The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is the multilateral platform that provides the backbone for diplomacy in the Arabian Peninsula, an area in full effervescence that sets the agenda in the Middle East. The Arab forum, divided into blocs since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, remains subject to strong internal tensions despite the diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other members of the organisation with Qatar, the fractious partner that promoted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood after the revolutionary outbreak and built bridges with Turkey and Iran, hostile actors for the group's interests.
The Al-Ula declaration, signed in January 2021 by the six GCC members, served to finally bury the hatchet after the protracted boycott of Qatar. Since then, relations with Doha have improved at all levels. They have done so, albeit unevenly. While the Saudis and Qataris have resumed direct flights, reopened land borders - in fact, the only land border that tiny Qatar has - and re-established diplomatic relations, the Emiratis and Qataris are moving more slowly. On the other hand, rapprochement between Qatar and Bahrain is virtually non-existent.
After Al-Ula, a series of contacts began between Iran and the Gulf states aimed at sealing a period of détente at the regional level, which would accommodate Iran's interests. The surprise announcement last week from Beijing of the restoration of relations between Tehran and Riyadh was the final blow. Therefore, any message from the Gulf Cooperation Council in the coming months will be decisive in taking the pulse of the process. Expectations are high.
The organisation held an important meeting in Riyadh on Wednesday. The Saudi capital hosted the 155th session of the Council of Ministers, the highest authority of the forum after the Supreme Council, the body reserved for the heads of state of the member countries. Its quarterly meetings, except in emergencies and rare exceptions, serve to outline the organisation's policies for the immediate future. Decisions are then passed to the Supreme Council, which is ultimately responsible for their approval.
مقتطفات من اجتماع الدورة (155) للمجلس الوزاري #المجلس_الوزاري#مجلس_التعاون pic.twitter.com/k2IzVCfyt8— مجلس التعاون (@GCCSG) March 22, 2023
The Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Bahrain and Oman took centre stage at the summit. The latter, Sayyid Badr Al-Busaidi, chaired the meeting, which was also attended by the organisation's secretary general, Kuwait's Jasem Mohamed Albudaiwi. The head of Omani diplomacy, who led the preliminary negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, welcomed the China-sponsored bilateral thaw. "This agreement represents an important step in the context of the common goals of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries," he told his counterparts.
"The Council expressed its hope that this agreement will constitute a positive step towards resolving differences and putting an end to all regional disputes through dialogue and diplomatic means," said the organisation's final statement, which recognised "the value of the mediation efforts" that had been made before China by both the Sultanate of Oman and Iraq, in both cases without success. But the Asian giant is not satisfied with that and intends to organise a summit between Iran and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the short term, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Yemen is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula that is not a member of the group. The evolution of the war will depend to a large extent on the recomposition of Iranian-Saudi relations. Tehran has pledged to persuade the Houthis to de-escalate the confrontation. But the Arab organisation, led by Riyadh, remains unwavering in its stance on Yemen. "The Council affirmed its full support for the Presidential Leadership Council [the internationally recognised Yemeni government] and its supporting entities to achieve security and stability," the statement said, calling on the Iranian-backed rebels to "respond to the requests of the Presidential Leadership Council to negotiate under UN supervision with the aim of reaching a political solution".
Another stumbling block to reshaping relations between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council will be the dispute over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunb. The Arab organisation again condemned "the Iranian occupation of the three islands under the sovereignty of the United Arab Emirates" and called on the Islamic Republic to abandon the three islands, and to relinquish territorial waters, airspace, the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone, as well as to resolve the dispute through "direct negotiations" or through the International Court of Justice.