Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Doubtful Riyadh mechanism

The recent GCC agreement in Riyadh concerning Qatar in all likelihood is damage control, rather than an actual accord with meaning, writes Mohamed Al-Said Idris

Al-Ahram Weekly

In spite of the hopes raised by the agreement on a “mechanism for the implementation of the Riyadh document” reached by the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members in their meeting on a military base near the Saudi capital on 17 April 2014, analysts remain sceptical on the feasibility of its implementation. Specifically, they question the likelihood that Qatar will renounce forms of behaviour that precipitated tensions between it and other Gulf States and ultimately induced Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha in the first week of March. That action was taken in protest at Doha’s failure to abide by an agreement reached between Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani and the Saudi monarch in Riyadh on 23 November 2013 in the presence of Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed.

One reason for the scepticism is that the official text or provisions of the mechanism have not been publicised. All that exists on public record is the joint statement released by GCC states to the press. The statement might be regarded as a kind of preamble to the “Riyadh mechanism”, but it furnishes little detail on substance and is very vague: “In the recent meeting of the foreign ministers [of the six GCC states], there was a comprehensive review of measures relating to foreign and security policies. [Participants] agreed to adopt mechanisms that ensure progress in a collective framework in a manner in which the policies of any one GCC state will not be detrimental to the interests, security or stability of any other member state or encroach on the national sovereignty of any of the GCC states.”

Secondly, the foreign ministers did not hold a joint press conference after reaching the agreement. Nor did the GCC secretary general convene a press conference to announce the agreement on behalf of member states. Neglect of such matters of protocol suggests that tensions and not just some points of disagreement continue to prevail.

Thirdly, the text of the announcement of that undeclared or unpublicised mechanism contains a significant contradiction. On the one hand, it caters to the demands of the three countries that withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar by providing that the mechanisms adopted would “ensure progress in a collective framework” and that “the policies of any one GCC state will not be detrimental to the interests, security or stability of any other member state.” On the other hand, it placates Qatar with the provision of non-encroachment on the sovereignty of any of the member states. What appears like an attempt to appease both sides suggests an agreement that has no real substance, if one exists. Judging by the announcement, Qatar can continue to do as it pleases out of respect for its “sovereignty” as long as it does not harm the other GCC members. This corresponds precisely to the Qatari viewpoint since the crisis began: Doha can conduct whatever foreign policy it likes with whatever foreign governments it likes on the condition that it does not violate its obligations under the GCC charter.

Qatar has provided a fourth reason for scepticism. Following his meeting with Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed and the Kuwaiti foreign minister on the fringes of the Higher Kuwaiti-Qatari Joint Committee (on 23 April 2014), Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled Ben Mohamed Al-Atiya stated, in reference to the “Riyadh mechanism agreement”: “The brothers in the GCC states have reached understandings. These understandings do not mean concessions.” Otherwise put, Qatar has not retracted from its previous attitudes that had triggered tensions in its relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.

Fifthly, the Riyadh mechanism agreement did not lead to the immediate return of the three ambassadors to Qatar, which suggests that Riyadh, Manama and Abu Dhabi are not fully convinced by the agreement or that they doubt that Qatar will abide by its commitments. Indeed, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled Ben Ahmed Al-Khalifa admitted as much when he stated: “The return of the ambassadors of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Doha is contingent upon Qatar’s implementation of the Riyadh agreement which laid new foundations for relations between the Gulf countries.” This was confirmed by a team of specialists from GCC countries who have been holding a series of meetings in Riyadh in order to put the provisions of the mechanism agreement into effect. A spokesman for the team stated that, “Doha has been given a period of time in order to meet its obligations under the agreement” and that, “there are conditions that Doha must meet in order for the ambassadors to return.”

All the preceding points indicate that GCC foreign ministers who met in Riyadh reached only “understandings” as opposed to “compromises” and that these understandings were only partial as the procedural details still had to be fleshed out by a team of experts.

Will the ambassadors return?

Of course they will, sooner or later. However, the question, here, underscores two important points. The first has to do with the degree to which the three countries concerned, as well as Kuwait and Oman, are convinced that Qatar can shift away from the policies and behaviour it has been following for several years. Secondly, if such a conviction is weak or non-existent, why did they agree to meet with the Qatari foreign minister in Riyadh?

A review of developments from the conclusion of the Riyadh agreement in 23 November through the 17 February 2014 GCC foreign ministers meeting in which a mechanism was drawn up to monitor Doha’s implementation of the Riyadh agreement, followed by the foreign ministers’ meeting on 4 March 2013 in which participants attempted to persuade Qatar to abide by the Riyadh agreement and after which the three countries withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, appear to confirm Qatar’s unwillingness to abide by the agreement and its determination to remain set in its ways.

This conclusion, in turn, has fed the belief that Qatar is incapable of being an active partner in the GCC framework because it entertains ambitions that far exceed its natural size and its role within that framework. Moreover, some have come to believe that Qatar has lent itself to an international project to dismantle Saudi Arabia and that it has put a variety of means and resources to the service of this project, most notably the Al-Jazeera satellite TV station. If some Gulf commentators have referred to Al-Jazeera as “Doha’s strike force” others have gone further to describe it as “the destructive army of the US State Department and the American neocons”. According to these writers, Al-Jazeera’s function for years has been “to prepare the Arab peoples to accept the strategy of the ‘new Middle East’ which entails the destruction of Arab societies and their national, religious and political composition”.

If this premise is correct one is forced to conclude that Qatar, which sees itself as historically threatened by its neighbouring Saudi giant, believes that it can only realise its own security by pursuing two strategies. One is to work towards the dismantlement of the kingdom into warring ethnic/sectarian petty states that will be incapable of threatening Qatar. The other is to develop a web of international and regional alliances that serve to bolster Doha in the face of any potential threat from Riyadh. Indeed, Doha has demonstrated just how far it is ready to go in this respect. It has allied with Iran and with Israel, but most importantly it has allied with the US. It has also demonstrated how ideologically cynical it is. While parading secularist and liberal slogans it has made common cause with the most pernicious jihadist and takfiri groups, as well as with the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda.

To Washington, Qatar is not just a major military base (the US has two large military bases on Qatari territory: Al-Udeid and Al-Saliyah), it is an inexhaustible storehouse of energy and money. And Qatar, aware of its assets, has worked to develop an intimate relation with Washington that is bound to Doha not only by the abovementioned bases but also by a Status of Forces Agreement that obliges the US to commit itself to extraordinary means to protect and support Qatar.

 When we consider the foregoing in conjunction with Qatar’s connections with tentacle-like extremist and terrorist organisations (the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda) and its intimate relation with another regional power — Ankara — we reach a two-fold conclusion. First, Qatar possesses some unconventional sources of strength compared to its fellow GCC nations. Secondly, it is convinced that it has become a powerful regional player with obligations and designs that extend beyond the Gulf and that engage powerful regional and international powers and transnational Islamist organisations. Accordingly, it is not in Doha’s interests to curtail its ambitions and shrink back into the GCC framework, which would strip it of all those sources of strength and place it once again in a dependent position beneath the Saudi wing.

Clearly, other Gulf countries have come to this conclusion and do not hold out much hope in efforts to bring Qatar back to its previous GCC commitments. But if this is the case, how do we explain the recent Saudi mediation, the Riyadh meeting and the hopeless “mechanism agreement”?

There is only one possible answer to this question. It is a form of damage control and an attempt to keep Doha in check in the framework of other important developments. Prime among these are Washington’s refusal to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, as Cairo and Riyadh have declared it. A second is the US attempt to leverage itself in the Gulf. Against the backdrop of the dispute between Qatar and the three Gulf capitals that withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, US President Obama asked to arrange for a summit with the six GCC nations on the fringes of his visit to Riyadh in March. Saudi Arabia opposed the idea, thereby putting paid to this bid. Thirdly, Iran is persisting in its attempts to exploit disputes in the Gulf and to lure Qatar into a new regional alignment, to which testifies Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s invitation to Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani to visit Tehran.

Qatar would also have its reasons for agreeing to the mediation and restoring an element of harmony in its relations with its fellow GCC nations. However, other considerations and calculations appear to outweigh such hopes or inducements to reform. Doha has an agenda that is bigger than the Gulf. If it were to return to the fold, it would have to be at the expense of Saudi weight and influence.

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