“Crisis in the GCC: Causes, Consequences, and Prospects” was the topic of a panel discussion hosted by the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University in Qatar (GUQ) on September 17, 2017. Featured panelists included Gerd Nonneman, Professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at GUQ; Abdullah Baabood, Director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University; and Shafeeq Ghabra, Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University. The presentation was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, GUQ Professor and Director of CIRS.
Over 350 guests attended the discussion on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis. The speakers were invited to share their thoughts on the developments since the crisis began on June 5, 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed ties and halted trade with Qatar. A series of drastic measures was launched by these countries, including the withdrawal of ambassadors from Doha and the expulsion of Qatari diplomats, the closure of airspace to all flights to and from Qatar, and the closure of the land border crossing between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The governments of Yemen, Libya, the Maldives, and others also severed ties, along with suspending air, land, and sea travel to and from Qatar.
A list of thirteen demands was issued, calling for Qatar to sever ties with terrorist organizations, close Al Jazeera and its affiliates, and curb diplomatic ties with Iran, along with other conditions. Last week marked one hundred days since the start of the blockade sparked a diplomatic crisis.
Gerd Nonneman began the discussion by outlining the causes of the situation and said, fundamentally, it is about how the three surrounding states want Qatar to accept what they view as its “proper” role in the region, “as a virtual vassal state that will not challenge Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the Arabian peninsula and the Gulf region, nor attempt to compete with the UAE for regional status and reach.” Qatar is a latecomer in terms of Gulf development, and its confident emergence as an independent actor since the 1990s, with the adoption of a number of policies that clash with Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini preferences, have long irked some in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in particular. The issues center around different attitudes over the possible role of political Islam in the wider region, Qatar’s relations with a number of groups that do not fit the policy preferences of other Arab regional players, and its diplomatic stance towards Iran, Nonneman said. The Arab Spring, and Qatar’s approach to it, made these issues especially acute.
Since the early 1990s, and particularly since 1995 when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa took power, Qatar has striven to escape from underneath the Saudi shadow, Nonneman said. Hence the determination to “put Qatar back into its box”—especially in the eyes of the current leadership in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and the enabling factor of the Trump presidency.
Qatar has considered possible threats and available resources in that light, Nonneman said. An internal political threat was virtually nonexistent and, if anything, the blockade has drawn the population closer to the leadership. Initial concern over a potential military threat quickly dissipated, given the important US and other international interests at stake in pre-empting that. The societal threat has been one of the most serious, with families and kinship groups being suddenly cut off from each other in unprecedented ways. The economic impact of the crisis is serious, but ultimately sustainable. Nonneman concluded that, while the blockade is expensive and painful, and the leadership therefore would certainly prefer to find a solution, “the crisis can be sustained if the alternative would be, in effect, sacrificing one’s sovereignty.”
Nonneman did not exclude a settlement of sorts in the medium term, since the interests of the US and the blockading countries are suffering damage, too, and wiser counsel might eventually prevail. But, he added, “I cannot imagine that trust in the GCC and especially in the current leadership in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, can be restored.” He concluded that “the suspicions that Qatar [like other small GCC states] always had about the organization and Saudi hegemonic ambitions in this region, have only been reinforced.”
Abdullah Baabood said that despite studying the region for years, nothing had prepared him for a crisis like this. He asserted that the countries making up the GCC, “despite being twenty-first century states, are essentially ruled as if they were in the ‘Middle Ages.’ We are ruled by families that still have these feuds and conflicts between them. You can’t really continue in this century doing it the same way,” he said.
The problem with a “Mediaeval style of leadership” in the region, he noted, is that anything can happen. “Leaders can be erratic, crises can appear out of nowhere, and can be based on fabricated news, as was the case with the current conflict. Unfortunately, we are going to have to work with this erratic leadership for a long time,” he said, “because some of them are still young and they are going to rule us for the next forty to fifty years.” Baabood said it is the mentality of a “mediaeval tribe” that has not really evolved. “Modernity is only fabric that we see in terms of the infrastructure, etcetera, but not when it comes to the political system,” he said.
Additionally, there is conflict and a contradiction in views for how the region should develop. “We have a conflicting narrative—a narrative between what the leadership in Qatar wants to see develop—including [regarding] the Arab spring—and another narrative that wants to keep the status quo, and perhaps even go back to before the status quo, taking us to police states, whether in Egypt or some of the GCC states. And they don’t want to change. They are going to blame any trouble on political Islam, modernity, democracy.” Ultimately, he argued “That is going to create resentment, more terrorism, and radicalization.”
On the GCC, Baabood said the conflict goes against the entire principles of the organization, which is based on cooperation and integration among the member states. The GCC has entered into a number of formal mutual agreements: on security, economic cooperation, and the free flow of people, goods, services, and finance. The GCC is supposed to be a rules-based institution with a charter requiring all GCC leaders making critical decisions to do so by unanimous agreement. In this case, the decision to impose the blockade did not go before the supreme council, he said, effectively revealing the hollowness of the institution.
“What we’re talking about is a fundamental flaw in how the GCC is working. Are we going to have a GCC at the end of the day if people can’t trust the charter, the agreements that these leaders have signed or are going to decide?” he asked. “It really deals a big blow to our future integration and cooperation.
Baabood argued that Qatar, so far, is winning the war of narratives. He said: “If you look at the media, four countries’ media is attacking one small country, but yet the country that is winning in the streets and hearts and minds of the people is Qatar. They are winning on an ethical, moral ground, not playing the victim, and explaining the situation as it is.” Baabood concluded by noting that “In terms of public opinion, globally I think Qatar is winning.”
Shafeeq Ghabra spoke on how he had personally experienced the crisis. When he awoke on June 5, 2017, while spending a sabbatical at the Arab Center in Doha, to the news of the boycott and the closure of borders, it reminded him of when Iraq threatened Kuwait in 1990. “It felt like war,” and he half-expected to see tanks in the streets. The news was all the more shocking for Ghabra, because in the time leading up to the blockade, the GCC states had seemed so united. They were fighting together in Yemen; they agreed on policy toward Syria; they had all worked against Muammar Gaddafi of Libya; they supported the Iraqi system in fighting ISIS; and they were all seemingly united on the war on terror. “What does this tell me about the region and the way politics suddenly shifted overnight?”
Ghabra said that he had been relieved by the Kuwaiti mediation efforts, and as well as when the Turkish parliament made the decision to send troops to Qatar two days into the crisis. He acknowledged the effective ways in which Qatar was managing the crisis, including opening new routes to Oman and Turkey, creating connections with Iran in terms of trade and ports, and managing to build on its relations with Europe. He argued that the boycotting countries did not expect such resilience; “they expected Qatar would immediately capitulate and say ‘whatever you want.’ But this did not happen. This was a major miscalculation in this approach of blockade and boycott.”
Ghabra concluded by noting: “In this context we see a new axis in the region, a new power structure, and Qatar has a new birth of its own. It’s liberated from certain contexts and relations; it can build new strategies and structures and approaches. And the blockade and the sanctions can slowly collapse under their own weight and out of their own irrationalism.” Looking to the future, Ghabra said: “Do I still believe that in 2022 we’re going to come to the [World Cup] games here? I believe we are!”
Abdullah Baabood is the Director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University. Abdullah’s teaching and research interests are on the areas of international relations, international political economy especially on globalization and regionalism, and security and energy studies. He particularly focuses on the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economic, social and political development and their external relations. Abdullah taught at different universities and institutions in Europe and before joining Qatar University, he spent four years as the Director of the Gulf Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, UK.
Shafeeq Ghabra is Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University. He received a BA from Georgetown in 1975, an from MA Purdue University (West Lafayette) in 1983, and PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987. He was the founding president of the American University of Kuwait (2003-2006); and Director of the Kuwait Information Office in Washington DC (1998-2002), and the Center of Strategic Studies at Kuwait University (2002-2003). He is author of Palestinians in Kuwait: The Family and the Politics of Survival (Westview Press, 1987) and, in Arabic, Kuwait and the dynamics of State and Society (Afaq Books, 2011).
Gerd Nonneman is Professor of International Relations & Gulf Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, where he served as Dean from 2011 to 2016. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Exeter, and Licentiates in Oriental Philology (Arabic) and Development Studies from the University of Ghent, Belgium. Prior to his appointment at Georgetown, he served as Professor of International Relations & Middle East Politics, and Al-Qasimi Professor of Gulf Studies, at the University of Exeter, where he also directed the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies and the Centre for Gulf Studies. A former Executive Director of BRISMES (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), he is editor of the Journal of Arabian Studies. He has published widely, in 12 books and some 50 articles and book chapters, on the politics and international relations of the Middle East, with a particular emphasis on the Gulf. Aside from his academic work, he has worked in the private sector in the Gulf region, and acted as a consultant to a range of companies, NGOs, governments and international institutions.
Article by Jackie Starbird, Publications and Projects Assistant