Saudi Arabia hosted the 42nd summit for the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) states on December 14, 2021. The summit was the first of its kind since the signing of the Al-Ula agreement almost a full year earlier on January 5, 2021. According to the summit’s final communique, the GCC states expressed their readiness to “seriously and effectively” address various regional matters, including Iran’s nuclear case.
The Gulf leaders seemed determined to display unity after the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement.
The Gulf leaders seemed determined to display unity after the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement early last year. The division that existed within the GCC because of the 2017 Gulf Crisis – when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt boycotted Qatar – did not serve the bloc. Instead, it weakened the GCC and showed a lack of fraternity.
The Iran Factor and Solidifying Qatar-GCC Ties
For the GCC, Iran remains a crucial factor. The bloc was originally established in the early 1980s in response to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Since then, Iran has increasingly become a central concern to the Arab Gulf nations. However, the divisions that have existed in recent years have weakened their ability to contain Tehran’s influence in the region.
Lately, some regional states, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have adopted de-escalatory stances and seem willing to decrease tensions with rivals such as Iran and Turkey. This has emerged as the United States appears willing to reduce its presence in the Middle East. However, this should not be perceived as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s satisfaction with what they perceive as provocative actions by Iran.
Consequently, one aim of the recent GCC summit appears to be coordinating efforts regarding Iran. For this to be effective, there need to be strengthened ties between all members, something that has been clearly absent in recent years. In particular, the GCC seeks to strengthen the relationship between Qatar and the other Gulf states. While there has been a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement over the past year, it is no secret that not all the issues between Doha and the countries that boycotted it in 2017 have been addressed.
Some GCC states, including Saudi Arabia, remain concerned about Qatar’s relationship with Iran.
It seems that some GCC states, including Saudi Arabia, remain concerned about Qatar’s relationship with the Islamic Republic. Arguably, one aim of the over three-year blockade of Qatar was to distance it from Iran, but this did not happen. Instead, the bilateral Doha-Tehran relations were strengthened as a result of the ongoing Gulf crisis.
With the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement, there may be still hope in Riyadh for a shift in Doha’s stance. Yet for Qatar, it is unlikely that a major change will occur in its ties with Iran. Doha appears to be aware that its relations with both the United States and Iran could allow it to play a greater regional role. The same thing could be said about its relations with the GCC states. For this reason, Qatar seems to believe that its interest lies in maintaining an independent foreign policy and sustaining its current position.
MbS’ Regional Tour: Driving Factors
The December GCC summit followed a Gulf tour started on December 6, 2021, and conducted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), in which he visited Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. During his visit, MbS, met Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and the UAE’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, and Kuwait’s Emir Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.
MbS had at least three potential interests in this regional tour.
First, Iran is more relevant to Saudi Arabia than any other GCC state. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been great regional rivals. It is in Riyadh’s best interest to coordinate efforts regarding Iran, and MbS’s visit provides an opportunity to achieve this objective.
Second, Saudi Arabia’s global image has not been positive under the current reign that brought MbS to power. The Saudi intervention in Yemen, the alleged detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in the kingdom, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul, and arrests of activists have all contributed to the kingdom’s shredded image over the past few years. The recent tour, therefore, provided an opportunity for MbS to reframe his country’s negative narrative of recent years.
The recent tour provided an opportunity for MbS to reframe his country’s negative narrative.
Third, during former US President Donald Trump’s administration, the Saudis seemed to have someone in the White House who provided them with unconditional support. However, this changed when President Joe Biden assumed office. Since then, U.S.-Saudi ties have not been as smooth. Until now, for instance, Biden has not spoken with MbS, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
While the recent months have seen apparent disagreement between Washington and Riyadh over high oil prices, Biden said at a town hall meeting with CNN in October, “Gas prices relate to a foreign policy initiative that is about something that goes beyond the cost of gas.” In what seemed like an implicit reference to MbS, Biden added, “There’s a lot of Middle Eastern folks who want to talk to me. I’m not sure I’m going to talk to them.” Regardless, Washington has lately been seeking to re-focus its energy ties with Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries following the spike in oil prices and their effect on inflation in the US.
Nevertheless, it could be argued that through this tour, Riyadh is sending a message that there is no way around MbS if a foreign country wants to have solid bilateral ties with the kingdom.
Therefore, there is more than one motivation behind the recent GCC summit and MbS’s regional tour, which has occurred while some Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have been adopting de-escalatory positions. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the GCC and Riyadh will succeed in achieving their objectives.