40th GCC summit: The beginning of reconciliation?


Doha, Qatar – As leaders prepare to convene the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on Wednesday, a possible resolution to the more than two-year blockade on Qatar will dominate discussions, analysts say.

Yet an announcement of restoring “brotherly” relations is not expected at the one-day summit, given the many obstacles that still need to be ironed out.

Since the summer of 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain – in addition to Egypt – severed diplomatic ties with Doha and imposed an air, sea and land blockade after accusing it of supporting “terrorism” and meddling in foreign affairs.

Qatar has repeatedly denied the accusations, and has largely managed to weather the storm as the GCC crisis dragged on into a stalemate.

Recent developments, however, have pointed to a possible thaw in relations between the blockading Gulf countries and Qatar. Last month, Leakblast.com reported that Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met senior Saudi officials in October in a bid to end the diplomatic rift.

The foreign minister confirmed the meeting last Friday, while speaking at a foreign policy conference in Rome.

“We have moved from a stalemate to some progress where … some talks took place between us and specifically Saudi,” he said.

“We hope that these talks will lead to our progress where we can see an end for the crisis.”

Furthermore, the last minute reversal for Saudi, UAE and Bahrain’s decision to take part in the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup, hosted by Qatar, was another sign the diplomatic impasse was beginning to morph into potential reconciliation. The Saudi football team, which lost to Bahrain in the final on Sunday, had taken a direct flight to Doha, despite the airspace restrictions.

‘Limited’ reconciliation

The summit, which was originally scheduled to take place in the UAE, was moved to the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Saudi King Salman sent a “written message” inviting Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to the summit, but the Qatari leader has yet to publicly confirm whether he will attend.

A Qatari delegation headed by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Soltan bin Saad Al-Muraikhi represented the country at last year’s GCC summit, which was also held in the Saudi capital.

The boycotting nations had set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including the closing down of Al Jazeera Media Network, shuttering a Turkish military base, and reducing ties with Iran.

Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center in Washington DC, said in case  reconciliation does happen it will be “limited in scope”.

“Saudi Arabia wants to reach an accommodation with Qatar and King Salman does not want this to go on any longer because it is hurting the kingdom’s image and reputation,” Harb told Al Jazeera.

“Secondly, the UAE is still reluctant to fully reconcile with Qatar because of its leaders’ insistence on what they want the latter to do: cut off relations with the Muslim Brotherhood group and Turkey.”

Abdullah Baabood, a Gulf affairs analyst, said all member states are intent on holding on to the regional body and keeping it intact, despite the fractures it endured during the crisis.

“Even if a reconciliation is reached and a resolution is achieved, there is no escape from the fact that the GCC has suffered some major setbacks in terms of its reputation and credibility,” he said.

“It will take some time and a lot of hard work to build trust and achieve cohesion without some real revisions to its charter, policies and institutions.”

Despite the GCC summit representing an opportune time to bury the hatchet, a resolution will not likely be announced, Baabood said, as there will still be hurdles to overcome, such as the nuanced differences the member states have towards Iran, for example.

“Due to geo-political and geo-strategic considerations there are always going to be GCC states’ divergent views towards Iran,” he explained. “Some view it as a challenge and others view it as a threat. These different approaches towards Iran will have to be understood by the GCC to enable it to keep its coherence.”

Relevance of GCC bloc

Established in 1981, the GCC is a political and economic alliance of countries in the Arabian Peninsula – consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – designed to foster socioeconomic, security and cultural cooperation.

Yet the blockade on Qatar has raised questions of whether the GCC still has a relevant function and role in the region.

Luciano Zaccara, a Gulf politics researcher at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera the damage the GCC bloc has suffered since the beginning of the crisis has no return point, with its credibility and utility “severely damaged”.

“The capacity of the GCC to provide a friendly environment to agree on very important issues such as internal politics, defence and security, and foreign policy has become almost non-existent,” he said.

“The blockade demonstrated that some of the members can actually be the main ‘threat’ for the others, rather than the best allies to confront threats from outside, which was supposed to be the objective after its creation in 1981,” Zaccara continued.

The bloc will likely remain a venue to deliberate over “sectorial aspects” necessary for standard commercial, technical, cultural relations, but nothing else, he added.

Comprehensive discussions regarding the threat perceptions of the GCC member states will likely not happen during the summit.

According to Baabood, the meeting will “paper over some usual and traditional slogans of building brotherly regional cooperation, cementing their relations to face their common challenges and security threats”.

GCC Secretary-General Abdulateef bin Rashid Al Zayani said in a statement last week the leaders will review “regional and international political developments as well as the security situation in the region” in addition to “several important political, defence, economic and social issues”.

According to Harb, the summit’s single-day meeting is not enough time to resolve the many issues the bloc does not see eye-to-eye on.

“Reconciliation will be the focus despite the limited nature of it,” he said. However, he added, the final communique will “obviously be the usual boiler-plate statement about cooperation, Palestine, joint Arab action, et cetera”.

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