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Break Up in the Gulf
What the GCC Dispute Means for Qatar
BILAL Y. SAAB is Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.See more by this author
On March 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain announced that they had withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar, claiming that Doha had been violating a clause in the Gulf Cooperation Council charter banning interference in the domestic affairs of fellow GCC members. The decision, unprecedented in the GCC’s history, hints at significant changes to come for the GCC and the balance of power in the Gulf.
The dispute between GCC members had been simmering for a while, and it was only a matter of time before it boiled over. In December, during a GCC Summit in Kuwait, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had been close to singling out Qatar for its alleged financing of terrorism in Syria and elsewhere. But, at the last minute, the Saudis pulled the plug to avoid embarrassing their Kuwaiti hosts. They opted instead to give Doha a stern private warning. A couple of weeks before that, Saudi leaders scolded new Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim during a meeting in Riyadh that was arranged by Kuwaiti leader Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad. The 33-year-old Tamim was asked to make serious adjustments to his country's foreign policy, including that the country stop allegedly funding al Qaeda–affiliated groups in Syria. The young Tamim reportedly agreed, but requested some time to make the necessary changes.
Tamim eventually managed to reduce Doha's involvement in the Syrian conflict. But, realizing that it had lost in Syria, Doha doubled down on outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in the region, including Hamas. In addition, it continued efforts to cozy up to Iran and Turkey, support the Al Houthi rebels in Yemen, and test the waters with Hezbollah. In doing so, Doha was touching every nerve and ringing every alarm bell in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, where officials were doing all they could to finish off the Muslim Brotherhood (including labeling it as terrorist group and propping up Egypt's military chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, by paving the way for his presidency).