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View Point: The rift within GCC countries

Three Gulf monarchies – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – are so annoyed with a fellow member of the Gulf Co-operation Council, Qatar, that they have recalled their ambassadors from Doha. This was done in protest, they said, against Qatar’s interference in their internal affairs. It is hard to believe that a pro-Western emirate like Qatar would interfere in the internal affairs of Gulf kingdoms to create instability.

Differences between the trio and Qatar along with some other GCC members are not new. Qatar, supported by Kuwait and Oman, until recently even UAE, has been at odds with Saudi Arabia over leadership position, with the latter pushing for a Gulf union headquartered in Riyadh, and the Qatar-led group of three – the other two are Kuwait and Oman – resisting the move. The reason for the present divide is still fight for leadership. What brought them together to form the GCC back in 1981 was a shared desire to counter Iran’s radicalising influence. The same common interest has urged them to back Syrian opposition with arms, training and money. But a lot has changed since ’81. Qatar a small modernising emirate has attained enough confidence to entertain big ambitions. Within the context of the region’s changing political scenario, the Saudi-led trio has been arming and financing the more extremist groups while Qatar backed by Turkey has been helping moderate opposition factions battling the Assad regime.

Interestingly, however, last Thursday Saudi Arabia also issued a decree ordering its citizens fighting in Syria to return within 15 days or face imprisonment. An interior ministry decree forbade “participating in, calling for, or incitement to fighting in conflict zones in other countries.” As per another royal decree issued last month, membership of “terrorist groups” and fighting abroad can invite jail sentence of up to 20 years. Furthermore it said, supporting such groups, adopting their ideology or promoting them “through speech or writing “would also incur prison terms.” The move clearly comes out of a fear that like in the aftermath of the previous jihad in Afghanistan, these home-grown jihadists might create trouble for their own country once the Syrian situation is settled.

The decision applies only to Saudi citizens; others will continue to get all the support they need to carry on the fight. Which should be a cause of concern for us too, considering that these jihadists are very mobile. Since the war in Iraq they have been moving back and forth between Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. A recent report said that a jihadi camp in Syria has been named after our Lal Masjid. Which means some of the militants from our extremists-infested tribal areas have gone to Syria to reinforce the Islamists’ ranks there. When they are free from that jihad there is every reason for us to fear their return to create more trouble here.

The royal decree ordering Saudi citizens to stop participating in conflict in other zones or face punishment shows the kingdom is acutely mindful of the dangers freelance jihadists pose to its internal security and political stability. By the same token, such elements must not be let on the loose on other countries to endanger their security. Besides, if the first Afghan ‘jihad’ offers any lesson, it is that after the cause they are fighting for, ie, the ouster of Assad regime, is achieved the foreign jihadists will look for another cause, as did Osama bin Laden and company, wherever they can find it, including the kingdom. The project of energising jihadist fervour outside and de-energising it at home is a counterproductive endeavour.

Support for Muslim Brotherhood is another bone of contention in the divided GCC. Riyadh wary of the Brotherhood’s politics is getting obsessive about suppressing the movement. It is reported to have had a hand in the overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt. Whether or not the report is valid, Saudi Arabia was the first country to welcome president Morsi’s ouster and offer substantial financial assistance to the coup makers while Qatar alongside Turkey has been supportive of pro- Morsi protesters. In a follow-up to envoys recall, Riyadh declared Muslim Brotherhood and two al Qaeda linked Syrian jihadi groups as terrorist organisations.

At present, three English Al Jazeera journalists, including a well-known Australian journalist Peter Greste – who has previous worked with Reuters, CNN and the BBC – are in an Egyptian jail facing trial on charges of spreading false news and belonging to a “terrorist group”, namely the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian government has also kept an Arabic Al Jazeera journalist in prison without charges for over three months. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera is banned from reporting from Egypt for giving coverage to Brotherhood in its confrontation with the military government.

The movement has refused to die despite decades of suppression; it is not going to disappear either for being declared a terrorist organisation or because of a ban on Al Jazeera from reporting its side of the story. Restrictions on media freedom cannot serve any purpose in this day and age. People will still have access to independent international news channels via the Internet, and citizen journalism through the social media and cellphones. The Gulf regimes’ retrogressive ideas and oppressive policies will not help them have their way for long. Instead of fuelling extremist passions in the hope of eliminating what they see as a known threat – Iran’s influence – the GCC kingdoms can invite unknown and greater dangers to the status quo they seek to preserve. In choosing a different path Qatar may not be looking only to enhance its regional clout, but also to attain internal stability through openness and modernisation. Others too need to accept the new realities and try and adjust accordingly instead of insisting on swimming against the tide.


Saida Fazal, "View Point: The rift within GCC countries," Business recorder. 2014-03-13.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political leaders , GCC countries , Gulf situation , Terrorists , Syria , Qatar , GCC