AlUla reconciliation | GCC back to full force
A new page was turned in the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plus Egypt dispute last week. During the GCC summit, Egypt and the GCC member states signed the “AlUla Statement,” ending a three-and-a-half-year-long boycott of Qatar by the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The agreement ushers in a new era of reconciliation and unity based on several guiding principles, with some important early steps taken during or around the summit, while some outstanding issues are being discussed bilaterally.
The setting for the summit was perfect: A new conference palace surrounded by majestic mountains in the oasis town of AlUla, 250 km east of the Red Sea and 350 km northwest of Madinah. A small town of about 5,000 inhabitants today, AlUla has a long and colourful history. It was the capital of the powerful ancient kingdom of Lihyan, which for centuries controlled much of the Red Sea and the incense trade route between Yemen and the Levant. That kingdom lasted for about 500 years, until it was taken over by the Nabateans in about 100 BC. The area has a rich history and is the most archeologically excavated region of Saudi Arabia. At the end of the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan announced the deal among the countries involved to turn a new page on “all areas of disagreement” and make a fresh start, restoring full diplomatic relations between the four boycotting countries and Qatar. He added that the agreement would restore intra-GCC relations to their correct and natural path and would contribute to regional security and stability. On the eve of the summit, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to traffic to and from Qatar, with the other countries doing the same shortly after. They allowed air, land and sea movement to and from Qatar. Bilateral discussions were also started on other issues.
There was full agreement on the guiding principles for the new era, including non-interference in internal affairs, fighting terrorism, and working jointly to deal with threats and challenges to regional security. To translate this agreement into concrete steps, the GCC leaders also signed the summit’s joint communiqué — a 20-page summary of the resolutions on economic, political, military and security integration. The summit also issued a third document, the AlUla Declaration, which stressed some priority areas and adopted scores of directives on specific issues. The GCC, in its new unified fashion, agreed to work jointly in seven key areas.
First, the GCC leaders stressed the principle of collective security and mutual defense, i.e., that the security of GCC states is indivisible and that any attack or threat against one member is an attack on all, as stipulated in the GCC Charter and the Joint Defense Treaty. To that end, they endorsed the recommendations made during 2020 by the Joint Defense Council (ministers of defense) and the Ministers of Interior Council to bolster GCC defense and internal security and combat terrorism.
Second, the GCC summit adopted a common position on the threats emanating from Iran, including nuclear proliferation, nuclear safety, ballistic and cruise missile development, and drones, in addition to its destabilizing regional behavior. On future international negotiations with Iran, the GCC made public, for the first time, its common position that the scope of the talks must include all of the preceding issues and that the GCC must take part in those talks.
Third, the summit also adopted common positions on other regional issues, including the Palestine question, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and Libya.
Fourth, the GCC adopted scores of directives in all areas and stressed that “all directives issued, and all agreements reached within the GCC, shall be faithfully implemented according to their timetables,” in a reference to slow implementation in some areas during the past three years because of the intra-GCC differences.
Fifth, in dealing with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), GCC health organs, such as the GCC Health Council, have worked around the clock during recent months to coordinate the bloc’s response to the pandemic. The summit adopted several measures to bolster defenses against pandemics. For example, it established the GCC Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The center was initially proposed by Saudi Arabia in December 2015, but its establishment got first delayed and then expedited in light of the COVID-19 experience. The summit also approved a guide for early warnings for public health and a framework for public health preparedness and response to health emergencies.
Sixth, in economic integration, the summit issued a new GCC law for consumer protection and endorsed an agreement to connect payment systems between member states.
Seventh, having restored GCC unity and cohesion, the summit directed GCC organs to accelerate existing partnerships with the rest of the world and start new ones, including with countries and groups in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. The scope and level of engagement will differ from one country to another, but will generally include economic, political, security, people-to-people and business-to-business cooperation. The summit also called for a continuation at the GCC level of steps taken by the G20 during Saudi Arabia’s presidency to help countries in need combat COVID-19 and its socioeconomic repercussions.
In sum, while a new mechanism is being utilized to sort out any outstanding issues, the collective work of the GCC has resumed in full force.