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The GCC should be part of the solution

The discreet ending to last Thursday’s meeting in Jeddah between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE confirms the crisis centered on Qatar will not easily subside. Absent a quick fix, the US — which has Al-Udeid air base in Qatar just a short drive southwest of Doha — and other Western allies of the Arab Gulf states are increasingly worried.

Adding to the gloomy scenario, regional experts have been predicting the demise of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as one of the main casualties of the crisis. This is a possibility given the tensions and absence of basic trust between some of its members and Qatar. But could the often-ineffective bloc instead become part of the solution to a problem that has been years in the making?

Soon after the current measures against Qatar were announced, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Dr. Anwar Gargash, made a prescient statement: “After previous brotherly experiences, there is a need for a future framework that will strengthen the security and stability of the region. It is necessary to rebuild trust after pacts have been broken.”

Clearly, a lasting settlement to the various concerns surrounding Qatar’s regional role will not be achieved just through a one-off agreement. In 2013, Qatar and its Arab neighbors signed the Riyadh Accord, details of which were released this week by CNN, to address the very same concerns that are raised today about Doha’s regional role.

Then Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors in response to Qatari non-compliance and the deal collapsed. The diplomatic crisis was settled the following year with the signature of a supplementary agreement.

For any proposed solution to work, it needs to be backed by a wider institutional framework that can ensure constant and structured dialogue about specific issues and compliance. The GCC is the only obvious option. The bloc remains first and foremost a regular, high-level forum for the Arab Gulf leaders.

Some of its flagship initiatives, such as a single currency and monetary union, have failed to materialize. Signed in 1981 at a time of great upheaval in the Gulf — including revolutionary Iran’s declared goal to overthrow the leaders of neighboring Arab countries — the charter of the GCC is ill-suited for today’s even bigger security challenges.

But precisely its need for reform should work as an extra incentive. Plus it is a dangerous illusion to think the GCC is unnecessary, that cooperation and integration are dispensable, and that better results will be achieved with every Gulf country vying for its own corner.

For the sake of longer-term regional stability and cooperation in the Gulf and the wider region, a tentative settlement cobbled together by foreign powers ought to be avoided. 

It is key not to underestimate the concerns raised by the various Arab countries about Qatar’s regional role, despite some efforts to paint the crisis as resulting from its neighbors’ unease about its supposed progressivism.

A week ago, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made a little-noticed visit to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar to try to bridge the differences. The more seasoned French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is doing his Gulf round.

For the sake of longer-term regional stability and cooperation in the Gulf and the wider region, a tentative settlement cobbled together by foreign powers ought to be avoided. It is key not to underestimate the concerns raised by various Arab countries about Qatar’s regional role.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

Earlier in the week, Tillerson visited Doha to meet with his Qatari counterpart, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani. Following the meeting, the US and Qatar announced the signature of a memorandum of understanding on steps Doha will purportedly take to counter the funding of terrorism. This announcement raised premature hopes that a solution was within reach.

In a statement responding to the US-Qatari deal, the four countries imposing economic sanctions on Qatar praised US efforts in the fight against terrorism and its financing. But the statement also noted that the memorandum was only made possible due to longstanding pressure on various activities of Qatari authorities, and that that pressure would be maintained until there is progress on implementation of various demands.

The initial list of 13 demands put forward by Qatar’s neighbors in June to address their concerns, such as supporting terrorist groups and meddling in other countries’ internal affairs, has been condensed into six principles.

They essentially call for a commitment to combat terrorism, extremist ideology and hate speech, as well as non-interference in the internal affairs of neighboring states. All these points were part of the agreements signed by Qatar in 2013 and 2014.

They are very elementary coexistence principles. Their violation stands in direct opposition to the development of recent initiatives to advance common defense priorities. Those principles could be turned into an actionable institutional framework within the GCC, equally applicable to all members, with incentives for compliance and defined penalties for non-compliance, including expulsion from the bloc.

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a consultant and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.