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In a move that sent shock waves across the communities of several Gulf states which are part of the GCC, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors to Qatar in March 2014. The GCC or the Gulf Cooperation Council was established in 1981 and includes the founding member states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain.
Bound by a common language and religion, it flourished in its unilateral approach on many pressing issues, and various inter-nation agencies to promote increased ties between member states were inaugurated. There was also talk of a single currency, much like the Euro in the European Union but that has yet to materialize. In areas of security, trade and tariffs, and regional defense, the members were generally accommodating to each other. A regional unified military force, the Peninsula Shield, was set up to protect the member states from external aggression. There are also plans to create rail networks connecting all member states for transporting freight and reducing transport times.
So what happened back in March 2014 that almost splintered this decades-old union into oblivion? At the time of the recall of the diplomatic envoys, the leaders of the three countries who moved against Qatar stated that it was decided ‘to protect their security and stability.’ The three states accused Doha of malicious interference in their internal affairs and of compromising regional security through Qatar’s unlimited support of the Muslim Brotherhood. They collectively charged that Qatar had not ‘committed to the principles’ of the Gulf Cooperation Council and ‘has to take the appropriate steps to ensure the security of the GCC states.’
A meeting of GCC foreign ministers prior to the break had failed to persuade Qatar to see eye to eye the concerns of the other three member states. An official statement released after the talks said that GCC countries ‘have exerted massive efforts to contact Qatar on all levels to agree on a unified policy… to ensure non-interference, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of any member state.
Unfortunately, these efforts did not result in Qatar’s agreement to abide by these measures, which prompted the three countries to start what they saw as necessary, to protect their security and stability, by withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar effective immediately.’ More specifically, the three-member states asked Qatar ‘not to support any party aiming to threaten security and stability of any GCC member.’ The abstention of the remaining GCC states of Kuwait and Oman caused many political analysts to wonder if that signaled the end of the GCC.
Qatar had been an ardent supporter of President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt and his legion of the Muslim Brotherhood after the ouster in 2011 of Hosni Mubarak, the former president. The other three states viewed Morsi and the Brotherhood warily as they suspected the Brotherhood’s long arm reaching into their borders for the purpose of causing civil unrest and overthrowing the monarchies.
Bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia, the dominant player in the GCC, and Qatar quickly plummeted as the latter in 2012 threw in diplomatic support along with some $8 billion to President Mohammed Morsi’s new Islamist government in Egypt. The Saudis, aware of the Muslim Brotherhood’s significant support in the Kingdom and fearing a potential outbreak of sectarian discontent within its own borders, did all they could to help the populist movement in Egypt to oust President Morsi and which in July 2013 led to the ascension of army commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power. Qatar bluntly refused to recognize the new government and cut off all financial support to the new regime. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was not amused. Rhetoric from Islamist leaders based in Doha began publicly attacking the three Gulf States, and lines were drawn.
Perhaps feeling isolated and vulnerable against the rising threats of extremist Islamic State, Qatar’s quiet rapprochement with its estranged neighbors began quietly and with actions that on the surface seemed to pacify them.
Towards the end of 2014, some cracks in the hardened stance began to appear. On November 16, an emergency meeting held between Gulf leaders in the Saudi capital of Riyadh gave impetus to the ‘Riyadh Complementary Arrangement’ whereby the Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini governments resolved some details and agreed to send their ambassadors back to Qatar.
The conciliatory joint statement released after the final session bespoke of an agreement that ‘promises the opening of a new page that will present a strong base, especially in light of the sensitive circumstances the region is undergoing,’ a reference to the growing menace of IS which was threatening the stability in the region. The news was greeted with an outpouring of relief and expectations that relations would be warming soon.
King Abdullah also corralled Qatari support for the new Egyptian regime and steps were taken to normalize relations between Qatar and Egypt. This was a critical move to pacify the Gulf states. Following the death of the Saudi King in January 2015, there were speculations that his efforts would be buried alongside him and Egypt and Qatar would not get close. But Mohamed Mahmoud, a specialist researcher in Arab affairs at the Diplomatic Center for Strategic Studies asserted that he did ‘not think there will be any change in the Saudi policies; I think King Salman will follow in his brother’s footsteps.’
Mahmoud added that the reconciliation between Egypt and Qatar was progressing positively adding that “it is perceived that there is a change in the language used in both countries’ media discourses in comparison to the criticizing coverage a few months ago. Saudi Arabia is playing an important regional role, and its position will not change by the change of the king.’
The new ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, is reported to have very warm and friendly ties with the Qatari Emir who visited Riyadh in February and all earlier threats of disbarring the Qataris from the GCC today appear to be a distant bad memory. The GCC is alive and well, for the time being.
However, all was not well between Qatar and Egypt, as Doha withdrew its ambassador from Cairo in February after Egypt accused Qatar of supporting ‘terrorism’ in Libya where IS had beheaded 20 Egyptian Copts. This time other GCC-states supported Qatar and rejected the accusations as ‘unfounded’.