Trump Blows Up The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

Trump Blows Up The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

Well, maybe it has blown itself up, but Trump’s supposedly triumphant visit to Saudi Arabia looks to have exacerbated underlying tensions within the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose members include Saudi Arabia (KSA), Kuwait,Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman. This was the part of Trump’s overseas trip that most US media has accepted as being a nearly great performance without any goofups (the trip steadily going downhill after that), with him getting over $100 billion in arms sales to the Saudis, and, aside from theatrics like sword dancing and holding glowing globes, getting to lecture 50 Muslim Arab leaders about what to do about terrorism, while also supporting their Sunni animus against Iran, this last part being what has led to the most recent problems. What has happened most recently, is reported by Francis Ghiles of OpenDemocracy as linked to by Juan Cole, with even more serious details reported by Washington Post reporter Kristen Coattes Ulrichesn (this link is to Marginal Revolution Monday assorted links, go to the one called “The cut-off that is Qatar,” sorry original WaPo link not working for me). This is also a followup to my earlier post here about Trump’s Saudi visit.

According to Ghiles, the split has opened up dramatically thanks to Trump siding strongly with the most hawkishly anti-Iran members of the GCC. Those nations happen to be Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which are actively involved in the disastrously bogged-down war in Yemen, where evidence is weak that Iran is even providing anything significant to the Houthis who currently control northern Yemen and the capital of Sana’a and are Zaydi Shia. Many reports show a major humanitarian disaster unfolding in that nation, which appears to be in the process of splitting into at least three, if not four, failed pieces, with the UAE apparently supporting South Yemen secessionists who recently took control of the airport in Aden (not clear what Saudis think of that,; this last bit not in any of the linked posts). The key players are Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), and the Abu Dhabi Crown Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (Abu Dhabi one of the 7 emirates in the UAE), both of whom have gotten close to Jared Kushner. Another nation more or less in their camp, if not quite as close to Kushner, is Bahrain, home to a US naval base, where the ruling minority Sunni monarchy killed a bunch of peacefully demonstrating Shia a few days after Trump left Riyadh, having promised not to “lecture” them about human rights (although he was prepared to lecture US allies in Europe about all sorts of things).

So the big news that Ulrichsen presents is a bizarre campaign in various social media and regular media, especially in KSA and UAE against Qatar, claiming that its Emir Tammim made a speech on May 23 to a graduating group of military cadets in which he supposedly said that Iran was a “stabilizing presence in the Gulf,” that Hama was the legitimate ruler of Gaza, and complained about “tense” relations with the Trump administration.. Indeed, these claims were apparently made on Qatar TV on May 24, only to be retracted and taken down soon after. The Qataris claim that this report was hacked into Qatar TV, and observers at Tammim’s talk claim that he never said any of this. But this report spread widely in the Arab world, being repeated in Egypt, Libya, and some other locations as well, and apparently both the Saudi and UAE media have continued to pound away with this story even as the Qataris are claiming it never happened and that they were hacked. A serious irony is that to the extent this is all about Qatar being insufficiently anti-Iran, especially in Yemen, Qatar sent 1000 troops to Yemen in 2014 at the special request of Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), who apparently personally lobbied Tammim hard on this.

In any case, whether or not there is tension between the Trump administration and Tammim, he has not visited Washington, while MbS and MbZ have done so several times, and they clearly have the ears of Kushner and Trump, as well as Trump’s hands on that glowing globe. With his strongly anti-Iran talk in Riyadh, Trump has exacerbated the divisions within the GCC, where, apparently Qatar has been in open disagreement about the seriousness of the Iran threat with KSA, UAE, and Bahran for some time.

What about the other two GCC members not openly caught up in this? Presumably they are somewhere in between these others, and apparently at least somewhat sympathetic to the Qatari view that Iran is not quite the big threat that KSA has been claiming, with the Saudis the big dogs in the GCC, which they have long viewed as their rump puppies who should do as they are told. Indeed, there have been scattered reports that Kuwait in particular has been less keen on all the loud anti-Iran rhetoric, with them having some special credibility as they are the GCC nation second closest to Iran, so that if Iran is in fact contemplating some invasion as MbS has loudly claimed, Kuwait would be a likely target, if nothing else to be on the pathway for an army to get to KSA after briefly passing through Iraq where it borders the Persian Gulf (last time Iran invaded a neighbor was in the 1820s).

Oh, which leaves the ever-so quiet sixth GCC member, Oman, which actually has a border with Iran and shares the strategically crucial Strait of Hormuz through which all the oil coming out by sea from the Persian Gulf passes through. They also neighbor Yemen as well as KSA and UAE. They are not reported to have said anything, and almost certainly will not, and they have no troops in Yemen, where they are staying uninvolved. But nobody wants to mess with them for at least two reasons. One is the obvious matter of their sharing the crucial Strait of Hormuz with Iran. The other is that they do not share the Sunni sectarian biaz against Shia Iran. They are the only nation in the world not to be led by a Muslim sect that is either Sunni or Shi’i, the Ibadi sect. As a result, they prefer to stand back from this insane Sunni-Shia war, although, partly to keep the Saudis and UAE off their backs, they are formally in the GCC and regularly approve resolutions approved by its fellow members. But Oman goes its own way, if ever so discretely.

Probably the most important sign of their willingness to act independently although also secretly, is that it was through their auspices that the initial contacts were made by the Obama administration when it began to approach Iran about engaging in the ultimately successful negotiations that led to the nuclear deal, a deal strongly opposed by both KSA and Israel on the surface, but amazingly enough not yet undone by Trump, despite his having denounced it during the campaign as “the worst deal ever made.” On that matter, Putin may have been a good influence, whose foreign minister, the ineffable Sergei Lavrov, played a crucial role in getting that deal done. Paris agreement supported by all nations on the planet except Syria and Nicaragua? Not a problem blowing it off. But somebody has gotten to Trump to convince him to leave alone the Iran nuclear deal, even as he has ramped up anti-Iran rhetoric in a way that has apparently triggered or encouraged this blowup within the GCC, and let us hope that he continues to leave it alone. But Oman is having none of these wild anti-Iran shenanigans, and nobody is going to mess with them about it.

Barkley Rosser