Raghida Dergham/The Doha GCC Summit: A turning point in Gulf ties


The Doha GCC Summit: A turning point in Gulf ties
Sunday, 7 December 2014
Raghida Dergham/Al Arabiya

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit will soon be held in Doha amid a new conception for the relationship among the six member states of the GCC, Egypt, and Iran, primarily. This will be the summit that will lay out new policy orientations different from the previous ones that had accompanied the wave of revolutions for change in the Arab region. It will be the summit of cementing a new strategic contract and a new order in the Arab world, and a reinvigorated Arab position in the regional balance of power.

That is, if the Doha summit fulfills what was decided for it during the Riyadh summit held last month, to ensure a Gulf summit would take place on time in Doha. If the summit successfully overcomes the doubts that have marred the relationship between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain on the one hand, and Qatar and Oman on the other, the GCC will usher in a qualitatively new era following this historic summit.

Relations with Egypt will take center stage at the Doha summit, in fulfillment of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s appeals at the Riyadh summit, which he had convened. This is an absolute priority for Saudi and Emirati diplomacy and is not up for bargain.

The UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, said in an interview with Al-Hayat that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques had succeeded in “resetting the compass of GCC joint action back to the right track” in “a prominent instance of historical leadership.” The minister also pointed to the “important strategic developments this year in Saudi-UAE relations” in the context of their shared vision for the bilateral relationship and coordination to face challenges in the region.

These challenges included the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt first and foremost, bearing in mind that if they had survived in power there, they would have taken power in many other Arab capitals.

The Saudi-Emirati support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is part of the strategic commitment for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to supporting Egypt’s central and pivotal role in the new order in the Arab region.

Qatar’s positions in support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the opposition against Sisi have poisoned relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain, which rejected Doha’s denials this year. Even Oman, which also has an atypical relation with other GCC member states, did not bless Qatar’s role in Egypt and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, officially or otherwise.

A new Arab order

The Riyadh summit broadcasted King Abdullah’s appeal to all those concerned, be they decision-makers or journalists, to stop mutual incitement and ridicule among all parties in Qatar as in Egypt. At the Riyadh summit, Qatar committed itself to closing down Al-Jazeera’s channel dedicated to Egypt – and to incitement against Sisi and to stoking the Muslim Brotherhood’s hopes in returning to power – gradually until the closure is completed shortly before the summit. Meanwhile, Gulf diplomacy has put pressure on the Egyptian media to desist from ridiculing Qatar and provoking its leaders.

“Qatar’s presidency of the GCC Summit in 2015 will see a qualitative shift in Gulf relations and in drafting the new Arab-regional order”
Raghida Dergham
In the mind of Saudi-UAE diplomacy the issues are too pressing to have room for incitement and ridicule. Saudi and the UAE want to convince the youthful Qatari leadership represented by Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to join the strategic contract that will launch the new Arab order and position in the regional balance of power vis-à-vis Iran, Turkey, and Israel, and which requires restoring Egypt as an essential Arab state in this balance.

This in turn, according to Saudi-Emirati diplomacy, requires Qatar – and any other Gulf country – to stop supporting the Muslims Brotherhood anywhere. While Qatari policy may have assumed at one point that the Muslim Brotherhood constituted a ready-made springboard for regional and international influence, the Qatari policy desired in the Gulf today is for Qatar to join regional decision-making and the strategic contract as part of the bid for inter-Gulf harmony.

The summit in Doha will therefore be an important turning point in the Gulf and regional march, and will issue a clear stance on Egypt if efforts do not stumble from now until the session.

Reaching out to Iran

The other tack in the regional challenges that will be addressed by the Doha summit in a different tone is Iran. Reaching out to the Islamic Republic to encourage it to adopt moderation will mark this summit. Gulf doubts regarding Iran’s ability to move away from hardliners persist, but the Gulf decision has been to highlight appreciation, support, and backing for a moderate Iran.

The required strategic outcome is stability in the region, which makes the Gulf countries increasingly supportive of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries. Any lapse in the nuclear talks, according to a Gulf opinion, would be in favor of Iran because the hardliners there are bent to prevent the moderates from benefiting from the nuclear negotiations. As for the collapse in negotiations, this would be a frightening outcome that could possibly lead to a confrontation with the United States and galvanize hardliners in Iran, a prospect the Gulf countries fear immensely. The positions voiced by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, which stopped a hundred hardline MPs from questioning Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, was met with relief among many in the Gulf, and made them more hopeful about moderates in Iran despite ongoing doubts.

The Doha summit could give its blessing to the role Oman plays in hosting the nuclear talks by praising such constructive steps. Vacuum in the nuclear talks is a scary prospect for the Gulf countries because the alternative is worse. Some are calling for giving blessing to Oman’s role, and even giving it a mandate on behalf of the GCC countries at the Doha summit.

Yet this does not mean that the Doha summit would endorse the Omani attitude vis-à-vis Iran. The mismatch in Gulf attitudes on Iran will continue, especially since Oman’s logic is markedly different from that of other countries in the GCC in terms of diagnosing Iranian goals and regional ambitions.

What may happen in Doha is that the summit could issue something that would appease Oman and its desire to have the freedom to act in the way it sees conducive to removing obstacles in Gulf-Iran relations.

Iranian airstrikes against ISIS will not be criticized or objected to at the Doha summit, according to Gulf sources. The summit will turn a blind eye to Iran’s strikes in Iraq because this is an “intersection of interests” between Iran and the Gulf countries taking part in the anti-ISIS coalition led by the United States. This is a de facto intersection between Washington, Tehran, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. ISIS became a point of intersection among their interests because it poses an existential threat to al sides, and because supporting Iraq and the Iraqi government has become a common denominator.

The Gulf countries do not want an Iranian presence in Iraq, but they want to avoid a confrontation with the Revolutionary Guards and the Hezbollah brigades, and are overlooking the footage of the commander of the Qods Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, dancing in celebration of the triumphs against ISIS. The Gulf countries have concluded that what is needed in Iraq is to help rebuild the Iraqi army and encourage Sunni leaders and factions to take part in the war on ISIS.

Syria, Libya, Yemen and Jordan

Syria too will be present at the Doha summit. Syria’s interior, Syria’s borders, and international proposals involving Syria will be discussed. The summit will issue support for the moderate opposition and the transitional political process represented by Geneva 1 and Geneva 2, rather than the various conflicting initiatives. However Syria, despite the importance of what is taking place there, will most likely not dominate the Gulf summit.

Libya will not be at the top of Gulf positions, though the summit will definitely tackle that issue. One reason is that the Libyans themselves prefer international initiatives over Gulf ones.

Jordan will be higher on the Gulf priorities, because preserving Jordan is an essential part of the Gulf strategy. Jordan will be second only to Egypt in the priorities of the Gulf summit.

Certainly, Yemen will be very present in Gulf talks and decisions, though this will not rise up to the level of the events there, because the general feeling is that no urgent measures are needed as long as al-Qaeda is confronting the Houthis in a war of attrition in Yemen.

The Doha summit will definitely tackle the situation in Lebanon, because of worrying developments there. Palestine will be the top of the necessary issues the summit will address in its statement, especially as the U.N. Security Council is discussing the Palestinian question in a new approach with Jordanian and French efforts.

Putting the Gulf house in order is the top priority for the discussions at the Doha summit, however. Kuwait’s presidency of the GCC in 2014, as one Gulf figure familiar with the GCC work put it, “was able to keep the GCC ship sailing ahead without turbulent quarrels, helping it arrive in the port at Doha charged with hope.”

Qatar’s presidency of the GCC Summit in 2015 will see a qualitative shift in Gulf relations and in drafting the new Arab-regional order, providing that the commitments made at the Riyadh summit are fulfilled, led by those related to the issue of Egyptian-Qatari relations.