Arabian Peninsula in Deadly Grip of Coronavirus
It is quite clear that the Coronavirus has resulted not only in a significant impact on people and their health, and in a negative effect on economics and politics but also in the break-up of fragile alliances that were the pride of many nations at some point in the past. For example, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG or the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC) has come to the end of the road as of recently.
It was established as far back as 1981 in Riyadh and comprised a number of nations of the Persian Gulf. The author believes that Saudi Arabia aimed to consolidate its power via the GCC in this important part of the world. At the time, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were part of the alliance. It is important to point out that the former ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, always had a unique independent stance on many major issues and was often at odds with Saudi monarchs. He was one of the few Arab leaders who did not sever ties with Egypt after the latter had signed the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in 1979. In 1994, Oman became the first Arab nation of the Persian Gulf to host a serving Israeli Prime Minister (still the two nations do not have diplomatic relations with each other)
The Sultanate of Oman maintained a friendly relationship with Iran, a rival of its allies – the United States and Saudi Arabia. From 2013 to 2014, informal negotiations between the USA and Iran on restricting the latter’s nuclear program took place in Muscat, the capital of Oman. In March 2015, the Sultanate of Oman chose not to join the coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, which then conducted air strikes against Houthi rebels who had seized power in Yemen. Diplomatic contacts between the Houthis and the Yemeni government continued in Muscat. In 2017, in line with its foreign policy built on neutrality, Oman decided not to go along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt, and chose not to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar. This helped Doha survive the economic blockade initiated by the Arabic nations. It would seem that all of the aforementioned examples are sufficient to demonstrate that the former Sultan followed an independent policy, and often did not consult with Saudi monarchs on issue that arose. The current Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, is not particularly keen on cooperating very actively with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud either or in taking part in his “escapades”.
Bahrain, on the other hand, has always supported Riyadh’s policy course because this island nation is dependent on Saudi Arabia’s generous financial help. It is also important to point out that the majority Shia population of this nation, with its largely positive view of Iran, is ruled by the Al Khalifa dynasty, which professes Sunni Islam and migrated to the area in the early 18th century. In addition, since Bahrain was a dependency of the Persian Empire before the arrival of the clan, it is possible that Iran still continues to lay claim to the island nation.
In March 2011, based on the decision of the GCC, the Saudi-led intervention helped the Bahraini government suppress a pro-democracy uprising in the country. Mainly Shia residents of the fairly small kingdom, who make up the majority of the population, took part in the protests against the Sunni Al-Khalifa ruling family. Since then, the number of courts cases involving members of Bahrain’s opposition have increased significantly, and hundreds of dissidents are currently under arrest or are awaiting sentencing. Some have even had their citizenship revoked. From Bahraini leadership’s viewpoint, the opposition movement is supported by Iran, which would like to see the government overthrown in the kingdom.
Bahrain supports Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian stance too. And in January 2016, the Bahraini rulers gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave their country. They explained that the move was made in support of its ally Saudi Arabia’s decision to sentence a Shia cleric to death. The execution caused a great deal of concern among the Iranian leadership.
In 2014, a conflict between Saudi Arabia (with support from Bahrain and the UAE) and Qatar erupted within the CCASG. In March 2014, Riyadh withdrew its Ambassador from Doha and then so did Bahrain and the UAE. The three nations issued a joint statements that accused Qatar of failing to comply with the terms of the Riyadh Agreements of 2013 on security in the GCC, and of continuing to cooperate with organizations that threatened the safety and stability of the Council’s member states. The entities in question include the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist group banned in Russia. The dispute was settled only in November of the same year when five members of the Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait) signed the Riyadh Supplementary Agreement. But then the conflict erupted with renewed intensity and remains unresolved to this day, thus clearly posing a threat to CCASG’s cohesion and Saudi Arabia’s dominance in the Arabian Peninsula.
Taking into account the importance of Bahrain’s strategic location and of its support, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, despite his old age and numerous illnesses, paid a visit to Manama last year. It is important to point out that he arrived in the nation a day after Kuwait had signed an agreement with Bahrain to support the economy of the island kingdom as part of a financial aid package from other Arab nations of the Persian Gulf. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledged to provide financial support amounting to $10 billion to prevent Bahrain’s “rising public debt from triggering a financial crisis”.
Still, perhaps the biggest cracks appeared in the GCC’s veneer of unity thanks to Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, who not only made Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Qatar even worse but even decided to “strangle” the people of this small brotherly nation. Another crisis in the Arabian Peninsula occurred in the summer of 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt (which joined the GCC member states) severed diplomatic ties with Qatar after accusing the latter of supporting terrorist organizations and interfering in internal affairs of other nations. The situation became even worse as a transport and economic blockade was imposed on Qatar.
Afterwards, the anti-Qatar coalition of four produced a list of demands for the emirate. They included: reducing diplomatic contacts with Iran, shutting down Al-Jazeera (a state-funded broadcaster), putting military cooperation with Turkey on “ice” and closing the Turkish military base in Qatar. Numerous analysts all came to the same conclusion that Doha was being punished for pursuing its own foreign policy, and for its unwillingness to follow Riyadh’s reckless political course, which included intervening in the civil war in neighboring Yemen by then. Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani commented on the ongoing crisis by saying that negotiations between Doha and Riyadh had stopped and not resumed. The government official said: “We have always been very open for dialogue, since the start of the Gulf Cooperation Council (regional bloc) crisis. It’s been almost three years since the crisis started. We are not the perpetrators of that crisis and we’ve been very open and clear that we are open to any genuine intention to resolve this problem.”
If we take into account the fact that the biggest American military base in the Middle East is situated in Qatar, that two Turkish bases have been established there, and that Doha’s relations with Iran have rapidly improved recently, we can understand why Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is fairly confident about the future and does not need any alliances with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, a de factor ruler of the Kingdom, who has compromised his reputation. What is more, in the past, the two countries were equally rich, but in the current climate, due to excess supply of crude oil and its rapid fall in price, Qatar, which has banked on exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), has managed to grow its wealth unlike Saudi Arabia.
And the last straw that broke CCASG’s back was the Coronavirus, which has spread “its tentacles” in all the nations of the Persian Gulf. The Gulf Cooperation Council has its own powerful military arm responsible for organizing military operations, and tactical and strategic drills, but no unit for coordinating a joint response to a bio-threat. Saudi Arabia has been especially affected by the COVID-19 outbreak because of its large area and population. Hence, it is difficult for the kingdom to effectively battle this disease. Riyadh also continues to provide generous financial support to insurgents in Idlib (Syria) and to conduct air strikes against civilian populations in cities, towns and villages in Yemen. And is it even possible to fully close the Saudi border with Yemen, which traverses deserts, or with Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE or the Sultanate of Oman in the absence of sufficient check points? The Saudi leaders are fully responsible for the current difficulties as they continue to view the Arabian Peninsula as their own fiefdom ruled by Riyadh.
In the meantime, the Coronavirus continues to ravage the nation’s population with no regard for the wishes and desires of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. So who will have to answer for all of this?
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”