The Doha summit: Testimony that the GCC has not fragmented

Signs of pragmatism have emerged in the ranks of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has convened a summit in Doha to agree on shared grounds while maintaining the right to disagree on policy forms and substances. The leaders of the six member states have shown patience toward one another and did not rush to issue judgments or second-guess each other, instead giving one another enough distance to implement policy by appreciating their respective domestic considerations. What is new in the Doha summit came in the speech of the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who laid out his understanding of Gulf principles based on the permissibility of diversity in the context of joint action, and the right to have different opinions and interpretations in the framework of consensus and harmony. Egypt was a good example of this in the practical-pragmatic features of the summit’s final communiqué. The issue of Qatar’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood fell in the category of allowable interpretations. The Doha summit tackled affairs in Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Morocco, but neglected Lebanon. The summit turned a blind eye to the evolution of the relationship between Oman and Iran away from the GCC and purposely praised Oman’s role in hosting the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Doha summit was not a summit of surprises, and all sides seemed content with the fact that it had convened at all, as this was testimony that the GCC did not disintegrate despite the continuing differences over ambitions to turn the “council” into a “union.”

The Doha summit, which convened this week, cemented the orientations of the new phase in the relationships among the six GCC member states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, which will chair the GCC for the year 2015. The summit developed the features of a strategic contract towards the establishment of a new regional order, away from radicalism of all kinds. However, the devil lies in the details, and the details governing bilateral relations and strategic visions among the six nations are not at all superficial matters, especially at this critical stage.

The six GCC member states have taken up burdens that could weigh them down to the point of restricting their Gulf-related ambitions and priorities

Raghida Dergham

The six GCC member states have taken up burdens that could weigh them down to the point of restricting their Gulf-related ambitions and priorities. This poses a serious challenge to the evolution of the Gulf framework.

These burdens followed successive American decisions that were imposed based on primarily American needs. In recent years, the Gulf states have found themselves playing the role of cover-provider in many instances, to meet persistent U.S. requests. They became involved in adventures the likes of which the Gulf nations had never been involved in directly before. Libya was the first chapter.

Coalition after coalition

The Gulf nations found themselves joining coalition after coalition, and alliance after alliance. The scope of their multifaceted roles expanded, and the responsibilities placed on the shoulders of the Gulf nations portended the fragmentation of their infrastructure that is practically and actually ill prepared for Gulf priorities and others’ priorities all at once.

The energetic and youthful presidency of the GCC represented by the emir of Qatar left its marks on the Doha summit, and will leave its mark on several hot issues. This will definitely bring needed vitality, particularly in the phase of new orientations, but this does not invalidate the fact that there are many heavy burdens on the shoulders of the young presidency as well as on all the leaderships of the five other GCC countries. The responsibility is huge in the era of the burdens of alliances and coalitions, and in the stage of establishing a new regional order that is still being tested.

Oman has declined to host the next summit and to assume the rotating presidency for 2016, not because of the health of Sultan Qaboos – as rumored – but for reasons that have to do with Oman’s regional alignment closer to Iran. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia will assume the presidency next. Saudi Arabia had played a vital role in ensuring the Doha summit would convene on time, on the basis of understandings reached at the exceptional Riyadh summit that preceded it.

The impressions coming from the Saudi delegation in Doha indicate that Saudi Arabia is willing to make the effort and to give room to the emir of Qatar to gradually disengage from the Muslim Brotherhood and reconcile with Egypt.

Convincing Egypt

According to sources, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz sent the chief of his royal court Khalid al-Tuwaijri to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently, to push him toward three main things: Convince the Egyptian media to end the campaign of ridicule and incitement against Qatar and its leadership; release Al-Jazeera journalists detained in Egypt; and taking Egyptian-Qatari reconciliation in the direction of coordination in Libya to avoid further deterioration there. According to the same sources, a large commercial delegation travelled from Qatar to Egypt last month to pave the way for reconciliation between the two sides.

A gradual approach is the theme of Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement, which Saudi Arabia believes is an absolute priority for Gulf accord, because Saudi Arabia and the UAE see Egypt as a strategic depth and the bedrock of the new regional order.

Both countries designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, which remains a matter of dispute with other Gulf states, and Qatar specifically. There are even those in Saudi Arabia who are calling for reclassifying the Muslim Brotherhood on the basis of making a distinction between its political wing and the armed wing that is engaged in terrorist acts.

What matters at this juncture for Saudi Arabia and the UAE is for Qatar to implement the commitments it made at the Riyadh summit, namely, to disengage from the Muslim Brotherhood and mend relations with Egypt and its President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. There are two opinions regarding the Qatari attitudes on these two issues: One that points to practical measures Qatar has taken indicating its intention to disengage from the Muslim Brotherhood. And another that points to the absence of measures such as stopping Al-Jazeera Mubashir from broadcasting to Egypt and the fact that Qatar still has open channels of communication with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the final statement of the Doha summit, the Supreme Council of the GCC stressed support for the Arab Republic of Egypt and the program led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi represented in the roadmap, stressing full support for Egypt's government and people in anything that helps achieve stability and prosperity. The Council stressed the Arab and regional role of Egypt for the best interests of the Arab and Islamic nations.

Final statement

This is an important position made by the Gulf summit in Doha in the official final statement, and was among the highlights of the political positions voiced in the summit. It is not something simple for Qatar to declare its support for Sisi’s plan, which until recently was the target of sharp attacks and a programmed campaign. Meanwhile, the content of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad’s speech drew the attention of Gulf pundits who are well versed in reading between the lines. The emir said: “We hope that governments and political forces would agree to national reconciliations that would put an end to violence and meet the aspirations of the people for security and stability.” The emir said such a reconciliation process requires a realistic and rational approach that would place the national interest above partial interests, and that would not exclude any social or political components, while refusing radicalisms of all kind because they chip away at political entities, as he put it.

The emir did not mention Egypt by name at all in his speech, and what he said was in the context of mentioning Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. Yet the main idea was addressed to all sides. He also said, “We must pay attention to a simple equation that has become a near-historic maxim, namely, that violence, oppression, repression, and hopelessness lead to violence.”

In the course of forecasting the future of relations among the Gulf countries, the young emir spoke in a language that, while not far removed from traditional discourses, included hints to what may shape Gulf relations during Qatar’s presidency of the GCC. He expressed hope that “this summit would mark a good start in Gulf relations by strengthening the spirit of brotherhood and solidarity.” However, he declared that the “Gulf union” included in the initiative of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz “will remain a lofty goal” that would pave the way for the Arab Union, something that some saw as dilution of the idea of the Gulf union, in particular because he explained that the conversion of “union” into “reality” requires “gradual steps” and their “actual completion.”

Political decisions

In an equally important manner, Sheikh Tamim, who is president of the current session of the GCC, said: “Recent experiences teach us not to rush to turn differences in political interpretations and in the assessment of political decisions, which may emerge even among leaders, to disputes that affect social, economic, media, and other sectors. If cooperation and collaboration mechanisms and institutions do not continue to function even when there are differences in views, this means that we have not laid down solid foundations for this organization yet. If the brotherly relationships among our peoples are not taken for granted even during crises, then this means that the GCC will remain a top-down body. There are givens in the relations among the countries of the GCC and its peoples that must not come into question at any time.”

This is the clear doctrine of the young Qatari leadership. According to the emir’s principles, “only practices that can place shared grounds above contentious matters, and cooperation above disputes, can turn the GCC into a real entity and the manifestation of the idea that the GCC is the most active Arab organization in the region and the world.”

In other words, the Emir of Qatar ushered in a new era where politics are called upon to be independent from fraternization among peoples, and where accepting contrasts in the framework of compatibility and diversity in the framework of unity are encouraged. Yet one question is: Do the other Gulf states approve this new approach, or will it launch another round of differences about the present and future of the GCC?

The Doha summit rescued the GCC from disintegration, but it also weakened the infrastructure for the “Gulf Union,” which Oman opposes and Kuwait and Qatar both have reservations on.

The “Summit of joy” as described by secretary-general of the GCC is worth rejoicing because it was free of confrontations and because it was held.

The Qatari presidency of the GCC will be extraordinary, not only because Qatar has always tried to have extraordinary policies, but also because the heavy burden placed on the shoulders of the GCC puts the GCC countries face to face with extraordinary duties, responsibility for which is evidently collective.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Friday, Dec. 12, 2014, and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

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Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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