The United Arab Emirates has announced the formation of a new political and military alliance with Saudi Arabia, throwing into doubt the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Gulf states’ 36-year-old political and trading bloc.
The announcement, made at a GCC summit in Kuwait City, marks the latest development in a six-month dispute that has pitted the GCC members Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Egypt, against tiny, gas-rich Qatar.
Since June the four countries have mounted a land, sea and air blockade of Qatar. Numerous efforts at mediation made by fellow Gulf states and European leaders have failed.
Saudi Arabia has accused Qatar of funding terrorism, interfering in its neighbour’s internal affairs and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Western leaders fear the Saudi action is pushing Qatar – which houses a major US military base – closer to Iran.
The new Saudi-UAE committee is bound to be seen as an alternative, if not substitute, to the malfunctioning GCC.
Both countries are strong militarily, and are likely to take a more aggressive approach towards Iran – a foreign policy hallmark of Saudi Arabia’s young, risk-taking crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia has not yet commented on the UAE announcement.
In recent weeks, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been at loggerheads in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is trying to sponsor a Palestinian peace deal that critics will say concedes too much to Israel.
It is not clear if Bahrain is going to join the grouping, or was invited to do so.
The new formation came despite calls for unity by the GCC secretary general, Abdullatif al-Zayani.
Opening the summit, the Kuwaiti foreign minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid, insisted GCC leaders were keen to “meet the challenges of security and stability in response to the aspirations and hopes of the Gulf people for the importance of cohesion”.
“The GCC is a continuous project in which the will of member states meets to build a unified Gulf body”.
Despite the poor state of relations across the Gulf, the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, has attended the GCC summit, and was due to meet leaders of the states mounting the boycott of Qatar.
Founded in 1981, the GCC is a political and economic union grouping Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.
Britain had been keen to negotiate an early post-Brexit free trade deal with the GCC, and at one stage was going to host the GCC summit in London in a diplomatic display of unity with the Gulf states. But the collapse in relations within the GCC in the summer has put the plans on hold.
The Gulf states have approved a customs union, a common market, a single currency and a single central bank but most of these plans have yet to be fully implemented.
In October Bahrain openly called for Qatar’s membership of the GCC to be suspended until it accepted the demands made by the four boycotting states.