Thursday December 6, 2018
By Bobby Ghosh
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Photographer: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images
Quitting OPEC won’t mean very much. Quitting the Gulf Cooperation Council would have far costlier repercussions.
Qatar’s surprise decision to leave OPEC, announced for maximum effect ahead of the organization’s meeting this week in Vienna, has inevitably raised questions about whether it might also quit the Gulf Cooperation Council. The GCC’s annual summit is Dec. 9 in Riyadh, and a similar announcement would undoubtedly irritate and embarrass Saudi Arabia. Tempting as this might be, the Qataris would do well to stay put.
The explanations offered by Qatar for its withdrawal from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries after 57 years could easily — indeed, more convincingly — be used to justify an exit from the GCC.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, Qatar’s former prime minister, has tweeted that OPEC “is only being used for purposes aimed at harming our national interest.” That goes double for the GCC, where two of its six members — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — are prime movers in the economic blockade of Qatar. (The blockade has been going on for 18 months and counting, and it stems from Saudi accusations that Qatar is destabilizing the region by cozying up to Iran, charges Doha contests.)
The inability of the GCC to resolve the dispute has underscored the council's limitations. Qatar may now believe that it has nothing materially to gain from continued membership.
But here’s the twist: Exiting OPEC, a powerful cartel with a real impact on world affairs, will cost Qatar little, being a minor-league oil producer with little influence on the group's decisions; leaving the GCC, an ineffectual grouping that has little impact on regional affairs, could cost it a lot. If Qatar were to pull out, it would reinforce the Saudi-Emirati claim that the ruling family in Doha is undermining the Arab consensus. Staying in the alliance allows Qatar to signal that it is committed to regional cooperation, putting the onus for ending the blockade on the Saudis and Emiratis.
It is always possible that the Saudis and Emiratis will try to beat Qatar to the punch and kick it out of the GCC. But that would require them to convince Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain, the three other members, to go along. While Bahrain tends to follow Saudi Arabia in most matters, Kuwait and Oman have chafed at what they regard as Saudi bullying, and they have remained steadfastly neutral on the blockade. (The Kuwaitis have said they’d like to see efforts to resolve the “long-standing Gulf dispute” at the summit next week.)
More important, any attempt to expel Qatar would not go down well in Washington. The U.S. regards Arab unity as essential to confronting Iran; President Donald Trump is keen to create an "Arab NATO." To that end, the Trump administration would like the Saudis to improve relations with Qatar, not further the estrangement.
Of course, being forced to put up with Qatar in the GCC would irritate the Saudis to no end — reason enough for the Qataris to want to stay.