A breach between Qatar and some of its Gulf Arab neighbors is a pivotal test for a three-decade-old union of monarchies formed to stand united when threatened by common enemies.
The six neighbors have struggled for years to transform their alliance from a simple security pact into an integrated economy, but plans for a customs union, integrated power grids and a joint military command remain unfinished or unrealized.
Critics of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) blame its inadequacies on petty jealousies, border disputes, or the perceived dominance of its biggest member, Saudi Arabia.
If the allies can no longer reach broad agreement on how to navigate the political troubles afflicting the region, then the main point of their partnership is in question, analysts say.
Born more out of fear than greed, the council, which also includes Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman, has managed to present a unified front at times of threat ranging from Iranian revolution to Iraqi invasion.
The organization was born in 1981 to counter the revolutionaries who had toppled Iran’s Shah, a fellow dynast familiar to Gulf Arab leaders, two years earlier. As Iran and Iraq embarked on an eight-year war, survival became the watchword for the council.
Now, even as most Gulf Arab economies are booming and the council touts itself as a rare outpost of stability in a turbulent region, the member countries have never appeared more divided.
“Will the GCC kill itself?” ran the headline in Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai on Thursday last week.
A statement put out by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on Wednesday last week said that they were withdrawing ambassadors from Doha, and all but accused Qatar of undermining the members internal stability which was unprecedented as a public display of divisions.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are incensed by Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which they regard as a dangerous political enemy. They are also furious about Doha’s backing for more radical Islamist groups in Syria.
The UAE summoned the Qatari ambassador last month after Qatar-based Brotherhood cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi condemned the UAE as being against Islamic rule, a remark the UAE described as insulting and shameful.
UAE media quoted Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah as saying the comments did not reflect Qatar’s views. Sources close to the cleric said he would not stop speaking his mind.
Qaradawi said Saudi Arabia was backing those who “are far from God and Islam” in Egypt, meaning the military-backed authorities that overthrew an elected Islamist president.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are leading backers of rival Syrian rebel groups, and they and other Gulf states are the principal external forces supporting key players in Egypt and Yemen.
Acting together they could affect regional change. Apart, they risk dragging the Gulf into the post-Arab Spring quagmire.
A Gulf Arab diplomat said the decision to recall the envoys was taken after a meeting the foreign ministers of the council on Tuesday last week at which it became clear Qatar would not change its approach.
“After this meeting they decided — the Saudis, the Emirates and Bahrain — to take this kind of step,” the diplomat said.
“It is a very negative step in our experience as a group, in this organization,” the diplomat added.