Somewhere in the endless media stream of London terrorism stories, Trump tweets, and Russia investigations, there was an under-reported story this week about Qatar. For those of you out of the loop, several Arab nations (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Egypt) cut all diplomatic ties with the tiny nation of Qatar last Sunday. Notably, Oman did not, likely because of Oman's ties with Iran. Not long after, Saudi Arabia imposed a naval blockade of Qatar and issued an ultimatum demanding ten major policy shifts from its Arab neighbor. Qatar is located on the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula and shares a land border with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As with many things in the Middle East these days, this development is closely tied to the increasingly hostile feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But there is another dynamic that is just as potentially destabilizing. Qatar is among the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This week, we'll examine the GCC and how Qatar's role within it is about to change.
So what exactly is the GCC? It is essentially an economic and security alliance among the major monarchies of the Arabian Gulf. It includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. In the past, the GCC has been used to help coordinate the Gulf's response to events like the Iran-Iraq war and other major military and petroleum related crises. Obviously, the group is dominated by Saudi Arabia due to the kingdom's massive physical resources, population, and military force. But the other nations also play a role in helping steer the region's policy ambitions. So it's definitely problematic for the organization that one of it's members is being shunned by half of the others.
What sparked all this geopolitical drama? Well the tensions behind this move have been simmering for several years now. The main grievances cited by Saudi Arabia are that Qatar has been supporting terrorist groups, specifically al-Qaeda, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and ISIS. Some of these terrorist groups have been linked to activities within Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's critically important Qatif region. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are also upset over Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood (which actively campaigns against these governments). The irony is the Saudi Arabia has it's own long history of supporting terrorist groups and exporting its extremist ideology. But potential links to terrorism are only part of the issue. The other GCC nations are increasingly wary of Qatar's deepening relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia views itself as locked in a mortal struggle with Iran, so any possibly dissension in the GCC is viewed with hostility and suspicion.
To be fair, Qatar has not yet been expelled from the GCC, but the question of Qatar's expulsion will likely depend highly on the reaction of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim. He could either reverse course and begin towing the line with his GCC allies, or he could start to abandon this old alliance in favor of closer relations with Iran and Oman. Early indications are that Qatar will not alter its foreign and domestic policy to bring itself closer in line with the wishes of Saudi Arabia. Either response is likely to inflame regional tensions and contribute to the growing arms race in the region (recall the recent proposed arms deals between the United States and Saudi Arabia). In addition, the majority of Qatar's food resources come from the (now closed) land route with Saudi Arabia, and Qatar's flights will now need to be rerouted through Iranian and Pakistani airspace. Qatar's new geographic isolation will force it to make a decision one way or another very soon.
Naturally, this also puts the United States in a difficult position. The Trump administration has been particularly strong in its support of Saudi Arabia, but Qatar holds strategic importance for the American military. Qatar contains the region's largest air force base, which provides critical United States Air Force support for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is also very hesitant to see the Gulf Cooperation Council fall apart as it relies heavily on the relative unity of the Arab Gulf nations to coordinate and support its interests. In short, if the GCC begins to splinter, it's likely to only further increase the chances of a large scale conflict between an increasingly isolated Saudi Arabia and an increasingly emboldened Iran. Already, Turkey, Iran, and Russia are already lining up to defend Qatar (which could indicate shifting alliances in the region). Unfortunately, the United States seems all too eager to pick sides as well and further inflame tensions in this quickly worsening crisis.