The Rift in the GCC and Diplomatic Responses from the IGAD Region

David Hearst, a British expert on Middle East affairs, recently surprised the host of an Aljazeera TV program when he quipped that the same programme might be the last one for Aljazeera. Emphasizing the centrality of Aljazeera TV in the rift in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), he characterized the crisis as a precursor for a grand regime change conspiracy carried out by the Saudi-led camp supported by the Trump administration. Indeed, looking at the Saudi-led camp’s 13 impossible-to-meet-demands, one is forced to question if this not indeed a demand for regime change.

The Saudi camp constitutes Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain with the strong support of Egypt and Israel, and impulsive support from the USA. The Qatar camp has strong support from Turkey and tacit support from Iran. Oman and Kuwait remain neutral, with the latter trying to mediate. Other significant players include Israel, Egypt, Iran and Turkey, the latter two being major actors. Iran and Turkey are both key participants in any Middle Eastern geopolitical and geo-economic calculations.

The Saudi-led camp took a strong stand supporting the coup by Field Marshal al-Sisi against the former President Morsi. The UAE and Egypt took counter-measures against the rise of the Muslim brotherhood as core diplomatic objectives. Since 2014, President al-Sisi’s government has received 25 Billion USD worth of aid from the UAE. With 600 companies, the UAE’s investment in Egypt amounts to 5 Billion USD. Being the most powerful military and political force in the Middle East, with its cultural and historical legacy, as well as hosting the League of Arab States, Egypt has been at the centre of Saudi-Iran proxy wars, as well as the rift between the GCC and Turkey’s Erdogan Model for Democracy.

Naturally, with strong ties to the GCC and the Western World, these powers have repeatedly made attempts to bring Egypt under their influence by providing various kinds of incentives, including finance. Such financial and other kinds of support to Egypt has come from all the GCC countries apart from Qatar. The Egyptian diaspora in the GCC, and particularly in the UAE exhibits significant influence in numbers and in influence in bureaucratic and business circles. With close to 400,000, Egypt has the third largest diaspora located in the UAE, following India and Pakistan. Compounded by the UAE’s support of Egypt and Egypt’s rivalry with the Nile riparian countries, the position of some of the countries in East Africa was bound to be cautious.

The theories about the rift within the GCC are all too familiar. Qatar is reportedly a state sponsor of terrorism, and thus needs to be reprimanded and if necessary its leadership toppled. Saudi Arabia is not subject to similar accusations of having abated some terrorist organizations. On the contrary, the countries of the IGAD region, as with other parts of the world, believes that terrorist groups have links to the Saudi-camp too. But more precise reasons for the GCC rift reside somewhere else.

The first reason is the independent minded Qatari leadership. Not only the so-called Islamic State Caliphate, but any democratic elements in Qatar such as Aljazeera, political Islam or elections, also threaten the other kingdoms of the GCC. The second reason that lies deep within this crisis is the very survival of the Kingdoms and Emirates of the GCC. Since the Arab Spring uprisings and the emergence of Islamic State (IS) (which seems now on the verge of collapse, at least in the Middle East, as former President Obama predicted four years ago), the threat to the stability of the ruling monarchies in the GCC has increasingly become critical. In addition to the common front fighting against Iranian dominance, GCC countries are ruled by absolute monarchs who reject any form of republican democratic rule. As a result, they are resistant to any kind of democratic dispensation in the region as well as in the Horn of Africa.

The third reason relates to the rivalry for regional dominance between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and to an extent Egypt. President Barack Obama’s doctrine of ‘leading from behind’ left the Middle East countries to fend for their peace and security challenges. This strategy suddenly created a leadership vacuum. In order to fill this vacuum, a power struggle emerged between regional powers, mainly Saudi Arabia (leading the GCC), Iran and to an extent Turkey. The fourth reason relates to the USA’s current extremely volatile and unpredictable foreign policy decisions dependent on the personality of President Trump. The US President’s decisions have genuinely puzzled many experts and politicians alike. There is also apparent discrepancies between President Trump and his secretaries of State and Defence on the issue of Qatar-GCC relations. If not for Trump’s baffling position, a more nuanced American policy could have easily averted the rift in the GCC.

To be sure, the Saudi-camp is far from a bloc unified in terms of its foreign policy. Except for the GCC’s obvious security dilemma, the Saudi-camp remains amorphous in its foreign policy. The Saudi camp’s attack on Qatar was quickly woven together and it may disintegrate just as quickly.

Three issues serve as the glue between the GCC countries: fear of Iranian politics and religious sectarianism, their status as absolute monarchies unconditionally opposed to any democratic dispensation, and the need for their individual and collective security bolstered by the support of the USA. President Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy pronouncement (better call it Trump Twitter diktat) has helped to fortify this glue. Qatar is an outsider in all these unifying factors. Qatar’s relationship with Iran is not as fragile as with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar’s public space is also relatively more open than Saudi Arabia, and its government is much more progressive than the Saudi-led camp. Qatar allows media outlets such as Aljazeera to operate and the USA makes use of Qatar as a military base. Qatar serves as a middle ground for various transactions, even with extremist groups such as the Taliban.

Four pillars underpinning the foreign and even domestic policy of the UAE are trade, tourism, counter terrorism (and the rise of Muslim Brotherhood movements), and countering Iranian domination. Islam is not treated as a state doctrine that dictates the policies of the UAE. In contrast, the other Gulf states follow a sharia-led foreign policy that is similar to that of Saudi Arabia. Saudi’s foreign and domestic policy revolves around Sunni Wahhabism, the protection of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and the best interests of the ruling Kingdom. Similarly, the core of the foreign policy of Qatar and Kuwait resides in religion and the influence of their respective monarchies.

Now, the rift in the GCC has added another layer of distrust and animosity between some of the IGAD and GCC countries, but has also added fuel to simmering uncertainty, insecurity and animosity among some of the countries in the IGAD region. But, what will be the consequences of the fallout of the GCC rift in the IGAD region?

The GCC rift and its fallout provide quintessential examples of how the IGAD region is intertwined to the Middle East. The two regions belong to the same religious, historical, trade and migration sphere of influence. Geographic proximity to the Red Sea, historical, cultural and religious ties, trade, the diaspora and migration, as well as security closely link the Horn of Africa with the countries of the Middle East. Three Abrahamic religions; Islam, Christianity, and Judaism bind the two regions. The holiest sites of Mecca and Medina, and Jerusalem, are traditional pilgrimage destinations for the various religious adherents in the region.

GCC countries host large business and diaspora communities as well as migrant labourers from the Horn of Africa, particularly Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. The link with the Horn of Africa extends to trade in livestock, charcoal and other exports to the UAE and other GCC countries. Similarly, the UAE exports large quantities of merchandise to the Horn of Africa. Recently, the UAE sought to invest in Port management, manufacturing and agriculture in the Horn of Africa.

The Horn of Africa was, and still is, the subject of global competition between Christianity and Islam, extensions of Western colonialism and Ottoman-Egyptian expansion, a US-EU led Western World and Chinese rivalry, the Arab-Israeli conflict, in addition to Iranian and Saudi-led GCC enmity. The Middle Eastern countries that have used the Horn of Africa as a battleground for proxy wars and the expansion of various versions of Islam. In recent decades, countries of the GCC and the Horn of Africa have become victims of terrorism and violent extremism. Islamic violent extremist ideological and financial support has its roots and source in the GCC. The Red Sea and the Nile river play critical roles in the relations between the Arab world and the Horn of Africa.

For a long time, the diplomatic relations between the GCC and the Horn of Africa were, and currently are, characterized by mutual assured distrust and animosity mainly in religion and security issues. The establishment of GCC military naval and air force bases has exacerbated the distrust even more. While generally following Saudi Arabia, the UAE also competes against Qatar’s increasing global influence, particularly in Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, etc.

Qatar is a small country with a big diplomatic role in the Horn of Africa. Qatar has played an even more prominent role of mediation in Darfur, Djibouti – Eritrea, and has given direct support to state and non-state political actors in Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Enterprisingly, the UAE also aspires to serve as a manufacturing hub by purchasing agricultural products from Africa and the rest of the world, then processing, packing and selling such products internationally. While Qatar will host the football World Cup, Dubai will be similarly hosting the World Trade Exposition. Furthermore, Dubai aims to become a global tourism hub by doubling the current 10 million visitors per annum. The UAE’s trade in Africa has increased, but mainly in the East African Community such as Kenya, Tanzania etc.

The GCC rift is suffocating the Horn of Africa. The Saudi-camp is demanding loyalty from the Horn of Africa. In the IGAD region, while Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia (Somaliland) supported the Saudi-camp, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia took a neutral stand. Consistent with its previous position in the Yemen conflict, Ethiopia also adopted a neutral stance in the rift within the GCC. Unlike in the Yemeni conflict, Sudan and Somalia (Somaliland unequivocally supports the Saud-camp) also announced their neutral stance. Obedience to the Saudi camp has characterized Somalia’s position for many years.

Attempting to take a neutral stance, the newly formed Federal Government of Somalia has found itself between a rock and a hard place. Somalia’s leadership is acutely aware of its sovereign right to make a foreign policy decision and its dependence for aid on Middle Eastern countries. Close to a million members of the Somalian diaspora live in GCC countries, the biggest concentrations being in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. They send remittances to their families, engage in exports (mainly livestock, meat, charcoal and fruits), and import consumer items as well as services such as aviation services and shipping operations between Somalia and the UAE.

Djibouti swiftly announced its unequivocal support for the Saudi-camp against Qatar (with the support of Iran and Turkey). Before the GCC rift, the cordial relations between Eritrea and Qatar faced a serious setback after the Libyan uprising in 2011, when GCC countries actively supported NATO’s intervention in Libya. Between 2011-2015, Qatar significantly reduced its engagement with Eritrea, as it boosted its diplomatic and economic engagement with Ethiopia. The GCC rift led to Qatar’s withdrawal from Djibouti-Eritrea, and Eritrea’s takeover of disputed areas. This could trigger a strong Ethio-Djibouti and IGAD reaction against the Eritrean government’s opportunistic belligerent action.

For a long time, Sudan had rough relations with the Saudi-led camp (for that matter with all GCC countries except Qatar). Since 1992, when diplomatic relations froze for almost a decade until 1999, Sudan was considered the strongest ally of Iran, the arch foes of the Saudi-led GCC countries. The rapprochement began with the termination of Iranian non-diplomatic activities in Sudan in 2014. Sudan also actively supported the 2011 Libyan uprising and even sent troops to fight against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who was supporting rebel groups in Sudan aiming to topple President Bashir. This was an additional reason for swift rapprochement with the GCC countries. The position of the USA in support of the Saudi-camp may also have contributed to the decision of some of the IGAD countries to sever ties with Qatar.

In addition to the rift in the GCC, two other major international crises—mainly the Yemen crisis and the migration crisis in Europe, brought significant changes to diplomatic alliances in the IGAD region. The political conflict in Yemen, which is an extension of the problems of the Middle East, and the Migration debacle in the European Union has significant bearings on the diplomatic and power relations of countries of the Horn of Africa. In a bid to gain diplomatic and military support from the Horn of Africa, the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen (fighting the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels) has solicited and gained varied levels of support from states such as Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Egypt and more recently, Djibouti. With regard to the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni conflict, only Ethiopia maintained its stance of neutrality and did not freeze its diplomatic relations with Iran so as to support Saudi Arabia.

In a bid to stem the flow of refugees from the IGAD region including from Eritrea, the EU, in its crisis mode response, embarked upon a policy of rapprochement with Eritrea and Sudan. Convergence of European financial aid and support may resuscitate the cash-strapped national armies and economies in the region. More critically, Ethiopia’s decade-long policy of military containment and diplomatic isolation of Eritrea is being undermined by powerful actors with interests in the rift within the GCC, the Yemen conflict and the European Migration crisis.

Unrealistic demands by the Saudi-camp have become overly familiar. Now Qatar can reasonably be expected to reject the legitimacy of the sanctions conditions. This makes the rift much harder to fix in the short term. Qatar is trying hard to swim against the tide. Qatar has done well so far in taking the hard decision to withstand the weight of the Saud-led camp plus the whims of President Trump. But that is a tall order to sustain for a long time.

The long-standing cultural, religious and historical ties, economic opportunities, and geographical proximity between the IGAD region and the Middle East make robust cooperation between the two regions natural and desirable. Nevertheless, such ties have done little to foster constructive partnerships. For the IGAD region, a new and urgent reading of the imperatives of foreign relations and diplomacy is in order.

It is reported that in the 1960s a joke went around Budapest about a man buying tea. When asked: which tea do you want- Russian or Chinese? he replied: I will have coffee instead. In the same way, the IGAD region should seek to not be part of any allegiance to any of the warring blocs in a war that is not its own. Africa should only take a stand towards mediated solutions to the GCC rift and other conflicts in the Middle East and in Africa. In such events and crises, no matter how much one plans, circumstances often dictate the results.

The outcome of such a rift does not yield benefits to individual country actions. Hence, the IGAD region and for that matter, African cooperation with the Middle East, needs to shift its focus towards the economic front in matters of trade, investment and tourism. The IGAD region presents an excellent opportunity for the Middle Eastern countries for trade and investment due to the size of its population and natural resources. At the same time the IGAD region could benefit immensely from development, investment in Middle Eastern countries and trade with them, particularly in agriculture, skilled labour mobility, livestock and related products and resources, as well as other areas of cooperation.


* Originally published on Ethiopian Reporter on July 1, 2017.

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