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Friends and foes in the Gulf

GCC: An intra-GCC political row is diverting attention from external economic threats facing the six energy producers

A falling out among friends can be a painful business. The six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are experiencing this right now. The side-effects of sectarian rivalry in the Middle East have infected the group and threaten to undermine its cohesion.

The GCC was formed in 1981 after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, when Gulf leaders took seriously Tehran's pledge to export the Shia revolution. Yet differences over the GCC's strategy in dealing with Iran are one of the major causes of today's row. The result: a vicious media war which sees Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the other.

Qatar believes in maintaining cordial relations with Iran, with which it shares a vast offshore gasfield, called the North Field by the Qataris and South Pars by the Iranians. Saudi Arabia and its closest allies, on the other hand, blame Shia Iran for stirring up unrest in a string of Sunni-dominated Arab states and insist that its regional meddling should be countered.

The Saudis also denounce Qatar for its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, along with its powerful instrument of soft power, Al Jazeera television.

Saudi Arabia and its closest GCC allies are particularly angered by statements attributed to the emir of Qatar shortly after Gulf leaders met President Trump in Riyadh. At that meeting there appeared to be unanimity in condemning Iran. Yet Qatar's leader subsequently said that Iran was an influential power in the region and should be respected as such.

While the authenticity of the emir's remarks is disputed, the whole affair has brought back to the surface major strains within the GCC. In 2014, after Kuwaiti mediation, a similar but less intense period of tension was ended by an agreement in Riyadh under which Qatar agreed to amend some of its policies. Probably a similar arrangement will eventually plaster over the latest cracks.

But how to handle Iran will remain a problem for the Gulf Arab states. While Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are implacably opposed to the Tehran government as long as its regional policies remain unchanged, Oman (with plans to import Iranian natural gas) maintains friendly ties with it. Kuwait remains ambivalent and keeps a diplomatic door open to Iran.

The controversy over Iran comes at a critical time for the GCC states, all of which rely on income from oil and gas to survive. The expansion of tight oil output, the growing success of renewables and the boom in electric-vehicle sales present serious threats to the Gulf states' revenue streams.

GCC citizens would surely feel more comfortable if their leaders were to unite to face these economic challenges rather than find more cause to fall out.

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