The Iran-Iraq War, and successive Gulf conflicts during the last century have wreaked havoc on the Middle East’s economic development. Religious movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, and nationalist movements like Saddam’s Ba’ath party, have locked the region into perpetual conflict. It was a period of turmoil and slaughter.
Cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi grew into cosmopolitan centers of commerce, and facilitated global trade and sustainable development of the Arabian Peninsula’s lucrative energy deposits.
At the turn of the century, however, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) established itself as a stabilizing influence in the region. Cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi grew into cosmopolitan centers of commerce, and facilitated global trade and sustainable development of the Arabian Peninsula’s lucrative energy deposits.
Founded in 1981, the GCC includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar. The bloc’s original goal was to foster unity and collaboration for cultural identity, economics, politics, and defense. Historically, this has included international relief efforts and essential infrastructure development, and the U.S. has maintained exceptionally close relations with GCC members given the security and economic benefits of doing so.
But there has been no uniform regional strategy to collectively harness this economic power, preventing the GCC from acting as effectively as it could otherwise. And although shifting sociopolitical tides within GCC countries have allowed the bloc to expand its scope and somewhat stabilize a region fraught with conflict, the group’s wealth has also been leveraged for other reasons—reasons that threaten to compromise the fragile peace in the Gulf States.
MODERNIZATION TRANSFORMS THE GCC’S SOFT POWER OBJECTIVES AND EFFORTS
Jordan, a principal beneficiary of GCC’s sponsorship, remains a strong example of how regional aid can improve stability. The GCC’s $1.36 billion Gulf Development Fund has been used to explicitly promote Jordanian economic stability. Between the strain of hosting the influx of refugees from Syria and its own ongoing political and economic struggles, Jordan’s future hinges on the ample backing from its wealthy Gulf patrons.
Between the strain of hosting the influx of refugees from Syria and its own ongoing political and economic struggles, Jordan’s future hinges on the ample backing from its wealthy Gulf patrons.
Jordan has been one of several potential investments for the tens of billions in aid funds the GCC doles out annually, much of which goes unpublicized. In the past, this aid money came with strings attached: recipients were required to incorporate certain religious frameworks into their spending, such as new school curricula.
The Arab Spring, in many ways, changed this mode of aid financing. Reforms across GCC countries are transforming the function of aid from an ideological investment towards a more secular, economic investment. The GCC region’s younger leaders have embraced this shift in soft power tactics. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s crackdown on radicalism is one prescient example.
While Saudi Arabia begins its path to modernization, other members of the GCC are similarly following suit. In the UAE, women now hold 30% of government roles, and the Bahraini Monarchy is establishing a track record of putting women in senior government positions, starting with the appointment of Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo as Ambassador to the United States from 2008 until 2013.
Still, there are exceptions—notably Qatar—which remain steadfast against the new economic ethos spreading across most of the GCC.
QATAR: THE FRINGE POLICY OUTCAST
Despite the group’s unified public face, tensions occasionally simmer between GCC members. For example, frictions between GCC members and Qatar erupted in 2017 after Saudi Arabia and UAE implemented an economic blockade, accusing Doha of violating a 2014 anti-terrorism agreement.
“The network [Al Jazeera] often touts seemingly innocuous Western-Liberal agendas in its reporting as a means to slip in subtle political messaging to a wide audience,” Jonathan Cardozo (Media Research Institute).
These fractures between Qatar and the remaining GCC constituents began as early as 2011, during the Arab Spring, largely because of media broadcast by Al Jazeera, which effectively acts as a mouthpiece for the Qatari royal family and its agenda.
Qatar’s support for the overthrow of Libya’s Ghaddafi, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, and Syria’s al-Assad was repeatedly broadcast and popularized worldwide by Al Jazeera. Although one of the primary channels for regional discourse on a wide variety of topics, Al Jazeera has provoked controversy across the Middle East since its formation in 1996. During a Euro-Mediterranean economic conference in Paris earlier this year, Jonathan Cardozo. from the Paris-based Media Research Institute, noted how subtlety is Al Jazeera’s (and effectively, Qatar’s) modus operandi. “The network often touts seemingly innocuous Western-Liberal agendas in its reporting as a means to slip in subtle political messaging to a wide audience.”
While espousing liberal western ideals on its English-facing global edition, the Arabic edition of Al Jazeera sheds any shred of secular ideology. The radical positions that the media outlet propagates on its Arabic channel are often critical towards its Emirati and Saudi neighbors, and is outwardly antagonistic to the US, continually parroting anti-Semitic tropes. Among other things, the network stands accused of inflaming tensions and inciting violence through their praise and graphic publications of terrorist attacks along with ostenbility one-sided coverage.
On top of that, Qatar’s funding for extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, plus coordination with problematic actors such as Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has drawn immense ire from its Arab neighbors. Recently, payments to Shia militias to secure the release of Qatari hostages resulted in consternation from the United States and a diplomatic blow up.
These are just a few of the grievances leveled against Qatar by GCC members. Qatar’s alleged 2022 FIFA World Cup bribery scandal and its use of political influence campaigns in Washington not only irritate the GCC, but increasingly aggravate the West. And of course, there’s Qatar’s repeated use of financial clout to extract diplomatic and political support around the world, at the expense of the regional coalition.
The GCC has demanded that Qatar cease these activities, including its support for Islamic movement. Qatar has remained defiant, exacerbating political tensions while its neighbors make sacrifices for regional stability.
THE DOUBLE DEALING EATING AWAY AT PEACE
The GCC, through its wealth and increasing modernization, can act as an effective stabilizer to a region struggling with peace and security. However, instead of subsidizing regional goals, Qatar is merely interested in promoting its own political influence at the expense of greater integration and cooperation. Its support for Islamic movements, which put it at odds with the rest of the GCC, and the propaganda dispersed through its political mouthpiece, Al Jazeera, continues to undermine the entire region’s stability.
With the GCC facing increased pressure to stabilize the region’s multiple political vacuums and quagmires, it’s unfortunate that Qatar prefers to leverage the Middle East’s fragility to spread its influence through its economic and political arsenal—to the dismay and detriment of the entire region.