What to expect from this year's GCC summit in Riyadh

As the 39th Gulf Cooperation Council summit approaches, analysts say ‘symbolic’ body will not address ongoing crisis.

    Gulf leaders will meet in Riyadh for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on Sunday amid questions about whether Qatar will attend as a diplomatic crisis continues to grip the region.

    The 39th GCC summit comes amid an ongoing blockade on Qatar imposed in June 2017, by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

    The quartet has accused Qatar of supporting “terrorism” and Qatar has denied the charges and said the boycott aims to impinge on its sovereignty.

    Experts say it remains unclear how the upcoming summit will affect the ongoing dispute, as the “largely-symbolic” body has for years abandoned its functional role of building closer ties between member states.

    “Since the first [GCC] crisis popped up in 2014, the council demonstrated its inability to mediate nor to have a significant role in easing tensions between … member states,” Luciano Zaccara, a Gulf politics researcher at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera. 

    A GCC ‘tradition’

    The GCC, a political and economic alliance of countries in the Arabian Peninsula, was established in 1981 to foster socioeconomic, security, and cultural cooperation.

    Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE gather every year to discuss cooperation and regional affairs.

    But the “tradition” has now become a tool for Saudi Arabia to maintain its role as a regional power, according to Mahjoob Zweiri, Director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University.

    Without the council, Saudi Arabia has no power in the region,” Zweiri told Al Jazeera.

    It puts Saudi Arabia in the leadership position both economically, and more so politically. That’s why they insist on maintaining the GCC council,” Zweiri said.

    Given last December’s summit in Kuwait was cut short, many questioned whether this year’s would take place altogether. At the time, the UAE announced it had formed an economic and military partnership with Saudi Arabia separate from the GCC.

    But this year’s meeting also comes amid pressure from the West, Zweiri noted. The United States – a GCC ally – and Europe say the council is vital for keeping the region secure from Saudi’s archrival, Iran.

    Last year’s summit was attended by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, but Doha has yet to confirm whether it is sending representation, despite Riyadh’s invitation this year.

    The address was the first official letter extended from the Saudi king to Sheikh Tamim since the beginning of the GCC rift, but Zweiri described the move as a mere formality, rather than an indication of the kingdom’s willingness to resolve the crisis.

    It is a tradition that the host country has to invite all of the council’s members – it’s merely a formality,” he said.

    ‘Ball in Qatar’s court’

    While the agenda of this year’s summit has not been made public, experts predict that the Gulf crisis will not be a top priority.

    They agree that the summit and Riyadh’s invitation to Qatar will subtly portray to the world that “the ball is now in Qatar’s court” – but it will not actively address the dispute.

    This is why Qatar, which has no interest in presenting itself as being distant from the council, will likely send a “lower delegation”, Zweiri said.

    According to Zaccara, if the invitation is rejected, the blockading countries may accuse Qatar of lacking the will to “sit down and talk”, which is why a delegation of some level will likely attend.

    “This will demonstrate that the Qatar government was never reluctant to engage in a direct dialogue,” he said.

    Similarly, Jocelyn Sage Mitchell, assistant professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, believes that Qatar’s participation in the summit would allow the country to “maintain the high road” in the current diplomatic crisis.

    It would also give Doha an opportunity to refute allegations that it is insufficiently supportive of its fellow Gulf monarchies, Mitchell said.

    Earlier this month, Sheikh Tamim said he regretted the continuation of conflict with other Arab states, but said that the “crisis will pass“.

    Apart from formalities, the GCC council maintains value as a “forum for economic coordination”, despite the body’s lack of political power, according to Mitchell.

    “Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar gain something from continuing to participate in this organisation,” she told Al Jazeera, referencing the GCC-wide value added tax (VAT) project that was intended to assist Gulf states with budget deficits and as a way to increase non-oil revenues.

    “Saudi Arabia would like to see Qatar commit to implementing the VAT in 2019 as this would provide some political cover for Saudi Arabia’s financial need for this tax,” Mitchell explained.

    Summit as Saudi ‘platform’

    This year’s summit also comes amid the diplomatic crisis over Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination, which has put Riyadh in the dock.

    Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who lived in self-imposed exile in the United States, was killed inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in early October.

    Under mounting pressure over the Khashoggi killing, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) last month praised Qatar’s economy in a rare conciliatory remark.

    As Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, MBS in particular, has come under scrutiny over the country’s involvement in the war in Yemen, which has caused thousands of civilian deaths, as well as its intensifying crackdown on public dissent in Saudi Arabia. 

    According to Zweiri, Riyadh may use this year’s summit as a platform to present itself as a victim of international pressure.

    There will be a repetition of events, with no substance, with nothing new,” Zweiri said of the upcoming summit and its possible agenda. “But it [Saudi Arabia] may try to present itself as a victim … of everything, including the Khashoggi murder”.

    What next?

    With the GCC unable to resolve the crisis, analysts say the organisation itself has proven to be futile, both politically and to an extent, economically.

    Experts with whom Al Jazeera spoke, agree that Saudi is not interested in starting a process to achieve a negotiated solution for the current spat, but insist it is in both Riyadh and Qatar’s best interest to remain in the council for now.

    Since the crisis began, Qatar has secured new strategic alliances, most notably with Turkey.

    Sheikh Tamim said on Tuesday that the nation had grown its exports by 18 percent and slashed spending by 20 percent over the past year.

    Addressing Qatar’s Shura Council, he added his country would continue to develop its oil and gas industries as it is eager to preserve its status as the top liquefied natural gas exporter in the world.

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