Growing rivalry for the Arab Gulf leadership

Two weeks ago Saudi Arabia, The Emirates Arab United and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar after Doha’s refusal of implementing a Gulf Countries agreement about non interfering in each other internal affairs. This unprecedented move is the demonstration of the growing tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, followed by the smallest States of the Arab peninsula. The GCC deal, not implemented by Qatar, that led to this move by the Saudi Arabia and its allies included “a security agreement and a commitment to the principles that ensure non-interference in the internal affairs of any of the GCC countries, either directly or indirectly, and not to support any activity that would threaten the security and stability of any of the GCC countries from organizations or individuals, including support for hostile media”. Doha commented the withdrawal of its ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and EAU with “regret and surprise” confirming its commitment to “preserving and protecting the security and stability” of the GCC countries[1].

These two States are not only contending for the leadership of the Gulf Countries Cooperation, the political and economical union composed also by Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Oman. After the Arab Spring, the rivalry between these two has grown. Qatar has also been accused to being an Islamist group supporter, especially of the Muslim Brotherhood, which are dreaded by the GCC countries, in particular the Saudi Arabia. The fragmentation of the GCC unity is one of the unexpected results of the Arab uprisings. Saudi Arabia, the truly leader of the Arab peninsula, tried to pursue two objectives facing the uprisings challenges to the old Arab order: the permanence of monarchy as a model of government in Gulf countries and the support of the counter-revolutionary military republicanism in Egypt[2]. Despite the Saudi efforts to halt the Arab uprisings, Qatar supported the revolutionary forces that threatened the same security of the Gulf monarchies according to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh considered the Qatar foreign policy as a way to became the mayor arbiter of Arab regional order replacing Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian nuclear threat is another cause of the deepening tensions between Riyadh and Doha. According to Qatar, Iran is a manageable concern while Saudi Arabia considers it as an existential danger. This situation created several troubles to the American negotiations with Teheran over its nuclear program[3]. Egypt is the main divisive cause. Saudi Arabia supported the military counter-revolutionary coup d’etat lead by General Al-Sisi against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group hated by Saudi. Qatar, on the other hand, supported them when they were in power and gave them refuge after their removal.

This is not the last demonstration of deepening fragmentation inside the GCC. In fact the Saudi leadership of the organization was challenged several times in the last years. The transition from cooperation to union, the introduction of a common currency with a central bank in Riyadh, the incorporation of Morocco and Jordan as GCC special partners and common security treaty were some Saudi proposals refused by the others Gulf countries[4]. The growing role of Qatar might strengthen the Saudi difficulties in the GCC forum. Qatar has the financial and political capabilities to challenge Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the Gulf peninsula, causing an important regional transformation with undeniable international changes.

Demetrio Labate

Master’s degree in International Relations (University of Bologna)

[1] M. L. Gumuchian – S. Abedine, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain withdraw envoys from Qatar, “CNN”, March 5, 2014.

[2] M. Al-Rasheed, Saudi-Qatar tensions divide GCC, “Al-Monitor”.

[3] D. D. Kirkpatrick, 3 Gulf Countries Pull Ambassadors From Qatar Over Its Support of Islamists, “The New York Times”, March 5, 2014.

[4]M. Al-Rasheed, Saudi-Qatar tensions divide GCC, “Al-Monitor”.

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