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Mohammed bin Salman's GCC summit: A hollow talking shop

At the upcoming Riyadh gathering there will be more that divides the Gulf Cooperation Council than unites it

Since it became apparent in early October that the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi did not leave the Saudi consulate in Istanbul alive, the international pressure on the Saudi royal family to come up with answers has been mounting to unprecedented levels. 

Most importantly, the Khashoggi affair has raised fundamental questions about the nature and benefit of Saudi-American relations in Washington. Even longstanding Republican supporters of Riyadh, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, have distanced themselves from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, contributing to a bipartisan anti-Saudi front that is unparalleled in the more than 70 years of US-Saudi relations.

On Wednesday, the US Senate voted in favour of a bipartisan motion to withdraw US support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. 

A face-saving narrative

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to Riyadh in mid-October had been a careful attempt by Pompeo to help the Saudi leadership to find a face-saving narrative that would suggest to the world that the rule of law would prevail while MBS could avoid justice.

Pompeo's most recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal reads thereby more like a carefully crafted pro-Saudi PR piece than a balanced statement on US interests and values by America's chief diplomat.

All the while the Trump administration realised that they had just gained even more leverage over the impulsive and unhinged crown prince, whose survival - even within his own family - depends on Washington. Having MBS over a barrel meant that the White House could extract further concessions from Saudi Arabia, particularly on two issues on which Washington had previously banged its head against the wall in Riyadh.

Having MbS over a barrel meant that the White House could extract further concessions from Saudi Arabia

First, the US had made it repeatedly clear that the ongoing blockade by Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar was undermining not just regional stability but was jeopardising US plans for an "Arab NATO". Second, amid daunting images of millions of starving Yemenis, the White House demanded the kingdom take constructive steps towards finding a political solution to the slaughter.

With the Khashoggi affair as a bargaining chip, the US has since worked on both King Salman and his rogue son to reconcile with their neighbour Qatar and accept an inclusive political process to end the war with the Houthis.

Existential crisis

This seems to be the context in which the 2018 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit is set, hosted by a kingdom in existential crisis deprived of any economic, political or military capital. Saudi Arabia has to now demonstrate to the US that it can be a power to integrate rather than merely to divide the region.

Despite the Kuwaiti foreign minister expressing optimism that all six member states will follow the kingdom's invitation to come to Riyadh, it seems difficult to imagine that the level of representation from Qatar in particular will be high.

In recent weeks repeated rumours have surfaced about a Saudi low-level outreach to Qatar discussing a technocratic solution to the ongoing blockade. Apparently, following American pressure, Riyadh had signalled to Doha that it would be willing to discuss relaxed rules for Qatari citizens to attend the Hajj, a freedom of movement for families visiting relatives on both sides of the border, and a potential reopening of the only land border that connects the Qatari peninsula to the kingdom.

Despite the Kuwaiti foreign minister expressing optimism, it seems difficult to imagine that the level of representation from Qatar in particular will be high

While these three points appear to be the most pressing issues remaining for Qatar - a country that has come to see its isolation by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as an opportunity rather than an obstacle – any Saudi concession on these issues would not initiate a full reconciliation between Doha and the Saudi crown prince.

Consequently, remarks by the Kuwaiti foreign minister that the summit would offer "rays of hope to revive efforts to solve the Gulf dispute" have to be taken with a pinch of salt.  

First, as in the last Gulf crisis in 2014, Abu Dhabi is unwilling to talk to Qatar. For Abu Dhabi, its ideological grievances over Doha's more liberal outlook on regional affairs weigh heavier than GCC unity. Also, the bilateral partnership between the UAE and Saudi Arabia seems to work more effectively due to a closer alignment of interests and values.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (AFP)
Second, Qatar has successfully weathered the blockade economically and politically, building new alliances and implementing reform efforts that make it a more attractive partner for the West, somewhat at the expense of its two competitors in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Third, it is hard to imagine that Qatar's emir would be ready at this point to shake hands with MBS – a man who conspired to use any means necessary to remove the emir from power in 2017.

A hollow talking shop

Hence, the 2018 summit in Riyadh will not differ massively from the previous one in Kuwait. While Qatar will certainly attend the summit, the level of representation will be limited, and the agenda will be focused on peripheral issues such as military integration – a subject rendered meaningless when considering that little more than a year ago some GCC members were willing to use military force against another member state.

At the same time, the tension between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait over the status of oil wells in the neutral zone between the two countries triggered fears in Kuwait City over the potential escalation of the dispute with the big brother across the border.

In Oman, the expansive policies of the UAE have been eyed with unease as Abu Dhabi has been accused of meddling in Oman's sensitive succession.

Can Mohammed bin Salman survive Khashoggi's assassination?
Andreas Krieg
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When it comes to foreign policy, then, this year there seems to be more that divides the GCC than unites it. Bilateral agreements between member states appear to take precedence over inclusive high-level summit negotiations.

The Gulf Cooperation Council more than ever seems to be relegated to a hollow talking shop similar to the Arab League, where each member state will get the floor annually to deliver a vague statement of policy while decisions are being made elsewhere. And all of this to satisfy the US demand for Gulf unity against Iran amid a divide that Washington has enabled. 

Andreas Krieg is an assistant professor at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London and a strategic risk consultant working for governmental and commercial clients in the Middle East. He recently published a book titled Socio-Political Order and Security in the Arab World.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A man walks past the flags of the countries attending the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit at Bayan palace in Kuwait City on 5 December 2017 (AFP)

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