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Book review: GCC—a fatal schism

Through a combination of adroit use of its vast gas reserves and careful diplomacy, Qatar has learned how to survive life under blockade, a new book says

A book chronicling successful attempts to achieve intra-Arab cooperation would sit comfortably on a shelf of the world’s slimmest publications. But there is one relatively successful story—or rather there was: the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In Qatar and the Gulf Crisis, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen argues that the surprise decision of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (with support from Bahrain and Egypt) to impose an economic and diplomatic blockade on Qatar in June 2017 may have dealt a fatal blow to the GCC.

Three years later, the sorry state of affairs continues: three GCC states are still blackballing a fourth, while two (Kuwait and Oman) stand aside. So what is new? a cynic might ask. The GCC has long been mocked for its slow progress towards economic and political integration. But, for four decades, the council, Ulrichsen says, had been “among the most resilient and durable examples of coordinated regionalism in the Middle East”.

Trouble brewing

Ulrichsen is a leading academic authority on the Gulf and its history; and the strength of this book lies in the examination of the roots of the antipathy between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one side and Qatar on the other.

The decision to impose the blockade did not come out of the blue. For many years, the two powerful GCC states had regarded Qatar as an undisciplined and insubordinate upstart. As far back as the early 1990s the view in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi was that Qatar was seeking, as the author puts it, “to step beyond the overbearing ‘Saudi shadow’” by adopting “a pragmatic response to regional developments”.

Qatar’s willingness to have cordial relations with Iran, radical Palestinian groups and the Muslim Brotherhood raised the blood pressure of Saudi and Emirati leaders. What enraged them more was the output from the Doha-based Al Jazeera satellite television channel, giving airtime to individuals and groups despised by the authorities in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Qatar stood accused of supporting terrorism.

Simmering tension first erupted in 2014, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha. Eventually, after Kuwaiti mediation, the crisis passed.

But, in 2017, with Donald Trump in the White House, circumstances were different. Having chosen Saudi Arabia as the destination for his first foreign trip, the new US president appeared to give a green light for Qatar to be targeted as a funder of terrorism. True or not, this is apparently how the Saudi and UAE leaders interpreted his comments, prompting them to impose the blockade. Only urgent US and Kuwaiti intervention prevented a military attack on Qatar.

Business as usual

It was not long, though, before Saudi Arabia and the UAE realised that neither the Trump administration nor any other major government would come out in support of the embargo. Turkey sent troops to Qatar. The US and the UK signed deals to supply jet fighters, as if nothing had happened.

And, having quickly adapted to the emergency of land borders and air corridors around it being closed, Qatar resumed some kind of normal life, refusing the conditions put forward by the four blockading states, which included the closure of Al Jazeera. All the while, natural gas has flowed from Qatar to the UAE and Oman via the Dolphin pipeline, and plans for the expansion of Qatari LNG output have moved ahead.

As Ulrichsen says, “the brazen attempt to force Qatar to submit to the will of the quartet not only failed in each of its objectives but also accelerated a process of societal and economic adaptation that arguably left Qatar in a stronger position”. The author points to the UAE as the main force behind the blockade, “Just as the crisis had its roots in Abu Dhabi, so it will end in Abu Dhabi—if indeed it ends at all,” he concludes.

Qatar and the Gulf Crisis, Hurst & Company, by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

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