Discord and Disunity

By Evans, Kathy | The Middle East, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Discord and Disunity


Evans, Kathy, The Middle East


The lawns were mowed, the hedges clipped, flags put up and the bars closed. It was conference season once again in the Qatari capital of Doha which played host in December to the seventeenth summit of Gulf leaders.

As the regional grouping, the Gulf Co-operation Council, entered its eighteenth year of existence, questions were emerging for the first time about the use of the institution and its relevance to peoples' lives in the Gulf. Set up in the days of Iran-Iraq war to demonstrate regional solidarity in the face of the region's two superpowers, the annual lavish summit and the three days of eulogies about the rulers which accompany it were beginning to look faintly out of step with modern times.

As the Gulf leaders flew into Doha with their entourages of hundreds, they were met by an uncustomary atmosphere of free political debate. Since coming to power last year, the Qatari ruler, Sheikh Hamed bin Khalifa al Thani, has ended censorship and promised elections, reforms viewed with unease by neighbouring states. The new freedom of the airwaves was nowhere more apparent than on the emirate's new satellite television station, al Jazeirah. Each night, Gulf politicians found themselves fielding questions from the public in a series of phone-in programmes on the GCC. From Moscow to Muscat, Arabs and Gulf nationals were phoning in demanding to know what use was the GCC and whose interest it served - America's or that of Gulf nationals. "What have you done in 17 years?" demanded one angry caller from Abu Dhabi, echoing what seemed to be a popular sentiment.

Even without these difficult questions, the omens for the summit could not have been worse. Age and infirmity kept the main player, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, away, leaving the kingdom to be represented by the Crown Prince Abdullah. The Abu Dhabi ruler, Sheikh Zayed, also pleaded illness, though he appeared to be well enough to receive King Hussein of Jordan the next day. Zayed, said some observers, was still miffed at his failure to dissuade the Qatari emir from walking out from last year's summit in Muscat.

Policy differences loomed larger than ever. Just days before the conference convened, the United Arab Emirates made a plea for Iraq to be finally returned to the Arab fold. This view was supported by other southern Gulf states such as Oman and Qatar but vehemently opposed by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

There were differences, too, over what profile to maintain towards Tehran. Fears that last month's oil for food deal would strengthen Iraqi president Saddam Hussein led to a pre-summit flurry of diplomatic activity by Iranian diplomats in the Gulf, all professing their good intentions towards the region. There was little movement, though, on the problem of Iran's occupation of the three UAE islands, and little appetite by GCC states to condemn it.

The application by Yemen to join the club highlighted differences between member states on whether the council should be broadened to include all the states of the Gulf. Kuwait's foreign minister, Sheikh Sabah al Ahmed, ruled out any acceptance of Yemen on the grounds that its political system was incompatible with that of the Gulf. Despite Qatar's support for Yemen's application, the GCC gave it short shrift, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait vetoed even a discussion about it. Clearly, the most powerful states of the GCC were determined it would remain a rich man's club for ruling sheikhs.

But nowhere was the disunity of the Gulf region more apparent that in differences between the member states themselves. In an unprecedented step, Bahrain decided to boycott the summit to protest the continuing dispute with Qatar over the Hawar islands. In the days preceding the summit relations between these, the two smallest states in the GCC, worsened further. Bahrain arrested two Qataris claiming they were spies for Doha. Qatar responded, accusing the island state of torturing its nationals to secure confessions, and its emir, Sheikh Hamed, paid highly publicised visits to the families of the detainees. …

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