The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a webinar discussion on January 13, 2021, on the implications of Al-Ula Summit that took place in Saudi Arabia. The discussion focused on the recent lift of the blockade on Qatar, the parameters of reconciliation, and the confidence-building measures needed to promote rapprochement between Gulf states. The panel consisted of a group of distinguished scholars and experts, including Abdullah Al Shayji, professor of international relations and U.S. politics at Kuwait University; Majed Al-Ansari, president of the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies (QIASS); Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, president of the Emirates Policy Center; and Hesham Alghannam, senior research fellow at the Gulf Research Centre, Cambridge. Noha Aboueldahab, fellow at BDC, moderated the event.
Hesham Alghannam started the discussion by highlighting Al-Ula Summit as a breakthrough, considering the multiple failed attempts at reconciliation in the last two years. Alghannam explained that the disputing parties have made compromises to reach reconciliation since it was pressingly in their interests to resume relations. Particularly, Saudi Arabia has realized that there was no reason for the blockade to persist and wanted to appear as a problem-solving nation before the new U.S. administration took office. Alghannam then criticized overstating the U.S. significance in this breakthrough, arguing instead that the onus lied on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states themselves given their shared economic and security interests. Whilst the summit is an achievement, caution must be taken in analyses and predictions, as a clear plan has yet to be laid out on how disagreements will be managed. Alghannam stressed that such plan should include: a gradual agreement on opposing positions on Turkey, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood; an outline for security coordination against non-state actors in the region, particularly in Iraq and Yemen; a structure for a strategic dialogue to align national states’ interests with the council’s interests; and a framework for future conflict resolution. Moving forward, Alghannam believes bilateral resolutions will prevail without the presence of a mediator to resolve potential disputes.
Ebtesam Al-Ketbi discussed the importance of confidence-building measures in the region. She pointed out that the next reconciliation phase could pave the way for a new kind of relations between GCC member states. However, although Al-Ula Summit marks the beginning of a new phase, differences and disagreements are not out of the way. Therefore, collective cooperation and well-established mechanisms for conflict resolution are crucial for effective discourse. Al-Ketbi added that confidence building between the Gulf states requires rationalizing media organizations to restore a common consideration of GCC societies and overcome the social consequences of the crisis. It also entails promoting trade and movement for the purposes of investment, tourism, work, and residency. Al-Ketbi then called for setting a court or council for settling regional disputes instead of raising them to an international level and establishing regional cooperation mechanisms to manage the pandemic. She also highlighted the key security issues that GCC states need to address, which include stances toward the Muslim Brotherhood and decriminalization of extremists, positions on Iran and Turkey, and disputes over media platforms and news outlets. Al-Ketbi concluded that the summit document has not been published yet so the countries have enough space to settle issues before publishing this information.
Majed Al-Ansari touched on the unprecedented social consequences of the crisis, including the separation of families and the high level of animosity observed on social media. This was a peculiar phenomenon given that Gulf states had witnessed conflicts and political differences before, naturally so as bordering countries. Al-Ansari then argued that the GCC was established due to a historical and contemporary shared sense of threat from internal and external factors. This was initially prompted by the onset of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and continued with the invasion of Kuwait, the spread of radical extremism in the region, the Arab Spring, and presently with the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the coronavirus outbreak has started during the blockade, GCC health officials met regularly prior to Al-Ula Summit to coordinate efforts since the region’s health status and safety was more important than political differences. Al-Ansari also explained that the fall in oil prices has pushed GCC members to brainstorm on how to sustain the region’s prosperity and ensure that local fiscal policies and investments abroad were not in risk. He argued that the GCC needed a serious rethinking of the social contract and a reformation of fiscal policies that are more harmonious across the member states. Al-Ansari concluded by stressing the need to revise the conflict resolution mechanisms of the GCC charter to manage future disputes better.
Abdullah Al Shayji continued the discussion by noting that the GCC alliance has suffered a major setback due to the crisis. Whilst Al-Ula Summit was a good start toward reconciliation, Al Shayji warned against its shaky foundation. A month before the summit, reconciliation with Qatar was ‘not on anyone’s agenda’ according to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador to the U.S., indicating a stark and quick change in position. He explained that the defeat of President Trump prompted GCC states, and namely Saudi Arabia, to revisit the dispute with a new perspective. adopting a softer approach. Al Shayji then noted that Qatar did not capitulate to the demands of the four countries, and no plans have been made to address the major, divergent positions of the GCC countries with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, amongst other issues. Al Shayji expressed concern for the lack of public information about the details of the deal and the events of Al-Ula Summit, which, he warned, would sow the seeds for more friction if the key issues of contention were not resolved. He concluded by suggesting that Qatar could further reconciliation by financing the economic deficits in other countries and working together against terrorism.
In the subsequent question and answer session, panelists considered the potential challenges and opportunities for future GCC relations and the social fabric of the Gulf after the summit. Alghannam emphasized that the lack of effective communication within the GCC and trust between key states compromised the security of the region, yet he was optimistic about this change after Al-Ula summit. Then, Al-Ansari explained that Qatar’s established progress in terms of food and commodity security would likely limit intraregional trade levels from going back to pre-2017 levels. Al Shayji stressed the need to manage the divergent, strategic policies of the GCC states. Finally, Al-Ketbi expressed her hope for establishing GCC institutions, such as a regional court, to promote active discussion within the bloc. She also noted that the interwoven social fabric of the Gulf promises a return to normal relationships in the near future.