The current GCC summit, at which Saudi Arabia and its regional partners have made decisions in order to coordinate their economic, defence and foreign policy, is quite important. Nevertheless, we can hardly expect any drastic changes in GCC activities and policies to follow from decisions adopted at the Summit, writes Boris Dolgov, a Senior Research Fellow with the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies.
The significance of the 40th Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which opened on December 10 in Riyadh, is determined by the issues it had on the agenda. They include expanding the cooperation between the GCC member countries in the socio-economic, political and defence fields; the situation in the Persian Gulf, where the “threat from Iran” is getting force (at least, according to GCC statements); the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya; the deterioration of the socio-economic situation in Iraq, and finally, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That is quite an extensive agenda, but countering the so-called “threat from Iran” seems to be one of its central topics. Especially if we keep in mind the tanker attacks in the Strait of Hormuz and attacks on the refinery facilities of Saudi Arabia in 2019, which the latter country, the United States and their allies have blamed on Iran. After these incidents, the United States proposed that the GCC countries and its NATO allies create a structure to “ensure security and freedom of navigation” in the Persian Gulf.
Earlier, the United States promoted the idea of an anti-Iranian military-political alliance, which would include the regional Arab countries (the so-called “Arab NATO”); Israel has stated that it is ready to join. In this regard, we should note that these US plans might suggest not only regional, but also more global interest. Creating such an alliance under the auspices of the United States, which allows it to control strategically important maritime communications, could be aimed at containing the growing economic and, accordingly, the military and political expansion of China in the region.
However, at the time being, these American plans have not found active support from either the US allies in NATO or the Arab countries. At the same time, we cannot rule out their implementation, at least partial, in the future. Since Saudi Arabia has agreed to participate in the alliance, this issue could have been addressed at the current Summit, especially against the backdrop of ongoing protests in Iran.
Concerning the specific measures agreed upon at the Summit, they mainly concerned the intensifying of economic cooperation between the GCC countries. In particular, they touched upon the implementation of the ambitious plans of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernise the country’s economy. The GCC members are expected to participate in the process under mutually beneficial conditions (investment, OPEC+ policy, Saudi Aramco privatisation, the creation of high-tech enterprise zones, “smart cities”, developing tourism, etc.) as well as in strengthening the defence capabilities within the GCC “Peninsula Shield Force” regional military structure.
An important issue for the GCC and primarily for Saudi Arabia is restoring relations with Qatar, which were almost completely interrupted in 2017. The King of Saudi Arabia twice invited the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to visit his country. This was its second invitation to participate in this GCC Summit.. However, the emir sent the Prime Minister of Qatar instead of himself. Therefore, we can hardly expect the relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to improve.
At the same time, Qatar is developing a partnership, and even allied relations with Turkey, which like itself is well-known for its religious and political confrontation with the Saudis. Like Qatar, Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Islamist doctrine is condemned and banned in Saudi Arabia, where the Islamic mainstream is Wahhabism (the teachings of Abd al-Wahhab). Both Wahhabi and the Muslim Brotherhood belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. Turkey has created two military bases in Qatar, where it has stationed 5,000 servicemen. Moreover, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during his visit to one of these bases in 2018, said that the Turkish military presence here is a guarantee of security for Qatar, referring to its confrontation with the Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Qatar and Turkey are to a certain degree getting closer to Iran, which is the major opponent of the GCC. According to Erdogan’s recent statements, Turkey also intends to send its military contingent to Libya to support the leadership of one of the centres of power that struggles for power in the country – in particular, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Turkey has already agreed with it to engage in some oil production on the Mediterranean shelf of Libya. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Egypt, supports another opposing power centre in Libya, which is Tobruk-based House of Representatives associated with the Libyan National Army led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
The Marshal visited Russia several times and negotiated with its representatives. Nevertheless, despite some support for Haftar, Russia advocates a political solution to the Libyan crisis. At the same time, the League of Arab States, in which Saudi Arabia enjoys decisive influence, has condemned Turkey’s actions in Syria (i.e., creating a “security zone” on the Syrian-Turkish border), defining them as “aggression”.
To sum up, the current GCC Summit, at which Saudi Arabia and the other countries made decisions for the coordination of their economic, defence and foreign policy, is quite important. Nevertheless, we can hardly expect any drastic changes in the GCC activities and policies because of decisions adopted at the Summit.