Saudi-Qatar Spat Hits GCC
C P RAVINDRAN
PALAKKAD, KERALA: It is more or less obvious now that the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) will never be the same again even if the current crisis between Qatar and a Saudi-led group is resolved. The mutual trust and solidarity among the GCC states is gone for good and their relations are likely to be clouded by suspicions from now on.
In the latest twist to the messy dispute, a phone call between Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to help defuse the situation just had the opposite effect, after raising hopes initially.
Saudi Arabia has now put on ice any fresh dialogue with Qatar, after dismissing its claim that it was US President Donald Trump who had helped co-ordinate the Emir’s phone call. The contact, Saudi Arabia insists, came at Qatar’s request and further talks will be held only after Doha issues a clarification.
The GCC was established in 1981 with the grand aim of forming a cohesive economic, commercial and political entity on the lines of the European Union (EU). And in its initial years at least, the GCC was on a firm track to meet that objective as it introduced a set of guidelines for the six-nation group, consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Measures to establish a free-trade zone, one of the elements of a proposed customs union, were set in motion within two years of its formation.
But efforts began to slow down soon with the member countries struggling to bridge differences over the proposed union. And it was only in 2015, a full 34 years after its formation, a GCC customs union could be launched through the framework for a free-trade zone with a common external tariff was spelt out in 2003.
A standard 5% levy on goods imported into the GCC was introduced in January, 2015. A single point of entry system for imported goods shared by all members was also approved by the GCC. This was to make sure that customs duties are paid only once at the port of entry. It was also decided to abolish tax and tariff on goods manufactured in GCC states. But that is just about the sole achievement of the group in its more than three decades of existence.
From the very start of the GCC, a single currency unit for its member countries, on the lines of the euro in the EU, had been a hot topic of discussion at its periodical meetings. But no concrete progress towards it has been made with each member state fearing it will be losing out in case of a deal.
With the dispute between Qatar and four Arab states led by Saudi Arabia now dragging on in its third month with no end in sight, GCC projects like the common currency and complete lifting of travel curbs for residents of the member countries are in a limbo.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani has been quite frank in admitting recently that regional relations have been transformed by the current dispute. He has also admitted that it will take a "lot of time" to rebuild any trust between sparring Gulf countries because of the region's continuing diplomatic crisis which broke out on June 5 when fellow GCC countries Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with Egypt, had cut diplomatic relations and closed all border and air links with Qatar, claiming that it supported terrorism and some militant groups.
Qatar's Defence Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah has also cast doubts on the future of the GCC if the Saudi-led alliance continues its blockade on his country.
Speaking recently to Qatar’s Al Jazeera television channel, the dissolution of which is among the conditions for ending the siege on Doha, Al Attiyah was blunt to admit that if the Gulf countries "stay in the stalemate situation, (the GCC) will be jeopardised.
Qatar’s decision last month to restore full diplomatic ties with Iran after Doha recalled its ambassador from Tehran 20 months ago in protest against anti-Saudi protests has weakened the GCC further.
The GCC has generally followed a tough line against Iran as it accuses the Persian country of fomenting unrest among Bahrain’s vast Shia population, a charge Tehran denies.
Also, the UAE has its own problems with Iran and disputes its sovereignty over the three islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb in the Gulf despite the fact that both the countries enjoy thriving trading relations.
Different stands between Iran and the Arab countries in general on Yemen and Syria also haunt ties between the two sides.
In this context, the decision by Qatar to send back its ambassador to Tehran "to resume his diplomatic duties" comes as a bold and defiant gesture.
The ambassador was called home in January last year in response to attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran by a group of demonstrators who were protesting against the execution of a Shia cleric in the kingdom. The cleric was among 47 people put to death in Saudi Arabia after being convicted of what officials termed as “terrorism offences”.
UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has criticised Doha’s move and has been quoted as saying that “Qatar’s crisis was deepened through (Doha’s) crisis management of burning bridges, squandering of sovereignty and undermined what remained of the mediator’s chances”.
Bahrain's Minister of Interior Sheikh Rashid Bin Abdullah Al Khalifa has also come down heavily on Qatar's policies, saying that they would endanger the GCC security. In an interview with London-based Arabic paper Asharq al-Awsat , Sheikh Rashid claimed that the security threats came from “Qatar’s policy of giving safe haven to terrorist and extremist groups”.
Amid the charged atmosphere, Kuwait’s valiant efforts to end the rift have not made any headway so far. And Doha’s plans to normalise ties with Iran will only further dampen the mediation initiative.
(C P Ravindran is former deputy managing editor of Gulf Times, a Doha newspaper)