KUWAIT CITY — A planned two-day summit of Gulf Arab countries fell apart within hours of starting Tuesday over the ongoing boycott of Qatar, underscoring the difficulty of ending the crisis and suggesting that unifying the bloc of US allies is slipping further from reach.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani attended the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Kuwait City but was not joined by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, also part of a Saudi-led boycott of Qatar. Instead, the UAE announced it formed a new partnership with Saudi Arabia to coordinate “all military, political, economic, trade and cultural fields,” duplicating the basic goal of the GCC.
The future of the six-nation GCC — formed 36 years ago to bring together the energy-rich Sunni-led Gulf Arab states — appeared to be hanging in the balance.
This year’s meeting comes six months into a rift between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc, the worst crisis ever to hit the organisation.
The Qatari emir accepted an invitation, but just hours before the talks began, Saudi King Salman sent his foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, in his stead.
State television showed Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah receiving Jubeir at the airport as the head of the kingdom’s delegation. They were the only two rulers to attend.
Despite the troubles, Sabah tried to stay positive.
“The past few months have seen several painful incidents and negative repercussions, but we believe that wisdom will prevail,” he said. “Our meeting today is an indicator that we shall continue our efforts to resolve the crisis.”
But after a closed-door meeting lasting around 15 minutes, Sabah announced the end of the summit to applause. GCC secretary-general Abdullatif al-Zayani tried to downplay ending the meeting early, saying others had concluded just as quickly. But he avoided directly discussing Qatar with journalists.
Those present at Tuesday’s meeting managed to agree on one issue, strongly condemning Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels for killing former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
They called for Yemenis to “get rid of the Houthi militias which are following and being backed by Iran.”
The GCC condemned “all terrorist actions carried out by Iran and its continued interference in the internal affairs and Arab countries”.
But despite member states’ broad agreement over Iran, experts have warned that the Qatar crisis could lead to the demise of the once-powerful GCC.
“The justifications for the existence of the GCC bloc amidst the continued crisis are no longer present like before,” said Sami al-Faraj, head of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “As long as our enemy has changed from Iran to Qatar, the GCC will not continue.”
The Emirati announcement did not say whether any other Gulf Arab countries would be invited to join the new group, but the implication was clear: The two Gulf powers could strike out on their own.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh already enjoy close ties and previously signed a similar agreement last year, suggesting the latest announcement was meant to scuttle any possible reconciliation in Kuwait City. It also highlighted the inherent weakness of the six-nation GCC already exposed by the months-long dispute between half of its members and Qatar.
“The GCC has been successful at, in essence, boring things that do not make it to public consciousness — hence successes in areas of economic harmonization,” said David B. Roberts, an assistant professor at King’s College London. “But whenever an issue is controversial, political or actually important, the organization typically fails.”
The GCC, composed of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, formed in 1981, in part as a counterbalance to Shiite power Iran. It’s no stranger to disputes among its members, especially during the mid-1990s.
In the time since, the group had grown more clubby, buoyed by rising oil and energy prices. It made visa-free travel arrangements among its members and pushed toward greater economic cooperation.
But a drop in oil prices, the 2011 Arab Spring and its aftermath, and other political maneuvers led to the Qatar diplomatic crisis.
The dispute began in June, following what Qatar described as a hack of its state-run news agency and the circulation of incendiary comments attributed to leader Al-Thani. Soon after, GCC members Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE closed off their airspace and seaports to Qatar, as well as the small peninsular nation’s sole land border with Saudi Arabia.
The boycott initially riled Doha, but Qatar soon replaced food products with those flown in from Turkey and Iran.
However, Qatar’s foreign reserves have dropped by some $10 billion — a fifth of their value — since the dispute began. Those reserves are crucial in supporting the nation’s riyal, which is pegged to the US dollar, as well as funding the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup that Doha will host.
The boycotting nations allege Qatar funds extremist groups and has too-cozy ties to Iran. Qatar has long denied funding extremists, but Doha shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Tehran that gives its citizens the highest per-capita income in the world. It restored diplomatic relations with Iran after the crisis, marking a setback for Saudi Arabia, which views Tehran as its main regional rival.
A similar dispute involving Qatar erupted in 2014. But this time positions have hardened against Qatar, whose support for Islamist opposition groups has angered the Arab nations now boycotting it. The UAE in particular views Islamists as a threat to hereditary rule in its federation of seven sheikhdoms. Egypt, angered by Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the nation’s deposed President Mohammed Morsi, is also boycotting Doha.
The US, which has some 10,000 troops stationed at Qatar’s sprawling al-Udeid Air Base as part of its campaign against the Islamic State group and the war in Afghanistan, also has sought to end the crisis. Its military has halted some regional exercises to put pressure on the GCC to resolve the crisis. However, President Donald Trump in the meantime made comments seemingly supporting the Arab nations’ efforts at isolating Qatar, complicating those efforts.