In an apparent bid to form a Gulf Arab coalition that will bend entirely to their will, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will be forming a new partnership group in the region separate from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — and Qatar’s influence.
The U.A.E.’s foreign ministry on Tuesday announced the intention to form the “joint cooperation committee,” the Associated Press reports, but offered no details on how the new group would work with the GCC, a union that was formed in 1981 to counter Iran’s influence in the region. The ministry statement only said that the new committee would “cooperate and coordinate between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in all military, political, economic, trade and cultural fields, as well as others, in the interest of the two countries.”
The new committee, said Tamara Kharroub, assistant executive director and senior Middle East analyst at Arab Center, is “intended by the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia to establish a unity, parallel to the Gulf Cooperation Council,” with the intent being “the same as the original objectives of the GCC … the purpose is to antagonize the GCC as an organization.”
It’s not clear which countries will be part of the group. Countries in the GCC include Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait. Oman has good relations with Iran, often striking a neutral tone in Gulf disputes, while Kuwait has tried to mediate an end to the Gulf Crisis with Qatar.
The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia have led the charge against Qatar in the months-long blockade of the country dubbed the Gulf Crisis. With cooperation from Bahrain and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. in June issued a list of 13 demands that Qatar would have to meet before the blockade could be lifted.
Although the country’s reserves have dropped in value by 20 percent since the start of tensions, Qatar has not met the demands, which include shutting down state-funded news outlet Al Jazeera and distancing itself from Iran, Saudi’s regional rival. It has been coping with the blockade by flying in food and other supplies from Iran and Turkey.
“It likely will exclude Qatar,” said Kharroub. “I don’t see any way that these countries blockading Qatar and attacking the country [will allow it] to be included in their partnership,” Kharroub told ThinkProgress.
“We don’t know a lot about this [committee] yet, but it seems like Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. are trying to play a greater regional role and trying to counter Iran’s influence, and … they might be trying to form this new cooperation committee or new alliance to help them carry out their agenda of influence in the region,” she said.
Even the announcement of the new committee seems to have had an impact on the GCC: Shortly after the Emirati statement on the formation of the new group was released, a planned two-day meeting of the GCC came to an abrupt end, the AP reported.
“You’re seeing a fundamental shift away from decades of framework or architecture for security in the region, and now you’re seeing a Saudi, Emirati, and by extension, Israeli, attempt to reshape it on their own terms. And the Trump administration is giving them a carte blanche, more or less, to do it,” said Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council.
“This is the first American administration to adopt, wholesale, the Saudi-Emirati-Israeli view of security in the region,” Marashi told ThinkProgress. “It’s been a disaster thus far, and it will likely gets worse before it gets better.” (The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the formation of the new group nor on how it would affect U.S.-GCC relations).
At the heart of the issue is the fact that security in the region cannot be purchased with threats.
“At best it will be [as] equally ineffective [as the GCC], worst it will be more ineffective … Durable security solutions require the buy-in of every country with the capacity to wreck the solution. So if Saudi Arabian, U.A.E., and Israeli security is predicated on making Iran feel not secure, then that incentivizes Iran to make those countries feel not secure — it’s a zero-sum game,” Marashi said.
This doesn’t mean Iran will escalate tensions in the region, but will likely continue along the same path, moving, Marashi added, rather “cautiously.”
“I know that a lot of people in Washington will say, ‘No, Iran is doing awful things,’ but everyone in the region is doing awful stuff. It’s just that Iran’s awful stuff gets highlighted and Saudi’s awful stuff gets written up in a Tom Friedman Op-ed talking about how great it is,” said Marashi, referring to a New York Times column heaping praise on Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
With Washington’s support, Saudi Arabia has been fighting a war of diminishing returns against Iran in the region on several fronts.
It has, thus far, failed to drive a wedge between Iran and Qatar. If anything, the crisis appears to have brought the two countries closer to each other.
And in trying to lessen Iran’s influence in Lebanon, where the Islamic Republic backs Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia in early November summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to Riyadh. Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen backed by the House of Saud, issued a stilted speech on Saudi TV, resigning from his post, citing dissatisfaction with Iranian influence in his country.
Hariri’s resignation was not accepted by the country’s president, Michel Aoun, who is backed by Hezbollah. What followed was a baffling period during which Saudi Arabia accused Hezbollah of declaring war and Hezbollah accused Saudi Arabia of the same, claiming that the Gulf Arab Kingdom had “kidnapped” Hariri, who remained almost incommunicado for two weeks.
He has since returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation on Tuesday.
In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia plays up the extent of Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels, the Saudi-led coalition has so far failed to defeat the Shia fighters, who are currently fighting to retake the country’s capital, having killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in his home on Monday.
Saudi’s goal of besting the Iranians — and now, the Qataris, and maybe the Turks — is a long way off, and the path there is fraught, said Marashi, given that the kingdom has rebuffed every Iranian offer of negotiation for five years. Plus, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of its own internal turmoil, with Mohammed bin Salman ordering the arrests of over 300 high-level businessmen and officials in what the government has called an “anti-corruption” operation.
“This is a new guy running the show in Riyadh, that, frankly nobody, has a long track record in dealing with, so the goal for the Iranians, the Turks, the Qataris, anyone who has not taken kindly to the crown prince’s maneuvers in the region over the past year or two, is to make life as painful as possible for him, to try and demonstrate to him the costs of his reckless behavior,” said Marashi.