Tue, Mar 11, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Unity of Gulf monarchies under threat

Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood angers Saudi Arabia, the dominant member of the Gulf Cooperation Council

By Angus McDowall and Sylvia Westall  /  Reuters, RIYADH and KUWAIT


There have been plenty of previous rifts among the six dynasties, which sometimes appear to regard each other as rivals rather than partners, but they have never involved such a public spat or come at such a dangerous time.

Unlike in the past, the Gulf states cannot count on strong Arab allies with large armies to see off external threats.

Gulf citizens see their region as the last bastion of security in the Arab world, with Iraq and Syria in conflict, Yemen and Libya in chaos, Egypt destabilized and Lebanon and Jordan undermined by turmoil in neighboring states.

Critics of the council deride its failure to fulfill its promises on issues such as currency or border union. Despite big arms purchases, all its members remain dependent for their defense on alliances with Western powers, principally the US.

The Gulf countries refer to each other in official statements as “full brothers” — the closest blood relationship in a society traditionally built upon large polygamous families.

However, they have often nursed sibling rivalries in disputes ranging from border demarcation and foreign policy to occasionally unflattering portrayals of rulers in each other’s state media.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular have had a series of disputes, including border clashes in 1992 which led to several deaths and a five-year period from 2002 when Riyadh had no ambassador in Doha after arguments about al-Jazeera broadcasts.

Qatar and the UAE also fell out in the 1990s when Dubai gave refuge to a former Qatari emir who was ousted in 1995, and Doha has also crossed swords with Bahrain. Smaller-scale rows have periodically flared up between Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.

At root, these disputes and the council’s slow pace in creating a stronger union have often resulted from the fundamental imbalance that Saudi Arabia has a bigger population than the other five countries combined.

Political analysts say some in the smaller countries have seen the council as a ratification instrument for Saudi policies.

“Becoming a mediating power in the region has upset a lot of governments who think we are too small. But we are here to say we are not small, we believe in our role and will continue it,” a source close to the Qatari government said.


For Saudi Arabia in particular, the disunity is a source of frustration. Riyadh has pushed hard since late 2011 for the council to forge a closer union on a shared foreign and security policy.

The personal initiative of King Abdullah, the idea to form the organization emerged as a response to the Arab Spring and fears of Iranian interference and also represents an important building block of Saudi efforts to become less dependent on the West.

However, in December last year Oman said outright it did not want to be part of such a union, weeks after angering Riyadh by facilitating secret US-Iranian talks that the Saudis fear will reduce international pressure on Tehran.

Kuwait stayed above the fray last week, talking of acting as a mediator when its emir returns from a medical trip overseas, but refraining from joining the pressure on Doha.

“The Saudis are strongly committed to the unity of the Gulf states, and they want other states to take their share of responsibilities towards the people of the Gulf,” said Saud al-Sarhan, director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

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