OPINION | How can the GCC reconciliation process be extended to the Persian Gulf?

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 14, 2019.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on October 14, 2019.

At a time when the pandemic-hit economic crisis is expected to wipe off 6% from GCC economies and it won't get back to 2019 levels by 2023, the bloc should take bold steps and extend the recent reconciliation process to the Persian Gulf, writes Azhar Azam.

In March 2001, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) looked to achieve rare harmony after Doha settled thorny border disputes with Riyadh and Manama.

The agreement culminated in Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal saying all territorial conflicts within the bloc were resolved and his jazzed up Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, feeling proud of Qatar's ties with Saudi Arabia.

But the sweat-pouring effort merely dressed, not healed, the deep-wounded relationship and couldn't hold out much longer as once the kingdom a year later refused to host American troops at Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB) for the second invasion of Iraq and allow raids on Afghanistan, Qatar offered that the US shift its Gulf headquarters to Al-Udeid Air Base in exchange for protection from any potential military intervention by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

An Al-Jazeera broadcast, featuring Saudi opposition cleric Mohsen Al-Awaji who criticised Crown Prince Abdullah's peace initiative and accused him for ditching the Palestinian cause, reopened regional rifts and drove Riyadh to call back its ambassador from Doha.

In 2014 and then 2017, Riyadh, along other Arab nations, cut ties with Doha over alleged Qatari intervention and destabilising attempts in their internal affairs and continued support for Islamist groups.

Iran-linked terrorist attacks on two major Saudi oil installations in September 2019 greatly helped the US to regain control and ramp up its military strength at PSAB in a bid to counter Iranian hostilities in the region. It was the moment Donald Trump wanted a joint GCC front against Tehran that had quietly expanded its influence in Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sana'a.

The change of the US nerve centre to Qatar and the activation of the 378th Air Expeditionary Wing  PSAB - which almost two decades earlier served as the primary location for US air power in the Middle East - was a fine example of how the US exploited regional tensions and theatrically shaped the regional environment to retain an overwhelming clout on grouping.

The activation claimed to defend Saudi Arabia from malign regional actors and protect US forces and interests. But even a neophyte can identify the activation was tactically designed and masterfully implemented to ensure that the key air bases are under American control, including PSAB, where reinforcements were more convenient in case of a war with Tehran.

Ideological rivals

Saudi Arabia and Iran are ideological rivals forever and Riyadh is gravely worried about its national security from Tehran-backed Houthis in Yemen that shares a long and porous border with the kingdom.

However, presence of foreign troops in the home of Islam's holiest sites is also a major concern for the kingdom - where the existence of American forces is seen as an historic betrayal, proof of the country's subservience to Washington and was part of the reason given by Osama bin Laden for the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, resulting in an American pullout from Saudi Arabia in 2003.

With the redeployment of US troops - "a potent symbol of Washington's role in the region" ­­- the monarchy, threatened by armed struggle in Yemen, had no choice but to except and tolerate the US military on its soil. The recapture of PSAB now provides the US with a strategic depth as analysts think it would aid relocation of American air assets from more vulnerable locations like Al Udeid and Al Dhafra in Qatar and the UAE, respectively, to the Saudi base.

Clearly, Trump was looking for predominant control over both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, hoping to reimburse him an election win through consistently promoting Iran as an aggressive and hostile adversary to the US and Arab world. On the flipside, Americans rejected his offensive approach and voted in droves to oust him from the White House.

He desperately tried to pose himself a peace champion, bragging about his mediation for establishing diplomatic ties between Israel and some of the Mideast countries.

As other Arab states seek certain financial, political and military rewards to give up their historical position on Palestine - for instance the UAE will acquire its long-wished American weaponry, Sudan is removed from US terrorist list and Morocco can extend its claims on the disputed Western Sahara - the contagion-like embrace of Israel will contribute to peace only if the coming Biden administration remains committed to these promises.

While the Riyadh-led GCC coalition ended the blockade of another group member, Doha, and all six states have signed the final communiqué and the AlUla Declaration at the 41st GCC summit in Saudi Arabia, the US, previously seeking schisms within the council, is now making efforts to unite the GCC nations and fix the cracks in the "strong wall of opposition" against Iran.

The settlement is a right dose to vivify the deteriorating peace environment in the Middle East. Yet since it is an attempt to box Iran into a corner, the US-led GCC rapprochement could end up in an impasse given Doha maintains close relationship with Tehran against which Riyadh entreats for unity. In this backdrop, any anti-Iran alliance would push the Persian Gulf towards further volatility and take the situation from bad to worse.

Reconciliation process 

Qatar Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani last month in Russia called for a dialogue between Iran and other Persian Gulf countries and said Doha would welcome any initiative that could bring stability in the region.

Meanwhile, the "Summit of Sultan Qaboos and Sheikh Sabah" declaration made no mention of Iran, which described that the GCC states were at odds when it came to the Iranian threat.

Even though Iran has assured it is neither an enemy nor a threat to the Arab countries, Tehran's set technique - unremitting involvement in Yemen, sustained influence in Lebanon and Syria, and an assiduous presence in Iraq - is unfurling worries among neighbouring countries about its expansionist approach and narrowing the interminable gap between Arab realms and Israel.

At a time when the pandemic-hit economic crisis is expected to wipe off 6% from GCC economies and it won't get back to 2019 levels by 2023, the bloc should take bold steps and extend the recent reconciliation process in the Persian Gulf. Iran, on the other hand, must scale back its support for Yemeni Houthis to prevent an upswing in Saudi exasperation.

In contemporary history, the western countries quickly realised the importance of religious tolerance, mutual co-existence and respect for each other's sovereignty after World War II, helping them to achieve peace and rebuild the economy from scratch.

Mideast countries could learn this art from the West and should stop using lousy tricks, aimed at obliterating rival ideologies for a lusty pursuit of regional domination, which will bring wanton destruction to the region and dispatch them all to the Paleolithic period.

Azhar Azam writes on economy, geopolitical issues and regional conflicts and is an opinion contributor to CGTNNews24, The Mail & Guardian, New Straits Times and The Express Tribune (partner of The International New York Times).

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