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With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Published 29 May 2023
Roisin Browne

As news of the Saudi-Iran diplomatic agreement spreads, the familiar narrative of a two-sided power competition in the Middle East arises. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in which Saudi Arabia is a key player, has long been concerned with countering the growing ‘Iranian threat’. This historical rivalry has often led to the characterisation of the GCC as ‘anti-Iran’, with the remaining members of the organisation – the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait – expected to coordinate their foreign policies as per the GCC Charter’s instructions. However, as intraorganisational tensions rise and cracks continue to show, it becomes clear that the real threat to the GCC is not Iran, but itself.

The GCC was founded on the idea of a shared identity between its member states, underpinned by commonalities in ethnicity, political structure and culture that distinguished the group from other Arab states. The formation of the organisation was spurred by a common belief among the six ruling families that their regime security was interdependent and could not individually withstand threats posed by Iran’s expanding Islamic revolution and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War. The GCC thus initially served to protect the Gulf states’ security against rising military and ideological threats in the wider region, hence the birth of the idea of a Gulf alliance against Iran.

More recently, the GCC has expressed concern in relation to Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities; its missile drone attacks against Gulf states; and its support for Islamic militias in conflicts across the region.

However, the notion that the GCC functions as a ‘collective’ rests on an illusion of a Gulf consensus, driven by a binding sense of Islamic solidarity and Arab fraternity. It is this rhetoric that drives the simplistic narrative of a GCC that unilaterally works to counter threats posed by Iran. The reality is far more complicated.

Tensions over sovereignty, a history of mistrust over border issues and power imbalances have long characterised intra-GCC relations and undermined policy coordination efforts.  Intraorganisational divisions have also been exacerbated by conflicting views on Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as contrasting approaches to the popular uprisings that swept across the region during the 2011 Arab Spring. It was these differences that fuelled the Qatar diplomatic crisis, where tensions erupted and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Doha. While the 2021 Al-Ula agreement marked the end of the blockade, the crisis continues. The Gulf states have taken their fights to battlefields beyond their borders, throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.

The concept of a GCC-Iran rivalry has been inflamed by perceptions of the war in Yemen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the Hadi government and Saudi-led coalition waging a military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis. While this binary narrative partially explains the conflict, it ignores the wider complexities at play. Despite being part of the Saudi-led coalition, the UAE is supporting the Southern Transitional Council in its efforts to establish an independent South Yemen. This approach speaks to the Emirates’ vested interests in the port of Aden, but also to a grander strategy of distancing themselves from a hard-line approach to Iran in hopes of fostering diplomacy along the Strait of Hormuz. More importantly, by repeatedly antagonising Saudi-backed forces in Yemen, the UAE is able to keep Saudi Arabia bogged down in what Al-Iryani calls “a perpetual Yemeni quagmire”. With its eyes towards Yemen, Saudi Arabia has a reduced capacity to pursue dominance over the Emirates and undermine their sovereignty as it has aimed to do in the past.

These events are not unique to Yemen. Across the wider region, Qatar and the UAE vie for influence in Somalia by backing the Somali government and Somaliland authorities respectively. In Tunisia, the UAE aims to counter Qatar’s influence by engaging with key political figures and providing funding to media outlets critical of Doha. In Libya, the UAE and Qatar compete for hearts and minds by spreading their contrasting ideologies through various state-aligned media outlets. The list goes on.

As the Gulf states seek new alignments and become increasingly open to diplomatic engagement with Iran, the GCC may need to look inwards when identifying threats to its security.

Roisin Browne is a fourth-year student at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies (Politics and International Relations, Advanced French). Roisin is currently completing her honours thesis, which will focus on peacebuilding efforts by the Gulf Cooperation Council. She has formerly worked as a research assistant on a UN development project which aimed to assist small businesses and establish transparent supply chains in Tajikistan’s fruit and nut industry. Prior to this, Roisin was an intake volunteer at the Asylum Seekers Centre Newtown, where she worked with clients in order to ensure they received the welfare services that they required.

Roisin is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.