The 39th GCC Summit: A Failed Attempt to Prove Gulf Unity

Hopes were high that this year’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit would provide an opportunity for the Arabian Gulf’s feuding states to address the political and diplomatic crisis that has plagued the region for a year and half. However, the gathering ended leaving the international community with more questions than answers about the unity of the Gulf and the fate of the wider region.
The 39th GCC Summit: A Failed Attempted to Prove Gulf Unity
Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter poses for a photo with Gulf Cooperation Council defense ministers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 20, 2016. DoD photo by Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz
The 39th GCC Summit, an annual one-day gathering of leaders from the council’s six member states, convened in Riyadh on December 9 and ended with no major breakthroughs for the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf. This is the second summit to be hosted since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a land, sea, and air blockade in June 2017.
The boycotting quartet has accused Qatar of interfering in their internal affairs and supporting “terrorism” across the region, allegations that Doha has continually denied. Since the rift began last year, Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al Ahmed has acted as the chief mediator in the crisis and has attempted to bring the feuding parties to the negotiating table on numerous occasions.
Kuwait’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Al Jarallah, said in November that the summit could offer “hope to resolve the Gulf crisis and solve the differences.” Kuwaiti officials hoped that the summit would advance their mediation efforts, and end the 18-month crisis. However, the summit failed to accomplish this objective and may have further exacerbated the rift.
While the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain attended this year’s summit, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani was not present. He instead chose to send the Qatari State Minister for Foreign Affairs Sultan bin Saad al-Muraikhi on his behalf. This decision has been widely interpreted as a slight to Riyadh and the rest of the GCC leadership.
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa criticized Sheikh Tamim’s absence from the 39th GCC Summit in a Twitter post, saying that “Qatar’s emir should have accepted the fair demands [of the boycotting states] and attended the summit.”
In response to the Bahraini foreign minister tweets, Ahmed bin Saeed Al Rumaihi, director of the information office at Qatar’s foreign ministry said, “Qatar can make its own decisions and had attended [last year’s] Kuwait summit while the leaders of the boycotting countries did not.” As Al Rumaihi’s response suggests, this is not the first time that GCC leaders have chosen to abstain from the annual gathering in order to send a message.
Last year, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain sent government officials, rather than their heads of state, to the 38th GCC Summit in Kuwait in an apparent attempt to snub Sheikh Tamim, who was in attendance. Just months after the blockade began, the “move reflected the political standoff between Qatar and the three boycotting GCC countries backed by Egypt,” according to UAE-based publication The National.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s summit invitation was the first official letter he had sent to Sheikh Tamim since the beginning of the blockade. Although some viewed the letter as a potential first step to resolving the crisis, Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, described the gesture as a mere formality: “It is a tradition that the host country has to invite all of the council’s members.”
Has the GCC Become a Defunct Body?

Some analysts feel that the body has become largely symbolic, as it has been unable to fulfill its mandate of building closer ties between its member states.

The GCC is a political and economic alliance that was established in 1981 with the objective of fostering socioeconomic, defense, and cultural cooperation in the Arabian Peninsula. However, some analysts feel that the body has become largely symbolic, as it has been unable to fulfill its mandate of building closer ties between its member states.
“Since the first [GCC] crisis in 2014, the council [has] demonstrated its inability to mediate or to have a significant role in easing tensions between . . . member states,” Luciano Zaccara, a researcher at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera. Nevertheless, over the years, Saudi Arabia has used the GCC as a platform to maintain its position as a regional power, according to Zweiri.
The sudden change of venue from Oman to Saudi Arabia for this year’s summit also seems to support this claim. The 39th GCC Summit was originally supposed to have been convened in Oman. But, for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia invoked a GCC bylaw that allowed the kingdom to host the gathering at the GCC headquarters in Riyadh. Observers say that Riyadh’s move to change the venue was an attempt to ensure that senior representatives from the Gulf States would attend the summit.
Other observers have suggested that Saudi Arabia’s move to host the annual summit could be an attempt to demonstrate to Washington that there are mechanisms to resolve regional disputes. This is especially important in light of the fact that the U.S. has been trying to establish the Middle East Strategic Alliance, more commonly referred to as Arab NATO, to counter the growing threat of Iran in the region.

“Without the council, Saudi Arabia has no power in the region . . . . It puts Saudi Arabia in the leadership position both economically and more so politically . . . . That’s why they insist on maintaining the GCC council.”

“Without the council, Saudi Arabia has no power in the region . . . . It puts Saudi Arabia in the leadership position both economically and more so politically . . . . That’s why they insist on maintaining the GCC council,” Zweiri told Al Jazeera.
The Delicate Diplomatic Dance Continues
By participating in the summit, not only has Qatar taken the high road in the current diplomatic crisis, it has also given itself grounds to refute allegations that it is unsupportive of its fellow Gulf States, according to Jocelyn Sage Mitchell, an assistant professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. However, Qatar and the boycotting countries in the GCC have not been “supportive” of each other for a long time.
“The June 2017 boycott was designed to teach Qatar its place in the . . . GCC, by triggering an economic crisis that would force it into line with Saudi and UAE foreign policies” with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, according to Bloomberg. However, the blockade has not had the intended effect. In the last year and a half, Qatar has forged deeper links with Iran and Turkey, since they helped the small Gulf State overcome the issues caused by the closure of land and air traffic between Doha and the boycotting nations.
In an address to the Qatari Shura Council in November, Sheikh Tamim said that Qatar’s exports have increased by 18 percent and its spending has decreased by 20 percent over the past year. He also said that Qatar would continue developing its oil and gas industries in order to preserve its status as the top liquefied natural gas exporter in the world.
Even though the 18-month boycott has been costly for Qatar, data from the International Monetary Fund shows that Qatar’s economic growth reached 2.7 percent in 2018, up from 1.6 percent in 2017. As the host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is likely to continue receiving more international exposure, generating future business opportunities for the small oil-rich nation.
Just a week after the summit, the Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani appeared on CNBC and called out Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the ongoing blockade of his country and their interference in the region’s politics. His statements and the aftermath of the GCC summit demonstrate that the political stalemate has not been resolved.
Ultimately, there can be no reconciliation in the GCC until all states involved in the Gulf crisis show a genuine desire to come to the negotiating table. At the moment, neither Qatar nor the boycotting countries have shown any real willingness to do so.