The new GCC: Convergence and strategic competition

By Dr. William A. Lawrence

August 23, 2023

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) met unexpectedly on August 18, 2023, in Jeddah with Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian one day after the envoy was scheduled to leave following a meeting with his counterpart. MbS clearly wished to accelerate the rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran after seven years of severed relations ending in a Chinese-brokered deal in March that underscored growing convergence between Saudi, Iranian, and Chinese interests. While the ramifications of that convergence in the Gulf have been oft overstated and negatively hyperbolized in the West, the positive externalities of peace-making in the Gulf are undeniable, including for the United States.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members’ geopolitical confrontations with Iran via proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere over more than a decade have masked a longer term, oft-overlooked trend of the Gulf countries (including Iraq) of quietly cooperating with Iran on a range of activities that serve everyone’s mutual economic needs and development agendas. That Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other regional states are now engaging more with Iran should come neither as a surprise nor a cause for hyperventilation. Such rapprochement is in regional and global economic and geopolitical interests. One of the best examples of this is Saudi Arabia. It is clearly in Saudi Arabia’s short and long-term interest that the missile barrages from its south, east, and north cease. That cessation will do more than anything else to set the stage for greater foreign investment that will help Saudi Arabia make progress towards its Vision 2030 and invest in national success.

Longer term divergence

But such a convergence of interests does not mean that the GCC countries should or will converge in every way. Moreover, when they do, it will not always be for the same reasons, to the same degree, or in the same manner. While Bahrain, for example, may re-establish ties with Iran in the near future, its pace of rapprochement will remain much slower than other GCC countries, as it should. Bahrain has legitimate concerns with Iran that need to be addressed first. Undeniably, any forward motion between GCC states and Iran will continue to be prickly and uneven even in areas like maritime cooperation, which are ripe for greater coordination against terrorists, pirates, and traffickers.

For its part, Iran has long sought to develop bilateral relations with GCC countries not as a bloc but with each independently. Obviously, this makes sense for Iran as it engages in sanctions-busting. But it also makes sense for Iran to do so even if there were no sanctions, as it makes sense for GCC countries if you carefully examine their needs. Each country in the Gulf has different things to gain by engaging (or not) with Iran. Each is likely to gain more by engaging individually and in their own manner to extract the concessions and guarantees they need. One of the best examples of this is the manner in which Qatar was forced by blockading states to engage more with Iran during the 2017-21 crisis. Qatar did so, but in limited ways, not venturing further than it needed to do to provide for the critical necessities of its population.

The blockade of Qatar ended in January 2021 with a collective sigh of relief from nearly all countries and populations worldwide. No matter how much they had been inclined to buy into propaganda about Qatar created and distributed by the blockaders and their allies—including former Trump White House staffers Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon, with only a minimum of desktop research, anyone could quickly figure out that for nearly every item on the list of grievances hastily assembled against Qatar by the blockading countries, at least one of the accusing countries was actually behaving in a manner worse than it was claiming Qatar was behaving.

From this perspective, the 2021 al-Ula declaration, which ended the blockade of Qatar and put the GCC on a new footing, solved both everything and nothing. On the one hand, it ended the fratricidal acts of war and caustic invective that wreaked so much havoc on existing relationships and arrangements both within the GCC and in the region. But, on the other hand, if you read the al-Ula declaration and compare it to the list of thirteen demands by the blockaders, none of the demands were met. Al Jazeera, Al-Araby, and Middle East Eye remain open and vibrant (and never should have been shuttered by autocratic diktat anyway). A Turkish military base in Qatar remains open, and thousands of Turkish police and troops played a successful role in the 2022 World Cup Shield. No reparations were exacted, and there were no draconian “compliance checks.”

Moreover, little of what was new in the al-Ula roadmap has been enacted, nor need it be. For example, greater “media coordination” may be fine to enhance the overall communications sector. But in the context of the blockaders’ demands and grievances, we would have gained nothing from muzzling the media, especially imposed decisions regarding on which publications may or may not exist. It is fine for Al Jazeera to bring on more Saudi or Egyptian guests to make their points, but it is even more important to ensure that the network continues to portray opposite viewpoints as well. Little of the al-Ula declaration language proposed concrete steps to address specific problems raised in the thirteen demands, which had always looked arbitrary and pretextual to veteran observers of Gulf affairs. The eleventh demand of the blockading countries was perhaps the most interesting for this analysis, the requirement that Qatar “align itself with Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially, and economically.” In retrospect, this demand looks anachronistic and may have marked the end of the forced-consensus era. An era in which Saudi Arabia or Egypt could feel in a position to coerce Qatar (or any other Arab country) into adopting their position on an issue through an act of war accompanied by expensive reputational character assassination.

The benefits of de-escalation and conflict resolution

Now, just over six years after the Qatar blockade began, much analysis frames GCC geopolitical divergence as “risky,” “dangerous”, and likely to produce more conflict in the region and beyond. That line of reasoning often goes as the follows: 1) Qatar’s foreign policy was viewed by the blockading countries as threatening largely because a) the media it bankrolled was allegedly “spreading disinformation and Islamism” b) Qatar supposedly “supports Islamists” and c) its partners Turkey and Iran were also considered serious threats; 2) the defeat of Donald Trump supposedly caused the blockading countries to shift their policies towards a reconciliation that would endear them to the Biden administration, which was accelerated by the World Cup; 3) geopolitical, economic, and symbolic disagreements between Saudi Arabia and UAE then “escalated” as their policies dangerously diverged, as evidenced by things like not sending senior enough delegations to each other’s summits. Worse, the divergences are considered “dangerous” for places like Sudan where the UAE is backing a paramilitary insurgency in part due to the fact that former-regime-supporting Islamists are backing the government against those insurgents. Similarly, there is supposedly “alarming” competition between UAE and Qatar on Afghanistan, for example, on Kabul airport management contracts.

But there is little evidence that any of this is increasing the risk of conflict or “escalating” conflict. Quite the contrary. The “epidemic” of peace-making and reconciliations across the region—whether from Saudi Arabia or Turkey or Egypt or Iran or China or Israel or the United States and in Yemen and Libya and Iraq, and hopefully Sudan now with active peacemaking efforts—are actually de-escalating tensions wherever they are happening.

It is important to note at this juncture that the Qatar-blockading countries were in it for relatively different reasons and with different emphases. The UAE was blockading primarily due to its contention that Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia was blockading in large part due to Qatar’s economic relationship with Iran, when now Saudi Arabia is engaging the Iranians economically. Egypt was blockading in large measure due to the sympathetic portrayals of its jailed political opposition in state-supported media, people it is now beginning to release by the dozens.

With research and reflection, these divergence-will-destabilize arguments unravel. First, since the thirteen demands of the blockaders turned out to be removed from reality, divergence before, during, and after the blockade ended up being positive and helped bring about a return to reality and to solutions. Second, diverging positions in foreign policy can open doors rather than close them. There are innumerable examples of this, an obvious one being the critical role Oman plays when there are efforts for rapprochements with Iran, and another is Qatar’s role in facilitating talks with Hamas or the Taliban.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, these shifting and accelerating rapprochements seem to have had little to do with the Trump-to-Biden transition. To take one of several examples, the current list of Saudi requests to the United States in exchange for normalization of relations with Israel is far more ambitious than anything which Riyadh would have requested of the Trump administration (supposedly the Kingdom’s greater friend), and their requests are shining an important de-escalatory spotlight on the plight of the Palestinians. This de-escalating move is more than anything the UAE or Bahrain managed to accomplish by normalizing faster with fewer concessions.

Furthermore, Saudi and Emirati talks with both Iran and Qatar were already proceeding in 2019 long before Trump stepped down, weakening the argument that somehow Biden’s election made those deals possible. There is little evidence that those rapprochements would not have happened if Trump had clung to power. Similarly, Bahrain seems to be on its own timeline in reconciling with Qatar, with no apparent connection to the demise of Trump or the advent of Biden.

Differences in policies among GCC countries and the snubs in summitry have always been there since the bloc was founded. Those problems were deepened by the 2017-21 blockade of Qatar, not created by it. Reasonable divergences in diplomacy and summitry clearly represent a post-independence coming-of-age of each GCC country rather than a death knell for magical wonders of enforced consensus.

Strategic competition

All in all, there is little evidence that healthy strategic competition between Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar will cause more conflict or that geopolitical divergences themselves cause conflict or cause it to worsen. There is plenty of evidence that divergence can lead to peace and reconciliation.

And contrary to what some have argued, what brings about convergence is not primarily security, but economics and geopolitics as well. What is increasingly portrayed as a destabilizing rift between Saudi and the UAE has just as much potential to lead to orderly sustainable solutions—in the context of healthy, brotherly competition—as it may lead to dangerous disorder. Hemedti in Sudan might well have waged the same war with Russian and eastern-Libyan patronage and other African and Asian mercenary inputs—bankrolled by plundered minerals and corrupt business practices—whether or not the UAE had played any role at all. More importantly, Abu Dhabi was certainly not calling the shots in Khartoum or Darfur. Likewise, divergences in the GCC did not further destabilize Somalia. Rather, Somalia’s  issues were exacerbated by the converse, an unhealthy attempt to force unity and consensus. Libya and Yemen are resolving despite differences of opinion between Gulf leaders on who should be in charge in those countries. This is because there is a healthy convergence of interests to stop conflict that is stronger than disagreements over who is the favored local geopolitical broker. Armed blockades or gargantuan disinformation campaigns in the name of consensus are far more destabilizing.

There are plenty of areas in which GCC members’ national interests will continue to converge. Improving relations with Iran, Turkey, China, Europe, and the United States; continuing resolution of conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine, along with further reconciliation in Lebanon and Libya, and future reconciliation in Sudan and even Morocco and Algeria (under proposed Qatari mediation); and working together with healthy competition in the energy transition, in diversification of economies, in localization of production, and in developing human capital to solve problems. Economic diversification across the Gulf is already bearing fruit, mitigating against rises and falls in hydrocarbon prices. Most of the projects launched by the GCC since 1981 remain useful ideas that can be further developed over time, among them a peninsular shield force or a monetary union.

But there are plenty of areas in which GCC members’ interests will diverge, and there is no reason to believe that divergences are harbingers of worse conflicts. Disagreements among GCC countries over oil pricing, whether and how to include Islamists in politics, counter-terrorism policy, the level of independence of the media, or how to deal with peace-making in Syria or Iraq, or with Turkey or Iran, need not cause conflict or be seen as a factor of regional destabilization. Quite the contrary, seeking consensus and uniformity, particularly by coercion, is more destabilizing.

Quickening the pace towards the 2030 visions

It bears repeating that the common overarching reason for so many positive recent developments in the GCC countries—about which there is often far too much negative hyperventilating among commentators in the West and Israel which favor the status quo—is quite simple. GCC countries have long term strategic goals—often dubbed “Vision 2030” or some variation on that theme—that aim to diversify their economies and employ more of their citizens. For those purposes, they want to bring in more foreign capital, investment, technical expertise, and cooperation. This is the primary reason for the new Saudi détente with Iran and the Houthis. It is a major reason the GCC countries want to increase investment both from China and the U.S., not to mention Europe and the rest of the world. It is one of the main reasons most Gulf leaders (other than those in the UAE and Egypt) are now saying that the Muslim Brotherhood is less of a concern than before. It is a major reason that Saudi Arabia is talking about normalizing with Israel and is actively sponsoring Sudan peace talks.

The new GCC features both healthy convergence and strategic competition. It needs both. Convergence of interests can pave the way for regional peace and stability, and healthy competition will sharpen the performance of each country and open doors for more peace-making and economic development. Divergence and strategic competition in the context of increasing economic, social, and human development should be viewed as sources of strength, stabilization, and solutions.

Author

  • Dr. William A. Lawrence

    Dr. William Lawrence has designed and taught a variety of courses on Arab Gulf politics across many U.S. government agencies and over twenty courses on Middle Eastern politics at American University, Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins, and five other universities. He lived and worked thirteen years in seven MENA countries, most recently in the UAE as Control Risks’ MENA Associate Director, and earlier as an International Crisis Group project director. He directed Arab Gulf science, technology, environment, and health relations at the State Department for five years. He has published in Foreign Policy, the Guardian, Al-Hayat, Sharq al-Awsat, and Jeune Afrique and with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Oxford University. He is a frequent guest on BBC, NPR, France 24, Al Jazeera, Sharq TV in Dubai, as well as many other regional media outlets.

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