The first of a two-part post on security concerns among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Events in the past week in the Persian Gulf have illustrated how national rivalries, internal security concerns and the sectarian question have the potential to cause ruptures in the region’s security architecture. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain all withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, citing concern over the latter's supposed interference in their internal affairs.
Australia should pay attention to these issues, if for no other reason than we have tens of thousands of nationals working in the region, a military base in the UAE and military personnel posted to several of the Gulf states, and we have a residual moral obligation given our political and military support to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which has exacerbated the current tensions.
Last week's Saudi-Qatari spat is, on the face of it, not unusual. This excellent backgrounder shows the fractious nature of Qatari relations with its much larger neighbour, even if it predicts a rosy future for Qatar-GCC cooperation out to the 2022 World Cup. Yet this most recent diplomatic imbroglio is potentially more important than those in the past, for two reasons.
Firstly, it wasn't just the Saudis who recalled their ambassador, but UAE and Bahrain too. Egypt followed suit a few days later. This shows the depth of feeling against what is seen as Qatar's ill-considered support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.
Two other GCC members (Kuwait and Oman) chose to retain their diplomatic representation in Doha. Oman has always had a slightly different view of the GCC to the other members, needing to balance its good relations with Iran with its geographic and ethnic realities. That is part of the reason it has remained aloof from the Saudi plan to make the GCC more of a union. Kuwait has not joined in the diplomatic embargo either, likely realising that someone will have to play the role of GCC mediator.
Secondly, besides highlighting the internal disagreements within the GCC, the withdrawal touched on an issue that is most centrally important to the Gulf states: internal security.
It is no coincidence that two days after the withdrawal, Saudi Arabia formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. It was also no coincidence that the day prior to the announcement, the UAE sentenced a Qatari doctor to seven years' prison for supporting al Islah, a reformist political group that UAE authorities claim is closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks the overthrow of the regime.
The Muslim Brotherhood has few friends among the leadership in the region, so Qatar’s actions in supporting it in Egypt is somewhat puzzling. This article outlined some of the benefits that such a relationship provided while the Brotherhood held power in Cairo, and was also prescient in suggesting that the outcome of such a policy may lead to a schism in the GCC. The costs of such a policy are not insignificant, but for the time being at least, Doha shows no sign of wavering in its approach.
Having been given such a public dressing down, the negotiations to resolve this issue are likely to be done very privately.