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Reconstituting the Gulf Cooperation Council: Al-‘Ula and Beyond

by Matthew Robinson

With a multitude of crises lapping at the shores of the Arabian Peninsula, it is important to reflect on some of the more pronounced changes that may strengthen the region’s institutional framework and, through it, provide enhanced stability. Although initially met with scepticism, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Al-‘Ula Summit (05 January 2021) has been recorded as a key step to both ending tensions within the bloc and providing greater regional stability. While differences between Qatar (on one hand) and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE [and Egypt] (on the other) will continue, and disagreements will surface, reestablishing diplomatic routes will certainly ease pressure and allow crisis management to replace acrimony.

 

The Al-‘Ula Summit brought the leaders of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) together to the Maraya Concert Hall, the world’s largest mirror-clad building, and offered space and a place for reflection on the GCC’s 41 years of existence and how to chart through the latest obstacles towards unity. The Final Communique, the so-called ‘Al-‘Ula Declaration,’ restored a spirit of ‘solidarity and stability’ after nearly a decade of simmering tensions and four years of boycott.

 

To the casual observer, it is difficult to see what tradeoffs were made to end the crisis and bring the six GCC States together to the table especially since the key demands by the Quartet went unheeded. However, the undercurrents were always more important than those aired in public and the idea of GCC unity in the face of mounting regional tensions — from bubbling hostilities in Iraq, the continued Iran-US tug-o-war and a conflict in Yemen set to spillover and further engulf its neighbours.

 

And here the fruits of the Al-‘Ula Declaration can be most visibly seen: at the 147th session of GCC Ministerial Council on 17 March 2021, the GCC Secretary-General, Nayef Al-Hajraf stressed the indivisibility of security amongst GCC member states, and affirmed the GCC’s collective stance to support Saudi Arabia against the provocative acts of the Ansar Allah (re: the Houthi militia) which has increased the tempo and ferocity of attacks against civilians, airports, seaports and vital energy resources. Crucially, the GCC also denounced Iran’s continued support for terrorist groups and insurgent militias while reiterating its support for UAE sovereignty over the three islands, Abu Musa, Upper and Lower Tunb, which have been occupied by Iran since 1971.

 

It is also important to consider the timing of, particularly, Riyadh’s enthusiasm for the Al-‘Ula Summit—Saudi Arabia continues to make huge strides in reform and modernisation and does not need yet another unresolved issue on its frontiers especially with Qatar with which it shares more than a strategic position in the Gulf, they are also communities of fate. Some have argued that ending the Gulf crisis was also meant to signal political maturity to Washington in the context President Biden’s ‘recalibration’ of relations with Saudi Arabia. However, that may be too shortsighted. The US will continue to rely on Saudi Arabia [and vice versa] but only as long as Washington remains entrenched in the region. If its pivot to Asia is embarked on, Saudi Arabia may have to start thinking about security in a post-US Middle East. That would entail constructing — with partners including the US, UK and many in Europe — a new security architecture for the region. Getting the GCC back on track, a goal sought by all six members, was certainly a fundamental first step.

 

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Over the past three months, intra-Gulf relations have changed trajectory and the international community is paying attention. Reconciliation efforts raised more than eyebrows, they also raised the prospects for the GCC to again lead-by-example since it is a stabilising institution. Instead of walking a tightrope, balancing between the various fractions of the GCC, international actors can again approach the grouping together. Russia and China, the US, UK and EU have all redoubled their engagements with the GCC and, individually, with its members and, it seems, that the region is finding itself as a central node in international affairs. To be successful under the spotlight, the GCC requires actorness and actorness requires unity. In that way, the Al-‘Ula Summit may be understood as having achieved two fundamental goals: first in paving the way to an enhanced communications and cooperation mechanism to solve intra-Gulf issues before they are cemented and, second, to signal to the exogenous world that despite periodic tension, the return to GCC unity is only ever really a Summit away.

30 March 2021

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