Despite the fact that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit that was held in Riyadh on December 10, 2019, is the fortieth regular one since the establishment of the GCC in 1981, it enjoyed more attention and expectations. The summit was held amid critical regional circumstances. The confrontation is escalating between Riyadh and Tehran. Stormy protests have erupted in Iraq and Lebanon which are thought to be an attempt to "pull back" the Iranian influence in the two countries and the region with political mechanisms after American pressure over Tehran proved to be unfeasible over the past few months.
It is clear that Riyadh wants to tighten its leadership of the GCC and to rally the bloc in challenging Iran. In his opening speech to the summit, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz expressed this explicitly by saying that "Tehran's threats urge the unity of the GCC countries". This may also explain the fact that it is the second summit to be held sequentially in Riyadh, the headquarters of GCC, despite the presidency of the Emirates for the current session, and the presidency of the Sultanate of Oman for the previous one. In addition to the regular agenda, related to enhancing cooperation and integration among the six Arab Gulf member states, the final declaration of the short summit focused more on military and security integration, and dealing seriously with Iran's nuclear programme.
The "Riyadh Agreement", signed on November 5th between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council, was an important step in that direction as it helps to re-coordinate the Saudi and Emirati campaigns in Yemen, against what they consider Iranian influence, represented in the Houthis.
Riyadh has hoped for more important step, which is pushing Qatar away from Iran. Riyadh tried to settle Qatar's dilemma and stop the later from rushing toward Iran after the June 2017 Arab Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) boycott. Qatar has rejected the 13 conditions set by the four countries for reconciliation. They include dialling down Qatari-Iranian diplomatic relations, expelling any Iranian Revolutionary Guards from Qatar, and stopping any commercial activity with Iran that violates the American sanctions.
Rounds of talks have taken place between Riyadh and Doha. In May, the Qatari Prime Minister held a series of meetings with the Saudis in Mecca, on the sidelines of an urgent Arab summit in the wake of a series of attacks on commercial ships in the Gulf. It was the first high-level bilateral meeting between the governments of the two countries in two years. Talks also took place in November between the Qatari Foreign Minister and officials in Saudi Arabia. On December 7th, 2019, the Qatari Foreign Minister expressed optimism that some progress has been achieved with Saudi Arabia to end the Gulf crisis. The Secretary General of GCC, Abdul Latif Al-Zayani, announced, on December 9th, his confidence that "the Gulf summit will come out with constructive decisions that enhance the Gulf cohesion, deepen the interdependence, cooperation and complementarity among the member states and consolidate the pillars of the Council."
Moreover, the participation of Saudi Arabia in the Gulf Cup 24 in Doha was believed to be driven by politics rather than sports. Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah believes that the participation of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain in the Gulf Cup in Qatar constituted a "positive indication of resolving the crisis between siblings".
However, the absence of the Emir of Qatar from the summit and the presence of the Qatari Prime Minister on his behalf, overthrew expectations of a swift end to the Gulf crisis. It appears that the Emir of Qatar has linked his participation with Saudi Arabia’s commitment to take some steps forward, such as lifting the travel ban or opening its borders with Qatar. In addition, the UAE seems unsatisfied with the notion of reconciliation with Qatar unless the latter complies with all conditions decided by the Quartet.
The rift that occurred in the GCC seems uneasy to heal, especially in light of the overlapping interests between Qatar and Iran. It seems that all parties must demonstrate some flexibility to move towards a common regional security system in the Gulf.