Marc Lynch

Will the GCC stay on top?

At a talk in Kuwait this week, I mentioned in passing that the leading Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Arab politics isn’t likely to last and the Arab spring will certainly come to the Gulf. That seemed to spark quite a bit of skeptical debate — which strikes me as a good discussion to have. ...


At a talk in Kuwait this week, I mentioned in passing that the leading Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Arab politics isn’t likely to last and the Arab spring will certainly come to the Gulf. That seemed to spark quite a bit of skeptical debate — which strikes me as a good discussion to have. There’s no question about the new energy and effectiveness of the GCC this year, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pushed the regional organization forward as a key actor across the Middle East. But there is a certain triumphalism in the new narrative about the GCC which is unwarranted. History and current trends suggest that the GCC’s current leading role will prove the exception, not the rule, and likely won’t survive the coming years.

The argument for the GCC’s new leadership role is grounded in both structural trends and in recent events. First, and foremost, the GCC states have a lot of money. That may not buy love, but it certainly does give them something to work with, especially as energy prices stay high. Most have responded to the Arab uprisings by throwing huge amounts of money at their own people in order to blunt the demands for political change. They have thrown even more money at their allies, offering up large financial packages to friendly regimes and sympathetic political movements in the Gulf and farther afield. At a time of global financial crisis and budget challenges which inhibit the ability of the U.S. and Europe to act, those bank accounts look like an especially desirable asset.

It’s not only the money, of course. The GCC states have individually and collectively become much more politically effective than in the past. After many years of rivalry, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have closed ranks and been able to push a roughly shared agenda. Their approval of intervention in Libya, monopoly over the political mediation in Yemen, and evolving stance on Syria have driven the international agenda. Saudi and Qatari media outlets, especially but not exclusively al-Jazeera, have become an ever more potent source of power in their own right. Their intense focus on Libya and Syria have shaped the game, while their comparative avoidance of members such as Bahrain has helped shield their own from scrutiny. In an ideologically charged, media-driven age these media outlets matter.

Finally, there’s a widespread sense that the Gulf monarchies have proven more resilient than their non-monarchical Arab counterparts. The wealthy Gulf states seem relatively immune to the popular mobilizations which have challenged most of the other regimes in the region. Advocates of the Gulf exceptionalism stance point to small citizen populations, huge government employment and patronage opportunities, and monarchical legitimacy as buffers against popular outrage. This relative immunity to domestic challenge becomes an important asset in regional politics, as other contenders for Arab leadership such as Egypt and Syria find themselves consumed with domestic challenges. It counts in the balance of power when you can interfere in the domestic affairs of your rivals and they can’t reciprocate.

There’s a lot to recommend this account of a structural shift of power to the Gulf. Wealth, domestic stability, popular media, and aggressive diplomacy obviously matter. It’s become something of a truism that the GCC has replaced the Arab League as the most relevant inter-Arab organization. There has been a concerted effort in the Arab and international media to paint a picture of a Gulf which is uniquely immune to regional unrest and leading a revived Arab diplomacy. But I don’t think it’s going to last. The GCC’s current position is a bubble, sustained by artificial conditions which are not likely to remain over the coming years.

Why am I skeptical?  First, I find it unlikely that Qatar and Saudi Arabia will continue their recent relatively cooperative foreign policy. The two states, and the two royal families, have a long history of rivalry and mutual suspicion which is not so easy to set aside. It was less than two years ago that Doha and Riyadh were sponsoring competing Arab summit meetings over the Palestinian issue. I suspect that this rivalry will reassert itself. And without Saudi-Qatari cooperation, the GCC becomes far less effective. There are many other ongoing rivalries and internal conflicts which history suggests will likely re-emerge.

Second, I don’t see the states of the Gulf as somehow immune to the Arab uprisings. I was baffled by how frequently I was asked in Kuwait whether the Arab spring would come to the Gulf. It’s clearly already there. It’s true that Qatar and the UAE, with their vast wealth and tiny populations, seem safe. But Gulf youth are every bit as wired and every bit as politically frustrated as youth elsewhere in the region, and they are unlikely to be bought off over the long term if political reforms fail to materialize. Kuwaiti activists have been challenging the political order for more than half a decade, recently brought out one of the largest street demonstrations in the country’s history, and contributed directly to the resignation of the Prime Minister. Bahrain’s protest movement was per capita one of the largest anywhere in the region, with at one point more than half the population joining the demonstrations. Even Oman saw significant mobilization. And I remain convinced that Saudi Arabia has all the ingredients for the sudden emergence of very significant domestic challenges — a large population, major economic complaints, a sectarian divide, an aging leadership consumed by issues of succession, an oppressive state control over public culture, and a very high level of media and internet penetration.

Third, several of the GCC’s key "triumphs" look less lustrous up close. People too often confuse efforts with outcomes, but just because the GCC states are acting across the region doesn’t mean that they are achieving their goals. The GCC mediation in Yemen has been a failure, contributing to ongoing instability without actually solving any of the political problems. Its increasingly active role against Syria hasn’t yet produced results. Promised financial support to Egypt has rarely materialized quickly or in the full amount announced publicly. The invitation to Jordan and Morocco (and Egypt!) to join the GCC look, as expected, to be going nowhere fast. And it isn’t clear that investments will pay off directly in political influence, as the outbursts of resentment against continuing Qatari and Saudi meddling in places such as Libya and Tunisia suggest.

By far the greatest hole in the GCC’s resume remains its most direct and active intervention:  Bahrain. The GCC’s, and particularly Saudi Arabia’s, role in helping the Bahraini regime to crush its political challengers in March and beyond succeeded in buying short-term survival. But it came at the cost of a generation of deep societal fragmentation, alienation and rage. The scope and sweep of the Bahraini regime’s repression of its population this year has long been reported by the media and by human rights NGOs, but now has been officially acknowledged and graphically detailed by the BICI report. The sectarianization of that conflict, as the minority Sunni regime moved to delegitimize a broad-based democratic opposition as sectarian Shia and Iranian pawns, poisoned not only Bahrain’s politics but also every other Gulf country with significant Shia populations including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In short, what happened in Bahrain was the kind of short-term success which carries the seeds of long-term instability.

And then there’s the artificial nature of the current balance of power. The Gulf states have been able to take the lead in large part because other contenders for regional leadership have been internally focused and unable to act effectively abroad. But for all their wealth, these are tiny countries with highly imbalanced economies. If Egypt gets its act together over the next year, it will almost certainly emerge again as a power broker. With more than 80 million people, a compelling story of revolution and transition to democracy, and a strategic location at the heart of the Arab world, an Egypt accustomed to regional leadership will almost certainly look to reassert itself and revive the Arab League. North Africa as a whole will likely become increasingly dynamic, especially if Tunisia completes its move to democracy and Libya emerges as a stable and effective state, shifting attention back from the Gulf.

I don’t see Syria recovering from its isolation and internal struggles any time soon. But Iraq could emerge as a new regional power in the medium term if it overcomes its internal struggles. Over the medium term, I expect Iraq to return to its traditional role of balancing against Iranian power rather than becoming an Iranian protectorate. But to this point, the GCC has done almost nothing to bring Iraq back into the Arab order, in part because of the Saudi leadership’s hostility towards Iran’s role there and to the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. That may come back to haunt them. There will be no gratitude towards the Gulf Arabs in Baghdad.

Even the media assets won’t necessarily endure. Saudi Arabia spends a lot on media outlets, but the Saudi media has long been viewed as such a tool of Riyadh’s foreign policy, which costs it credibility and influence. Al-Jazeera seems to many people to be going down the same road. The more that al-Jazeera appears to be a direct tool of Qatari foreign policy, the less appeal it will have as the voice of the Arab public. The rise of internet-based social media as a primary conduit for information may mean a declining role for such expensive, top-down media — and it certainly means that viewers and readers can abandon media which they don’t like and seek out alternatives.

And then, of course, there is the Iranian challenge, which drives so much of the foreign policy and domestic approach of most Gulf regimes. This isn’t the place to get into the many levels of Iran’s regional position and how it might evolve, but the broad lines are fairly obvious. If Israel or the United States launch a preventive war against Iran, the GCC states will be caught in the crossfire and will be the most likely target for Iranian retaliation. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, the frightened regimes will become even more scared and may well rush to get nukes of their own (although I wouldn’t take this as a given — there are plenty of reasons why the GCC states might prefer closer American security guarantees over the risks of a proliferation cascade). And if the status quo continues in roughly its current form, the GCC states will remain consumed with the perceived urgency of containment and will likely continue to pursue counter-productive domestic policies.

The American role is changing as well. The withdrawal from Iraq is a very positive development on its own terms, and something which few believed possible even a few years ago. The U.S. is redeploying some of those forces to its bases in the GCC states, to reassure nervous allies about its commitment and to keep enough forces in place in case they are needed in Iraq or elsewhere. But over the longer term, the ending of the Iraq war and the possible (albeit distant) winding down of the Afghanistan war will reduce the need for those bases. I don’t think the U.S. is going anywhere, given how deeply entrenched it is in the Gulf security architecture, but priorities are changing as budget realities intrude and economic power continues to shift towards East Asia. But politically, it is hardly a secret that the Saudis and Washington have been on opposite sides of some big regional issues this year, and that introduces more friction.

None of this is to say that the GCC is irrelevant or that it isn’t a key player in regional politics. Right now, it is indeed driving the regional agenda and it has a lot of cash to spread around and cards to play. But its power rests on much shakier foundations than is generally recognized. Its internal divisions will likely re-emerge, its domestic political stability likely won’t last, and larger regional rivals will eventually return to the game. Yemen’s ongoing travails will cause more and more problems. And Bahrain’s horrible response to its domestic opposition, sectarianism, and ongoing repression will continue to poison the Gulf from within. There are limits to what money can buy, and regional leadership may well prove to be one of them.

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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