi immediately endorsed the coup, funding the new regime with billions of petrodollars.

Morsi’s overthrow reversed the momentum of the Arab Spring starting the decline of the Brotherhood’s regional influence. The group nonetheless has remained a force to be reckoned with in the Arab world, retaining the backing of Qatar and Turkey. In an effort to further weaken its power, the UAE and Egypt recently launched joint air operations in Libya against “Operation Dawn”, a coalition of Islamist-leaning militias supported by both Doha and Ankara. This coalition is confronted by the Tobruk government, which, in addition to Emirati and Egyptian military help, can count on Riyadh’s political support.

The unprecedented UAE military operations outside its borders marked a dangerous development in the Middle Eastern crisis, and yet another example of the Gulf monarchies’ previously unknown interventionism.

A wave of positive diplomatic change?

Since last summer, however, signs of renewed diplomatic activity between Saudi Arabia and Qatar began to emerge. Doha’s foreign policy setbacks seemed to be prompting a slow rethink among the Emirate’s decision-makers. In September, several prominent members of the Brotherhood left Doha at the request of the government – a move probably aimed to ease tensions among GCC members.

Albeit extremely rich, Qatar is a tiny country lacking strong state institutions. It can hardly afford to do without the strategic depth provided by the GCC. The Emirate’s growing isolation at the regional level, also translated into domestic challenges. Concerned with his own internal legitimacy, Qatar’s young Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani started focusing more on internal affairs. At the same time, however, Doha’s ties with the Brotherhood are so entrenched that it can hardly abjure them.

As a consequence, political reconciliation within the GCC is probably far from accomplished. According to reports, the November emergency meeting in Riyadh was very tense and repeatedly on the brink of failure. Once again, Egypt was at the heart of the dispute. While Emir Tamim allegedly tried to limit negotiations to Gulf issues, Saudi King Abdullah explicitly asked him to sustain the Egyptian regime as a bulwark of stability in the region.

Until now, however, Qatari media have continued to support the Egyptian Brotherhood and define al-Sisi as “the leader of a coup”. At Qatar’s request, Cairo has also returned to Doha up to $6 billion that is almost the entire amount deposited by Qatar with the Egyptian Central Bank to prop up its hard currency reserves prior to Morsi’s overthrow. Meanwhile in Egypt, al-Sisi’s war against the Brotherhood is continuing, and maybe even escalating.

The GCC countries have to confront unprecedented challenges – from Egypt’s instability and Iran’s expanding influence in the region to the threat of the so-called Islamic State and their own internal insecurities. This is why Saudi Arabia so strongly pushed for a resolution of the dispute with Qatar. The impression, however, is that Doha has been dragged kicking and screaming back into the GCC fold. Emir Tamim may feel compelled to tread a more cautious path at least during the coming year, as Qatar now holds the rotating presidency of the GCC. Nonetheless, disagreements among the GCC members are still pending, and reconciliation between Doha and Cairo is probably out of reach.

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