The Shortcomings of the Gulf Cooperation Council
Written by Steven Tibbitts
The Gulf Cooperation Council is an organization designed to strengthen ties between six Gulf-Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar) and coordinate their approaches to regional issues (Al-Hassan 2018; Guzansky and Heistein 2018). However, its usefulness and viability have diminished in recent years (Cordesman 2018; Henderson 2018).
Formation of the GCC in 1981 was preceded by the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, which served as ample incentives for the frequently feuding Gulf States to band together (Martini et al. 2016, 6; Al-Hassan 2018; Stratfor 2016). The GCC’s Charter states that the binding factors in the Council are “the ties of special relations, common characteristics and similar systems founded on the creed of Islam,” which might be interpreted as the member states all being conservative Sunni Arab monarchies (GCC 1981; Guzansky and Heistein 2018). Moreover, the purpose of the GCC is to “effect coordination, integration and inter-connection between Member States in all fields in order to achieve unity between them” (GCC 1981).
Despite this statement, the history of the GCC has been marked by frequent periods of strife and disagreement (Saleem 2017; Martini et al. 2016, 36). While the GCC has accomplished some mild achievements over the years, the organization is extremely divided by internal squabbles and differing worldviews between member states (Dudley 2018; Martini et al. 2016, x; Cordesman 2018; Stratfor 2017). Issues such as support for rival proxies, differing levels of connection with Iran, competition between political families, and lack of coordination on regional matters produce tense relations between GCC countries (Stratfor 2016; Stratfor 2017; Cordesman 2018; Guzansky and Heistein 2018; Dudley 2018). Moreover, many of the smaller countries in the GCC, especially Qatar, resent historic Saudi domination of the organization (Martini et al. 2016, 10; Stratfor 2017; Dudley 2018).
In recent years several factors have influenced inner-GCC competition. One is the rise of new, younger leaders in the GCC, especially Mohammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Zayed in the UAE, and Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani in Qatar (Lucas 2017). These younger leaders are shaking up previously conservative foreign policies (Henderson 2018; Lucas 2017).
Second is Iran. Iranian expansionism represents a serious threat to the GCC, but responses to the threat are mixed. For example, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar maintain better relations with Iran, partially for economic reasons (Stratfor 2016; Stratfor 2017; Guzansky and Heistein 2018).
Additionally, in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, GCC members are competing with both Iran and each other for influence throughout the destabilized region. Many of the current GCC tensions derive from Qatar’s support of political Islamists and its sponsorship of the Al-Jazeera news network puts it at odds with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain (Guzansky and Heistein 2018; Stratfor 2017; Lucas 2017). However, not even supposedly stalwart allies like the UAE and Saudi Arabia agree on which proxies to support, as seen by differing approaches to funding groups in Yemen (Salisbury 2018, 6).
Lastly, one other important factor related to GCC tensions is the decreased US role in the Middle East (Stratfor 2017; Saab 2018; Martini et al. 2016, ix). Without US leadership, a Middle Eastern power vacuum has arisen that the younger generation of Gulf leaders is trying to fill (Lucas 2017). The consequences of this include brasher actions such as Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and the current blockade of Qatar, which will be discussed in depth next week (Saab 2018).
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