A summit of Gulf Arab leaders billed as sealing a reconciliation after months of vitriol was described as the “happy summit” by their club’s secretary general, but despite pledges of unity from its members, mistrust persists.
“We cannot be sidetracked by differences over details,” said Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim, who hosted Tuesday’s meeting. His words were a call to unity, but also an implicit message to Doha’s Gulf critics to cease criticism of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, seen by neighbours as a dangerous enemy.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, is the most stable and prosperous bloc in the Middle East, but its influence on Arab affairs has been weakened by infighting.
In March, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors from Qatar over its backing of Islamists and only returned them last month after intensive mediation by Kuwait aimed at allowing the summit to go ahead.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Gulf officials had eagerly trailed the expected announcement of a new joint military command centre, to be based in Riyadh and with each country pledging military units that it could call upon in crisis.
But the final statement only voiced satisfaction on efforts to reach this goal, which was first announced in 2012 and agreed to pursue it further with more studies. A joint police unit, to be based in Abu Dhabi and focus on security issues, was set up.
“They wanted this summit to be a success, so they have decided not to talk about the things they still disagree on,” said a Gulf political analyst.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a UAE political scientist, said the alliance was operating on “minimum” cooperation, suggesting that even holding of the summit was something of an achievement.
“The fact this meeting took place in Doha was a positive. A few weeks back we didn’t expect it,” he said.
The biggest bone of contention since the Arab spring, when Saudi Arabia called on the bloc to move to the stage of “unity as a single entity”, has been Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood viewed with deep suspicion by other Gulf states.
Qatar’s eviction of some Brotherhood members and its promises to fellow GCC states not to give the group a platform inside the Gulf were enough for a formal reconciliation, but they did not resolve continued disputes over foreign policy.
There are also differences over policy towards Iran, which both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain see as a mortal foe, and over the group’s ultimate form. Some of its members fear further integration would lead to their domination by its most populous member Saudi Arabia.
IRAN, EGYPT, LIBYA
Since it was founded in 1981 to close Arab ranks against Iran’s revolution, the GCC has strengthened ties in a crisis, but done little to advance a supposed goal of greater unity.
The group’s annual summits regularly call for closer ties, but longstanding efforts to achieve a customs union, a missile shield and other goals have made little apparent headway.
The efforts to demonstrate goodwill extended to the group’s decision to praise Oman for the role it played in hosting secret talks between the United States and Iran, as a precursor to last year’s deal for formal negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear plans.
The GCC supports the talks — provided they ensure Iran cannot gain atomic military capability — but in private Saudi officials had been furious about Muscat’s role in helping the deal happen, diplomats in the Gulf said at the time.
Although the group made a statement of support for Egypt, whose government has been at daggers drawn with Qatar over its backing of the Brotherhood, there was no announcement of any new initiative to restore ties between Doha and Cairo.
While they agreed to condemn the role of militias in Libya, they did not specify which were more to blame in a conflict where Qatar and the UAE continue to back opposing armed forces.
The summit was cut short from two days to one at the last minute. “We agree on all the issues so we don’t need more time. We read this as a very positive and healthy indication,” a Gulf official told Reuters.