‘Game of Thobes’: The contentious politics of the Persian Gulf

by Amar Diwakar   Getty Images  


The internecine spat between the monarchies of the Persian Gulf States, played out in the current Qatar Crisis – where Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain suspended diplomatic ties with Qatar as of June 5 – has sent shockwaves across the region.

The optics are pertinent: the gambit was taken proceeding Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh on May 20, where a Sunni “coalition of the willing” was courted to neutralize Iran and combat terrorist networks and its various tentacles. Ostensibly, the Saudi-UAE axis took it as an opportune moment to reign in Qatar and its quixotic foreign policy, indicting it for sponsoring Islamist groups and becoming too cordial with Tehran.

Dynastic squabbling between the Gulf’s fractious ruling families is hardly unusual. What is, however, are the harsh terms that have accompanied Qatar’s isolation, revealing the Gulf’s most acute escalation of hostilities in recent memory.  

Given that the animus behind the diplomatic row can be traced to political maneuverings that saw opposing stratagems activated during the onset of the Arab Spring (and the spiral of its counter-revolutionary aftermath), are we to comprehend Qatar’s barricade in the context of consequential regional developments? Does it mean that the Gulf’s historic pattern of alliances – particularly wedded to the US and other Western powers – is beginning to undergo a period of significant readjustment?

To shed light on these questions, it becomes crucial to be attentive to the impulse behind the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and how its member states have hierarchically been integrated into the global (and regional) economic order.

A Unique Regional Amalgam

The experience of the world economy since the post-war boom has been one of sharp divergence, not convergence, particularly in the developing world. As capitalism interacted with the social formations of the six Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain) during this period, it shaped the character of its societal development and its international relations. The immense importance of hydrocarbons in greasing the wheels of global capitalism meant that these oil-rich monarchies were bestowed with enormous geopolitical significance and striking levels of ‘uneven and combined development’.

The interplay between domestic development and wider geopolitical pressures created specific conditions for protracted uneven development to persist in the region. These levels of unevenness were reproduced and entrenched further with internationalization and financialization during the onset of neoliberalism, in turn creating a sub-regional core embodied in the integration project of the GCC.

The GCC emerged as the Middle East’s most important organization and the role its six member states played ascribed them with strategic important in both the wider region and internationally. Forged in 1981 during the flames of the Iran-Iraq War, the GCC was above all else a security formation, and this security blanket was extended to provide cover for the internal stability of its ruling elites.

The GCC was also widely seen as a US-backed response to regional upheavals, and duly buttressed and fortified by Washington. The US runs a key naval base from Bahrain, home to the Naval Forces Central Command and Fifth Fleet, and Qatar’s Al Udeid base – which hosts the US’s largest military contingent in the Middle East – further demonstrates how integral this alliance is.

Invariably linked to this military presence are weapons sales. According to SIPRI, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the second and third largest arms importers between 2012-16. Almost one-fifth of global military imports were funneled to GCC states in 2015, and it has cumulatively become the world’s largest weapons market. Such militarization reflects not only its preoccupation with countering an emergent Iran, but also allows the Gulf to recycle a vast amount of its petrodollar surpluses.  

Despite many structural weaknesses – small native populations, weak security and military structures, varied size of member states, the geographical domination of Saudi Arabia, collective exposure to hydrocarbon fluctuations – the GCC managed to survive and prosper. Their similar regime types, the assuredness of their ruling families, the durability of their social contracts (although under strain due to the plunge in oil revenues), and the ability of their elites to globalize without social dislocation are compelling features of this striking political amalgam.

However, their willingness and ability to individually respond to external challenges and opportunities arising from a rapidly changing environment has in turn translated into a much more visible set of tensions in their bilateral relations, and has put the organization’s (often tenuous) unity in question. The Qatar crisis and how it plays out will be its greatest test to date.

Conduit of Imperialism

While the raison d'être behind the formation of the GCC was to provide a security umbrella, it would also produce a pan-Gulf capitalist class; a class that crystalized around what Adam Hanieh calls “Khaleeji Capital” which conceives of capital accumulation on a pan-GCC scale. According to Hanieh, Khaleeji Capital represents a set of social relations that express the tendencies of internationalization through all the moments of the circuits of capital that operate at the regional level, while synchronized with structures of national accumulation.

With the adoption of neoliberal policies by various Middle Eastern governments from the 1990s, the circulation of Gulf capital would have regional implications as its internationalization effectively harmonized with neoliberal restructuring. As such, it simultaneously reconfigured patterns of accumulation in the Middle East: flush with oil surpluses throughout the 2000s, Gulf-based capital extended its reach across the region, prying open neighboring markets to foreign investment and snapping up real estate, manufacturing industries, telecom, and banks as it became the major beneficiary of liberalization in the Arab world.

As the 2010-11 Arab Uprisings illustrated, this class configuration had consequences for other states in the region. Khaleeji Capital had reinforced stark patterns of uneven development and wealth polarization across the Middle East as the GCC entrenched itself at the apex of the region’s volatile geopolitical order. Whether through the financing of oppositional political forces (Egypt, Syria) or military intervention (Bahrain, Libya, Yemen), it is undeniable that the Gulf played and continues to play a principal role in attempting to steer the degree of political and economic change towards one beneficial to its regime security and economic interests. This essentially preserves an existing imperial calculus that allows the region’s uneven accumulation regime – a regime favorable to global capitalism since being piloted by postwar US liberal hegemony – to resume unimpeded.

Shared Interests, Contested Politics

Over the last two decades, the GCC’s integration framework sought a more intimate political and economic alignment: standardized taxes and tariff rates on imports, harmonized political institutions, deepened pan-GCC capital flows, and freedom of movement for GCC citizens.

This form of regional integration above all else represents the pronounced interpenetration of capital ownership structures across the Gulf. This is not to say national competition was snuffed out; the latest regional conflicts importantly reflect the uneven distribution of power and unresolved intra-GCC tensions, pivoted upon the Saudi-UAE axis.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as the primary sites of capital accumulation in the region, has allowed the two countries to economically dominate the GCC across a plethora of industrial and service-oriented sectors, while mediating food shipments across the import-reliant Gulf states.

This puts the blockade of Qatar in further perspective: limited by the volume of their domestic markets and stocked with surplus capital from nearly two decades of rising hydrocarbon prices, a competitive hierarchical structure emerged as each Gulf state attempted to jockey for influence beyond their borders. As the process of internationalization in the region led by Khaleeji Capital bound the GCC states together, it equally intensified their contentious politics.

This was most explicitly played out during the Arab Spring, where the Saudi-UAE axis assertively took on a counter-revolutionary role in stamping out democratic gains by Islamist parties from Egypt to Tunisia, while Qatar took to supporting the uprisings and giving a voice to those revolting against their tyrannical regimes, primarily distilled through its state-run media platform Al Jazeera – much to the chagrin of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

The rift with Qatar highlights an important point about the regional order: that each member state’s politics are primarily imbued with expediency rather than any outright commitment to principled cooperation. Competing visions of how to maintain shared interests while simultaneously maintaining or enhancing regional influence underpin the hierarchical tendencies of the GCC.

By being a vital shareholder in maintaining a US-aligned power structure, the GCC bloc has become irreparably intertwined with the region’s political undercurrents. In the last instance, the commitment to regime preservation thwarts any full-blown rupturing of the project – as well as to those who benefit the most from this regional arrangement (Israel in particular). Taking this into account, the likely outcome of the present crisis is a negotiated solution where Doha concedes its influence with a much more reduced regional footprint, as the Saudi-UAE axis further entrenches its regional hegemony.