Alwaght- Will Qatar withdraw from the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council? This is a question that presents itself resoundingly amid the deep division among the Persian Gulf Arab states mainly between Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini bloc and Qatar.
The deep conflict of views among the members of the (P)GCC has always prevented the bloc from presenting, at least ostensibly, a successful regional alliance pattern, pushing the observers to deem void the relevancy of this regional bloc. They find its continuation of life tied to the external variables rather than internal ones.
Meanwhile, Qatar has the biggest potential to ring the bell of the exit of the members. For example, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, Qatar’s deputy foreign minister, a month after the eruption of the crisis with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain, was the first senior official in the bloc to announce the end of the Cooperation Council. When in December 2018 Qatar expressed its intention to quit the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 2019, the speculation about possible Doha exit from the Council pushed the Qatari foreign minister to make clear his country’s stance on the issue to end the rumors.
However, over the past few days, Kuwait resumed its attempts to mediate between Qatar and the blockading states. In reaction, Doha reportedly asked for restructuring the (P)GCC which according to Qatar is “toothless.”
Raising this demand shows that the rays of hope that came up, especially after the Saudi and Emirati national football teams visited Qatar to play in the Arab states cup, for settlement of the crisis are not realistic and continuation of the Council with its current structure is impossible.
This demand may have been made by Qatar for different aims, among them the preparation of the ground for Doha to quit. But what are the interests of Qatar in leaving the bloc? What are the drives behind possible Qatari leaving of the 40-year-old alliance? What is the best way for Qatar with consideration of the threats and interests of leaving or staying?
Definitely, the membership of the countries in the regional and international alliances and treaties is driven by national and economic interests and is based on the foreign policy’s strategic principles and objectives. However, when the relations are compromised by a security mystery, tensions will escalate to weaken the pro-convergence tendencies.
Meanwhile, the conflict of the Qatari foreign policy with the policies of the Cooperation Council which are dictated by Saudi-Arabia’s American-aligned strategy has been fully brazen for years now. The different Saudi and Emirati approaches to the Arab world developments, the non-complaint, pro-Muslim Brotherhood policies of Qatar, Qatari tendency for expanding the relations with Iran, and border disputes and Qatar fear of Saudi hegemony are the factors that push Qatar to develop the will to play outside of the (P)GCC framework. Even worse, it sometimes runs counter to the stated policies of the bloc.
It can be claimed that the Council’s regional security policies are more threatening than beneficial to Qatari security and political interests.
On the other side, the 40-year membership in the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council has not helped settle or decrease the differences among the member states. When in 1992 Qatar suspended a 1965 border agreement, Saudi Arabia seized a Qatari border post. Clashes ensued, resulting in deaths from two sides. In 2002, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Doha for criticism against Riyadh from Aljazeera, Qatar’s state-funded news network. Recalling of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Doha in 2014 caused an 8-month crisis in their ties. And now it has been three years since the four countries’ blockade on Qatar caused an unprecedented crisis within the bloc.
Economically, the single-product economy which relies on oil and gas sales makes Qatar and generally the Persian Gulf Arab states have closer ties with the outside world than among themselves. Before the blockade, Qatar annually imported $5 billion worth of goods from Saudi Arabia and the UAE which accounts for about 15 percent of its foreign trade. After the crisis erupted with Riyadh, Doha promoted some initiatives like attracting foreign investment and expanding home industries and trade with partners outside the Persian Gulf like big Asian powers. The country also tried to push against the potential risks with a security pact with Turkey and also the massive purchase of arms from the Western countries.
Increased self-confidence to successfully pass all of the challenges of the three-year sanctions and decreased reliance on the Council can give Qatar a bargaining chip in its call for restructuring the (P)GCC in the form of ending the Saudi hegemony and considering the interest of the smaller members as part of newly-adopted approaches.
Qatar is well aware that while the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council is now in the coma and does not have the interests of a collective coalition for Doha, exit from the alliance or introducing root changes to its structure and policy works against the interests of Saudi Arabia which uses the Council as an instrument to legitimize its policies in the region.
The Qatari demand will have an obstacle and it is Washington’s opposition. Over four decades of its life, the Council always took steps compliant with the American regional interests. In return, the US provided security and political support to the Arab monarchies in the face of potential threats.
But the US protection factors have been undermined during the years of the presidency of Donald Trump at the White House. Initially, the White House distressed Qatar about utter reliance on Washington for security when it supported the ban on Doha and joined the anti-Qatari Saudi accusation of supporting terrorism and the call to cut off ties with Iran. After tensions rose as a result of the US reinstatement of sanctions on Iran, Washington showed that it was not ready to protect its allies in the region at the time of crisis and that they should themselves think other ways to solve their security challenges. The best example of this Arab view was the UAE's decision to withdraw its forces from Yemen and start negotiations with Iran on the tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Even though Doha leaders may show no haste in exit from the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, by raising the calls for restructuring the bloc they on the one hand demonstrate their defiance of the banning countries’ demands passed via Kuwait and on the other hand step out of their defensive to offensive position to prepare for threatening the Saudi and Emirati interests in the (P)GCC.