The cohesion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes all Arab Gulf countries, seems to be cracking.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, openly stated that the GCC was facing a major crisis, as Qatar seems to be opening up to Iran. Gargash made his comments on Twitter less than a week after Saudi Arabia and the UAE signaled frustration at Qatar. The simmering conflict between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side and Qatar on the other has again been heating up after the Qatar’s News Agency (QNA) was purportedly hacked, spreading remarks by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani which criticized Gulf rhetoric against Iran and suggested strains between the Emir and U.S. President Donald Trump. Qatar has vehemently denied these quotes, but the Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian governments have reacted by blocking Qatari news sites and TV stations, including Al Jazeera.
The crisis between Qatar and its GCC neighbors, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, emerged shortly after Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, visited Saudi Arabia for the meeting between the heads of state of most Islamic countries and U.S. president Trump. During these meetings, as indicated by Arab sources, Sheikh Tamim has called Iran a force of stability. The latter is remarkable as most statements made to the press during the Riyadh Summit indicated that all attending countries agreed to keep Iran in political and economic quarantine. At the same time, the participants agreed to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, which is blacklisted by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood however is well protected in Qatar. At present, the ideologue of the Brotherhood, Yusuf Al Qaradawi, is a celebrity in Doha, and has access to the Emir and the Emir’s father and predecessor, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
The Arab criticism may have been less harsh if U.S. officials would not have put oil on the fire. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis openly warned Qatar that it should change its support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mattis also stated that U.S. president Trump is considering classifying the Brotherhood as an international terrorist organization, which could have a very negative impact on the U.S.-Qatar economic-military cooperation in the coming months. Instead of trying to lower the tensions, Doha seems to have significant increased them. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others have now put new pressure on Qatar regarding its financing of the Syrian and Palestinian branches of the Brotherhood.
The Emir left shortly after the Doha summit, dissatisfied with the U.S. approach. Some analysts even claimed that the Emir had expected Trump to visit Doha first as a show of support for Qatar’s political standing. Trumps strategy to first enter into a strong relationship with Riyadh has not gone down well in Doha.
Qatar’s willingness to talk to Iran is the main bone of contention. The fact that Doha called Iran’s president Rouhani shortly after his re-election is seen as a sign that Qatar is not willing to support Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their proxy wars with Iran in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.
An open confrontation between Qatar and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE is looking increasingly likely as tensions heat up. A military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar cannot be ruled out. Religious tensions are also rising, as descendants of the founding father of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi brand of Islam published a statement in Saudi media distancing themselves from Qatar's ruling family. This can be seen as an unofficial attack on the religious power position of the Qatari Al Thani family, as they claim to be from the Al Najd region, which is the central and northern part of Saudi Arabia, where Ibn Abd Al Wahhab was from. The fact that Saudi religious leaders are now denouncing the Qatari ruling family’s historical claims can be seen as a major attack on the latter’s position.
Doha is now openly questioning U.S.-Saudi views on Iran, with U.S. president Trump having accused Iran of supporting terrorism in the Middle East. Qatar remains angry about the fact that U.S. based organizations are still accusing Doha of supporting extremist groups. It is rather coincidental that these stories from the Qatar News Agency quoting the Emir appeared just days after the Riyadh summit ended.
While the GCC has been hit by severe internal turmoil before, the current wave is particularly worrying. First of all, a divided GCC will bring further instability in the region at a time of full confrontation between the Saudi-led alliance and Iran. A possible thaw between Tehran and Doha could, in theory, lead to a confrontation with Washington, as the latter has an immense military base currently on the peninsula. A rapprochement between Iran and Qatar would be a vast security risk to the U.S. military. Further escalation could also bring renewed threats to oil and gas shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Even without a military confrontation, the Saudi-UAE vs Qatar confrontation holds another risk. All GCC countries depend on stability in the oil and gas markets, which is evident from the recent OPEC deal. A full-fledged confrontation will, without any doubt, put pressure on the current compliance rate of OPEC members to production cuts. Doha will be able to sabotage the current 6+3 production cut agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC members. If Doha decides to join the ranks of Iran and Iraq, OPEC’s future will be in doubt.