New Arab Gulf council reflects shift in strategy, leadership

New Arab Gulf council reflects shift in strategy, leadership
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There’s going to be a new acronym in the Middle East that is likely to transform regional politics. What it will be has yet to be formalized but, on June 6, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced the formation of the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council.

The organization is the brainchild of the two countries’ powerful crown princes, Muhammad bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, respectively known as MbS and MbZ. Some wit on Twitter has suggested “Mo-Mo-Co-Co”; it certainly has a ring to it. One wonders what the official abbreviation will be, and what will stick.

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The new council is probably the death knell of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), established in 1981 as a mechanism to safeguard the conservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf from becoming embroiled in the Iran-Iraq war, which had started the year before and was going to continue until 1988.

 

The GCC worked, mostly, although it often seemed like herding cats. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman successfully avoided becoming part of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. And the grouping lent cover to the liberation of Kuwait after the oil-rich sheikhdom was invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990.

But the GCC has been under acute strain because of the year-long Gulf rift between Qatar and its neighbors, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain — all U.S. allies — along with non-Gulf Egypt. Is that split, on which Kuwait and Oman have remained neutral, now permanent? And what does the demise of the GCC mean for Washington’s principal regional concern, Iran — its nuclear program, its missile program and its meddling in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq?

An initial judgment is that the new coordination council reflects the “bromance” between MbS and MbZ, which has developed since MbS’s father Salman became the Saudi monarch in January 2015. But the king seems to take a more pan-Arab view of the kingdom’s regional role and leadership of the Islamic world. (MbZ’s elder brother, Khalifa, is officially the president of the UAE and the ruler of its richest member-emirate, but is in poor health and is seldom seen in public.)

The Saudi English-language Arab News, effectively owned by King Salman’s family, reported: “The aim of the council is to promote Saudi-Emirati stature on the global stage in a number of areas including the economy, political affairs, human development and security as well as ensuring citizen welfare and happiness.” The two princes’ vision is known as the Determination Strategy, the official Saudi Press Agency stated, giving a five-year deadline to implement the program of no fewer than 44 areas of cooperation, including arms manufacture and military coordination.

That last reference should have caught the attention of the Qataris and the Pentagon, which still fear a direct Saudi and/or Emirati military assault on Qatar, where the direct land route for invading armored personnel carriers would pass close to the giant al-Udeid air base that hosts a U.S. Expeditionary Air Wing and its associated 10,000 American service personnel. When the rift erupted a year ago, American forces launched a drone to watch the border, concerns were so high.

The dispute — encapsulated as 13 demands, including the cessation of inflammatory broadcasting, alleged support for terrorism and links with Iran — also has historical aspects. Any sympathy for Qatar’s position is hindered by spectacular own goals such as Emir Tamim inviting a notorious fiery preacher to a Ramadan fast-breaking meal last week and the gender tone-deafness of remarks by the chief executive of the state carrier Qatar Airways.

When Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoShowdown at the Security Council? Hillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — Facebook bug exposed photos of up to 6.8M users | Canada warns Trump not to intervene in Huawei case | Tech giant accused of providing cybersecurity to terror groups Canada warns Trump: Huawei extradition shouldn't be ‘politicized’ MORE flew out to Riyadh in April, the New York Times reporter on his aircraft used the expression “enough is enough” to describe the U.S. view of the Qatar rift. But multiple sources tell me that Qatar was not even mentioned in Pompeo's subsequent working dinner with MbS. Presumably, Iran was the topic of conversation.

While American contacts with MbS are close, MbZ has yet to find time to accept President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump Memo Comey used to brief Trump on dossier released: report MORE’s invitation to visit Washington this year, although last month he pointedly met with President Putin in Moscow. MbS visited the White House in March, and Tamim visited in April.

While it is hard to predict what will happen, one can now be fairly certain that at least one thing won't occur — the delayed but, up until now, still planned for September GCC summit of Gulf leaders with President Trump at Camp David. The hope had been that it would represent the resolution of the Gulf rift or at least the shift to a manageable problem.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.