After Qatar dispute, can we salvage a fragmented GCC?

The Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini decision to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar doesn’t come as a surprise

Abdullah Hamidaddin
Abdullah Hamidaddin
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The Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini decision to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar doesn’t come as a surprise. In one way, it is a public statement about the extent to which the tension between the three countries and Qatar has reached. That tension was no secret but here we were given a peak into what has been happening behind closed doors in some of the previous GCC summits.

But in a second, and more fundamental way, it is symptomatic of an inherent structural problem in the current configuration of the GCC. The official statement on withdrawing the ambassadors pointed to Qatari activities which were undermining the security of their fellow GCC members; in particular the Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood. It also mentioned the agreement between all GCC countries to avoid such activities, and the statement hoped that Qatar would seize such activities and abide by the agreement it pledged to. In others words, the statement realyed that the problem was misbehavior by one state, and the issue would be resolved by changing that behavior. This view is also widely held by many analysts and observers. But I believe the problem goes deeper: the heart of the matter is that the powers of GCC integration have diminished and the powers of GCC fragmentation have grown.

We need to always remember that the GCC was initiated to create a collective security response from the military threat which Iran posed in the 1980s. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had many effects on the GCC. One of them was that it revealed the deep fragility of each of the GCC states, raising the level of security fears. A second effect was that it – paradoxically - diminished the need for a Gulf alliance; for it showed that the United States is the only credible and capable power that can defend the countries of the GCC from external threats. This was the beginning of the end of GCC integration.

The heart of the matter is that the powers of GCC integration have diminished and the powers of GCC fragmentation have grown

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Between then and now one to one alliances with the United States, U.S. military bases, security pledges, all played into eroding any possibility or the need for the countries of GCC to collectively defend themselves. A recent consequence of this was the hurdles placed against the security agreement between the GCC countries and also the drive towards unity between them. Oman’s foreign minister couldn’t have been clearer when he said that the security of the region is “a Western responsibility because they have their interests here…”

The push towards fragmentation

The lack of need for the GCC security alliance diminished the incentives for integration, but it was the strategic imbalance between the six GCC states is the one pushing towards fragmentation.

The GCC is comprised of one large state – Saudi Arabia – and five small states. Saudi Arabia has about 20 million citizens. The other six Gulf States are approximately: Oman - 1.5 million; UAE - 1 million; Kuwait - 1.25 million; Bahrain - 600,000; Qatar - 300,000. This large-small state imbalance creates many security concerns and to deal with those concerns there are four possible strategies:

First: small countries neighboring large countries tend to create alliances with even bigger countries to balance the concern they have from their neighbor. Second: small countries also prefer to keep a distance from their larger neighbors. Third: small countries may sometimes also target the interests of their bigger neighbor. Fourth: sometimes small countries may even go further and form alliances with the adversaries of their bigger neighbor.

All the five smaller gulf countries have openly taken the first strategy. The second strategy has also been taken, though some states were more subtle than others. Oman has been the most explicit in its desire to keep a distance. The third and fourth strategy has largely been avoided by the five small Gulf States towards Saudi Arabia with the exception of Qatar. It decided to take all the four strategies. In the mid-2000s Qatar openly challenged Saudi strategic interests in Yemen; but the matter reached a threshold with the Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its support for extremists in Syria.

A new vision

The current diplomatic confrontation is not the real crisis facing the GCC. The real crisis is that the powers of GCC integration have diminished to a very low point, and the powers of fragmentation have reached a critical threshold. The current crisis should not be considered in and of itself; rather as indicative of that deeper crisis. If the GCC is to survive it needs a structural revamp. It needs to develop a new paradigm for integration. Until now, integration was mainly based on external security threats. This created the small-big country dynamic. Now we need to develop a sense for a new set of threats which are commonly faced by all the Gulf States. Threats which make Saudi Arabia genuinely need the smaller members in the same way the smaller members need Saudi Arabia, the type of threats which create a true sense of equal peers. The Gulf States need a new vision.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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