The GCC summit, sovereignty and a shift in Gulf priorities

The Gulf is leaning towards pragmatism, collective self-reliance and diversification of friendships and partnerships

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit with other Gulf leaders in Riyadh on December 14. Saudi Royal Palace / AFP

We still do not know how the Vienna nuclear talks will evolve between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, or the so-called "P5+1"countries, as they seek to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear accord.

Today, a deal appears to be impeded, contrary to the wishes of those who wanted it to be concluded before the end of the year. Germany, France and Britain have moved from being something of a confident driver, who is trusted by the two main parties, Iran and the US, to being accused of losing direction, especially by Iran and Russia.

China seems less engaged in the talks. Instead, it appears preoccupied with strengthening its multi-layered relations with the Arab Gulf states, without wanting to lose its Iranian ally, to which it is bound by a 25-year economic and security pact.

In the US, the Biden administration comes across as embarrassed and anxious, between its insistence on striking a deal with the Iranian government and its predicament, led by Iran's insistence to lift all sanctions in one go and refusing additional controls over its nuclear programme.

In the meantime, the Arab Gulf states are weaving stronger economic, security and strategic relations among themselves in multiple ways: by diversifying their international partnerships, strengthening security agreements, confronting Iran peacefully but together and pursuing pragmatic positions on regional crises, led by those of Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

A meeting of the joint commission on negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria, on December 9. EU delegation in Vienna/ AFP

On the Yemen issue, there has been a shift in Gulf positions intersecting with UN, US and international efforts. The Gulf states are willing to accept the Houthis as a party to the peace settlement in Yemen and to a Yemeni government produced as an outcome of negotiations.

Iran and Hezbollah are resisting this shift because it would deny them the ability to shape Yemen’s fate by leveraging the Houthis. The Houthis, however, are starting to think of the benefits of an international solution that allows them to participate in government, and turn the humanitarian tragedy in Yemen into a project for salvation, recovery and reconstruction. The shift is still in its infancy. But it has begun in earnest, with the participation of the major powers and amid a major transformation in the Gulf positions, especially in Saudi Arabia.

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An attack against any GCC member states is an attack on all GCC states

The polarising and emotional US position on Yemen, especially in relation to Saudi Arabia, has contributed to the bitter confusion in Yemen. The US position has given misleading signs to the Houthis, Iran and Hezbollah. Successive US administrations have even withheld intelligence from the Saudi-led coalition that could have helped reduce casualties and military errors. To date, internal US polarisation is hindering a rational US policy vis-a-vis Yemen. It is shackling the Biden administration, which has already prevaricated in its policies in the Arab world.

The Biden administration’s hasty decision to remove sanctions on the Houthis has emboldened the Yemeni rebels, giving them a boost of impunity and self-confidence, along with military supplies from Iran and Hezbollah. As a result, the Houthis have seized large parts of Yemen.

The Biden administration must empower its envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, and stop holding him back over concerns for the nuclear talks or even fears from Iran. To end the political and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the UN envoy to Yemen, in co-ordination with the US envoy, is slated to present a new roadmap early next year.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking. SPA

At the same time, Oman and other Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are discussing a working plan with Yemeni parties, seeking to rally them behind a new proposal.

The basis of this new proposal is the development in Gulf positions, which sees that there can be no peaceful settlement without the Houthis. Therefore, the equation seeking full defeat for any of the parties is no longer on the table – neither for the states supporting the internationally recognised government of Yemen or the Houthis. The international community has agreed on a ceasefire as a starting point. The Arab Gulf states have accepted Houthi participation in a new regime in Yemen through elections. Not long ago, the Arab position was to insist on defeating the Houthis and supporting the so-called legitimate government in Yemen exclusively. Today, the talk is all about power sharing.

The new thinking outside the box could thwart Iran and Hezbollah in Yemen, by moving Yemen towards power-sharing and a political settlement to end the war. A question here is: Will the Houthis cut loose Hezbollah and Iran in view of the international and Gulf commitment to a plan that stops the destruction and bloodletting, and puts forward a roadmap for Yemen’s recovery? Or will they choose Iran and Hezbollah over Yemen? Another question is: Will there be a "carrot", or a reward, for stopping the war through participating in government and injecting funds into Yemen? And will there be a "stick", through imposing sanctions on the Houthis, in the event of failure – while letting Hezbollah and Iran understand that the Biden administration has adopted a clear policy, and is ready for decisive accountability beyond the Vienna talks?

The Arab Gulf states are moving towards a strategy to exit the war in Yemen with international partnership. At the same time, they are adopting pragmatic measures to put the Gulf house back in order, following an earlier rift between them. This much was clear during the the six-nation GCC summit in Saudi Arabia this week and the final communique that was issued. Important joint statements were issued following visits by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman shortly before the summit.

Among the most important points of the communique was: proclaiming that an attack against any GCC member states is an attack on all GCC states. In the past, individual sovereignty trumped collective action, but today, there is willingness for a flexible definition of sovereignty, to achieve collective security action that requires some compromise, yet not the surrender of sovereignty.

The six member states of the GCC understand that the shift in US positions on the Gulf and Iran requires them to safeguard their security collectively, in case of both a US-Iranian agreement or a non-agreement. In recent years, Iran has adopted the tactic of seeking bilateral talks with Gulf states, in a bid to disrupt their joint action against it. Now, there is awareness in the Gulf of the need for solidarity and unified positions against Iran. This has followed from increased distrust of Tehran, due to its regional policies that undermine Gulf security, from Yemen to Lebanon.

The GCC summit saw Gulf leaders mark their new priorities that stem from the adoption, by young leaders, of modernisation and technological adaptation. These leaders enjoy strong economic ties and personal harmony among themselves that outsiders sometimes do not understand well and are quick to misinterpret as rivalry. But in truth, the competition, not rivalry, between young Gulf leaders focusses on technology, developments and bringing prosperity to their cities and states. This is a healthy, logical and modern way of thinking.

Meanwhile, the concept of strategic security requires integration. It requires a shift away from exclusive reliance on the US, whether it is the Carter Doctrine or the policies of US President Joe Biden. Such realisations have nudged the Gulf states towards collective self-reliance and diversification of friendships and partnerships, to include China, India, Europe and others.

The GCC states have drawn for themselves the scope of their involvement in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, making it clear that their priorities lie, first and foremost, in the Gulf.

Published: December 19th 2021, 4:00 AM
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National