What happened at the Riyadh summit on Sunday, which led to announcing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit would convene in Doha early next month, rescued GCC from fragmentation, and increased the odds for establishing a GCC Plus with Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. It also suggested that Qatar has decided to adopt a markedly new policy vis-à-vis Egypt, GCC countries, and the Muslim Brotherhood organization. These are extremely important developments that have many implications for the GCC, regional security, the international coalition against ISIS and similar groups, and the identity of moderation declared by the leaderships of the GCC countries against extremism and terrorism. The Doha summit, which will handover the presidency of the GCC to Qatar next year, will not be ordinary, whether in terms of the issues raised during its sessions, or the positions and commitments of the new young Qatari leadership represented by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. What happened in the Riyadh summit is a testimony to the wisdom of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who chairs the GCC summit this year. The two men worked on healing rifts and giving priority to supreme interests over divisions, as they presented a roadmap to the young emir for holding the summit in Doha and for an exceptional Qatari chairmanship of the GCC in an exceptional time. Among those who had their eyes set the Riyadh summit and who will carefully observe what will come out of the Doha summit are not just the leaders of the United States, Russia, Europe, and China, but also the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The issue involves the future of the regional balance of power and the role of the GCC in these balances.
The first to be resentful of the prospects of rapprochement in the Gulf is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who believed his distinguished relationship with the leadership in Qatar, especially with the father Emir Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, was the guarantee of the continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood project. His keenness on having a special relationship with Qatar was based on their joint support for the Muslim brotherhood, which practically meant permanent division in the rank of GCC countries, undermining the future of the organization. This was reassuring for Erdogan, first, because division in any Arab ranks is conducive to Turkey’s rise in the region and to the strengthening of its position in the balance of power. And second, because his project based on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the entire region was his ticket to reviving the Ottoman Empire.
Today, Qatar denies being a sponsor and financier of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE and Saudi Arabia see as the source of many plots against them and the region as a whole. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are determined to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power anywhere in the Arab region. Under Emir Hamad, there was much talk holding that he was a major supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sources would report that he did not hide this in closed political meetings. Under his son Emir Tamim, Qatar moved away slightly from the Muslim Brotherhood, with some of the group’s leaders leaving Doha, though some of them returned as has been reported.
What had happened prior to the summit in Riyadh was that Qatar continued to support Al-Jazeera Mubashir, the mouthpiece of the opposition against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. As long as the younger Emir continued to be committed to the television network created by his father, doubts continued as to whether he had truly been handed over the levers of power.
The main theme of the Riyadh summit was in one word reconciliation. The theme of the Doha summit will include a practical plan to launch the new chapter in the GCC march, based on “implementing commitments.” The Riyadh summit included written commitments to the priorities agreed upon, led by ending Qatari media campaigns against Egypt, reforming relations with the GCC started with an end to naturalization that Bahrain confirmed later had begun, and commitment to the absolute priority given by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ending Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
These commitments will constitute a qualitative shift in Qatari policy when it is implemented, and will have a major impact on Qatar’s position in the region and the Gulf and Arab perception of the Qatari leadership. It is no secret that Qatari policies prior to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid’s tenure following the abdication of Sheikh Hamad have been the source of controversy, anger, and reproach, causing much accusations in the direction of Doha.
The pace of the change seemed slow since Sheikh Tamim took power. Some even believe the abdication of the father was part of the change, after regional and international criticisms of Qatari policies intensified. Many Qataris encouraged the young emir to end the policy of meddling in the countries of the region, no matter what the reasons are, beginning with the open intervention policy led by the former Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem under Emir Hamad. The view was that Qatar only reaped blame, while its intervention mobilized Arab public opinion against it, raising questions about its purposes.
When Sheikh Tamim visited New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly this fall, he spoke in a language that suggested more change was coming, especially when he addressed a think tank in New York (see article column dated 17 October). He was intent on having good relations with Saudi Arabia and the rest of GCC countries.
The GCC, which comprises Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman was on the verge of collapse if it hadn’t been agreed to hold a summit in Doha on December 9 at the summit in Riyadh, which Oman did not attend. Oman opposes many Saudi, Emirati, Kuwaiti, and Bahraini policies, led by these countries’ position on Iran and Saudi’s determination to create a Gulf Union, which had been previously agreed at the GCC.
Last year, shortly before the convening of the Gulf summit in Kuwait, a serious diplomatic row took place between Saudi Arabia and Oman because of what Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi said in the Manama Dialogue conference and in remarks to Al-Hayat. The situation was rectified at the Kuwait summit, but disputes remained essentially unresolved, and were exacerbated by Oman's role in hosting the secret negotiations between the United States and Iran.
Iran wants to establish a regional security regime that would include it and Iraq with the Gulf countries, to practically replace the GCC.
Namely, that the theses of Iran, actually, implementation requires the dismantling of the Cooperation Council. In other words, Iran’s proposals effectively require dismantling the GCC.
Qatar has helped rescue the GCC from disintegration with the decision of its emir to remain an active player in the GCC and agree to a new direction. If Sheikh Tamim had shown inflexibility and refused to reach an understanding with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and Bahrain, the GCC would have ended in its current form. But since the young Emir of Qatar responded to the initiative of the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah and deferred to the statute of Saudi King Abdullah, he gave a strong boost to the march towards the Gulf union, regardless of whether Oman will decide to join or not. Most likely, the Qatari leadership will encourage Oman to remain in the Gulf fold instead of gravitating towards Iran.
There are many reasons behind the Sheik Tamim’s decision, including, most definitely, Saudi, UAE, and Bahrain’s joint decision to withdraw ambassadors from Doha to protest Qatar’s policy and intervention in the affairs of these countries, directly, and by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – according to these countries. The agreement at the summit in Riyadh led to the return of the ambassadors to Doha, and gave Qatar the opportunity to host the Gulf summit, which would not have convened in Doha were it not for the summit in Riyadh.
Another reason for the new Qatari attitude could be the fact that the US Congress vowed to go after Qatar because of its ties to extremist groups, regardless of Qatar’s justifications that claim these ties serve as useful channels to arrive at solutions. Perhaps the growing Israeli anger over Qatar’s support for Hamas and encouraging extremism in the region – according to Israel – has led Doha to make decisions to adjust course and head off such a campaign. And perhaps the Arab popular backlash against Qatari policies is another consideration.
However, what seems to be the leading consideration are the threats against Qatar, which grew dramatically with the rise of extremist groups like ISIS. Unlike other groups, ISIS has gone out of control. There is also the issue of national and regional security that Doha decided to deal with practically and pragmatically instead of continuing with one-upmanship and adventurism.
The agreement at the Riyadh summit for a new Qatari approach is also important because the other GCC countries are also deeply involved in the anti-ISIS international coalition, while the Qatari role has been largely cosmetic. The United States needs this coalition to succeed, and no longer accepts having Qatar as just a nametag in the coalition; it was more and has demanded more action, clarification, and clarity.
The timing of the agreement in Riyadh is also striking as it coincided with the nuclear negotiations with Iran undergoing their most serious phase, and the attempts to save them in Muscat before moving to Vienna and Geneva by November 24. The Gulf message is clear: The reconciliation summit has launched a new joint action of its kind based on the premise that the regional arena cannot tolerate messing about, and that the role of the GCC fundamentally is to support moderation against extremism. The message also states that there is no room for security arrangements that substitute the GCC, and that the role the world wants the GCC to play will be played.
Nuclear negotiations with Iran have a direct impact on GCC countries, whether they succeed, fail, or get stuck somewhere between success and failure. However, there is another party that will be radically affected by the outcome of the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, namely, Iranian President Hassan Rohani. Rohani has linked his fate to the success of nuclear negotiations and his reputation, which is closely linked to that of the moderate camp in Iran. So far, Rohani seems to be retreating before the hardliners, and moderation seems to be on the wane in Iran. Disputes between the two camps over the nuclear negotiations could lead to internal confrontations in Iran.
Iran will be present in the GCC summit in Doha though not in attendance. Egypt will be both present and in attendance at the summit, because the basis of Gulf understandings is the Egyptian question and the shunning of the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in regional balances.
Qatar realized how serious Saudi Arabia and the UAE were in blocking its presidency of the GCC in 2015 if it had maintained its policies and approach in Egypt. Qatar understood that it needed to make up its mind, and it chose to change course. Qatar saw the leadership of the GCC a great benefit for it in a fateful period like this, and an opportunity to redraw and rearrange its approaches. The first practical step will be to end the partnership with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in supporting the Muslim brotherhood, while opening a new, natural page with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
This does not mean that Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will be absent from the Doha summit, as all hot topics will be on the table.
What is new is that relationship between the generations, between the seasoned men in wisdom and vision like King Abdullah and Sheikh Sabah, and young rulers ready to receive their wisdom and vision, such as Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad. Hopefully, this is good news for the Gulf with practical manifestations to be seen in the countries of the region living in the shadow of understandings and disputes.
from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi