In alienating Qatar, the GCC states, in what resembles a pointless act of Samsonian bravado, are keen on bringing about their own demise.
Recent developments in the Gulf point to one sad conclusion: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have declared war on Qatar, closing borders and waterways and halting flights in what amounts to a classic wartime siege on a neighboring Arab country. Meanwhile, Russia, Iran and Turkey have stepped in to voice support for Qatar, setting the region on edge.
To put things in a broader perspective, the rift between Qatar and the Gulf states opens a new chapter in the wave of geopolitical disintegration that is sweeping the globe, thus providing a classic example of regional union gone away.
The Gulf Cooperation Council was an ambitious regional enterprise inspired by and modeled after the rather continental European Union. Like the EU, the GCC was founded to represent the shared economic, strategic and security interests of an intergovernmental union consisting of the Arab states of the Arabian Gulf, except Iraq. Despite significant differences in size and structure and political visions, both organizations have managed a considerable level of mutual understanding, regional cooperation, and global governance.
Both organizations aspired to create a regional union bound together by a shared destiny, or what Winston Churchill, one of the EU early visionaries, described as a “happy family that can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.”
And both had a shared enemy. Indeed, when six years ago Saudi Arabia proposed to transform the GCC into the “Gulf Union,” promising even closer economic and military coordination, it surely had the EU in mind. All the Arabs needed now, went the wisdom, was an outsized shared enemy: Replace Russia by Iran, and there is your “Arab EU.”
This logic has worked for a while, until the Saudis and their Gulf allies have come up with their latest edition of shared enemy: the enemy within–Qatar. And one need not go far back in history to realize that beneath every civil war lurks an “enemy within” narrative.
There is perhaps something akin to Brexist in the Qatar crisis: A cartoonish and theatrical move to feed the vanity of a few leaders, a political drama orchestrated by a ruling elite keen on scapegoating another country for domestic consumption and narrow foreign policy gains. Yet unlike its European counterpart, the Qatar crisis has plunged into an aggressive and violent campaign to isolate a member state, impinging on its sovereignty and independence, and threatening its very existence. Its aggression has spiraled out of propitiations, jeopardizing the existing regional order, indeed reshaping it.
A cosmic difference has separated the Saudi vision of regional unity from the EU’s from the beginning. In the latter, there are no big brothers, no bigger states imposing their will on smaller ones, but sovereign states competing on a level playing field. Nobody would imagine Germany leading other European states to blockade Luxemburg. Such a scenario belongs in the realm of magic realism, not political reality. It took Europe two civil wars to realize that European nations are condemned to live together. This should make the Gulf nations sit up and take notice.
This might be too late, though. For it seems that the “Arab EU” is facing an existential crisis at the moment. As the Saudis failed to persuade smaller GCC members like Kuwait and Oman to follow its lead in isolating Qatar, they have allowed bigger players like Russia and Iran to step up support for Qatar, opening the doors for forming new alliances and breaking up traditional ones. In alienating Qatar, the GCC states, in what resembles a pointless act of Samsonian bravado, are keen on bringing about their own demise.
And there you have two unions: One is stable and reassured, the other is heading toward the abyss. The irony is that the GCC, because of its geographical reality and cultural unity and relatively homogenous ethnic makeup, is more suited for the mission than its European counterpart, at least in theory. In other words, the GCC was founded not because its members wanted to create one family free and happy and bound together by a shared destiny, but because they already had one. And yet, their enterprise is likely doomed to fail.
The future of the GCC might not be as bright as it seemed three decades ago, when it was created, or six years ago, when the “Gulf Union” seemed a natural culmination of Sunni Arab unity: In a region now dominated by shifting alliances and periodical rebalancing, no union is too sacred to fail.