New Gulf Order?

            While the possibility of war in Libya between Egyptian and the al-Wifāq government forces primarily and between Egypt and Turkey consequently gets smaller every day there is a growing concern in the Arab world about Turkish intentions all over the region. It is not only the matter of Libya what is a concern. There is Turkish involvement in the war in Syria for years, which once again might end up in the war in Idlib very soon, there are recurring Turkish incursions into Iraq for years, where the Turkish army occupies Iraqi lands since 2014, and recently the Turkish support for Azerbaijan against Armenia also caused shockwaves in the Arab world. On the one hand, there is a known close connection between Azerbaijan and Israel. Which is not even a new thing, but well detailed for years now.

            Also, Armenia is a very important country symbolically for many Arab states with significant Armenian minority, like Syria, Lebanon, or Jordan, but it is also very close politically and culturally to Iran. Armenia has very strong support from Russia, which implies that any trouble for Armenia automatically catches the attention not only by Iran, but also by Russia, and a number of Arab countries. That is why it is not surprising to see that while certain Arab countries express support for Yerevan in the recent clashes with Azerbaijan, some, like Jordan went as far as to send military support. But even Arab states with little to no connections with Armenia are concerned by this development, as Erdoğan started to deploy mercenaries from Syria in Azerbaijan, following the method used in Libya. Given the Israeli involvement here that can prove to be a really menacing training ground for the Arab world, especially that it is an open provocation for Russia. And provocations don’t end up here, as recently Erdoğan openly provoked the Arab countries in his Eid message, saying that Turkey will continue its struggle in Syria, Iraq, and Libya until it wins.

            All that comes at the time, when the Arab world is extremely divided, especially between two major camps. The Turkish-Qatari on one hand, and the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian one on the other. As they try to lure more parties onto their own respective sides from Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan to Yemen, and in the Gulf, their conflict sparks fierce clashes in the region. In some cases, like Tunisia, Lebanon, or the Gulf political one, while in war thorn regions, like Iraq, Syria, and Libya in very direct military dimensions. Recently excellent Turkish-Syrian political analyst Ḥusnī Maḥallī pointed out well that Erdoğan wins these gambles of his because the Arab states with the exception of Qatar might all be against Turkey to different degrees, but they cannot unite against it, because of their bitter infighting.

            Much credit can be given to this skillful strategy built on Qatari finances exploiting the contradicting agendas in the region, but it is indeed this huge division, which pushed more and more countries to the arms on Turkey. Tunisia, as we saw a few weeks ago, is just one very vivid example. And the turmoil there is not even over.

            But recently a new row erupted in the Gulf further polarizing the region, which now has the potential to rip apart the GCC for good. The struggle between Oman and the Emirates is not new. But now Oman is taking a stronger stance on the matter, while at the same time pulling closer to Kuwait, where are also major changes are on the horizon. And there are indications that Muscat might align itself with Qatar, and even directly with Turkey.

            Because that fight goes on very virally, but not highly discussed even in the region, this week we look into the prospects in the Gulf. Prospects that might bring closer the downfall of the Saudi-Emirati tandem.


The Gulf crisis

            By now that is somewhat confusing, as the rift between Qatar and most of its Arab neighbors is well known, but almost a decade ago the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) made up by the six Arab states in the Persian Gulf was the most promising and ambitious regional unity in the modern Arab history. It was in fact very close to a lucrative result, as a common market and even common currency was planned, thus modeling the EU, but with much stronger cultural foundations and much smaller development gaps. That was going well, regardless the old rivalry between the Emirates and Qatar, and the number of economic contradictions. Beyond all, political unity was surprisingly good, though not necessarily for the benefit of the Arab world.

            Ironically what seemed to be their biggest political victory, the changes caused by the so-called “Arab Spring” and their economic takeover in so many countries, proved to be the seed of their downfall. As the results of the “Arab Spring” came to a halt, especially in the frontiers in Syria, jealously and discord grew between the participants. That resulted in the infamous change of government in Qatar in the summer of 2013, right at the time of major realignments in the region, like the successful coup in Egypt against the Turkish-Qatari interests, and for the benefit of the Emirates above all else. Though by now that is overshadowed by much more significant events. That was not a light matter, as for some time Saudi Arabia closed its border with Qatar and mobilized that army threatening with a military intervention. However, as Doha rearranged itself and prepared for a new strategy ever more independently from its former Gulf partners, the leading elites in Abū Zabī and Riyadh were also not satisfied. And that led to the beginning of the Gulf crisis we know today in the summer of 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain under their wings cut all connections with Qatar. Once again a military intervention was very close, only prevented by the presence of Turkish and Pakistani troops in Qatar.

            While that has a quite substantial literature by now and we also discussed it, here the behavior of the other “non-partisan” members is important. Because the decisions are taken back then came back to haunt the Emirates now. Oman after a brief attempt to help to normalize the relations simply pulled back from the frontline, though held very good relations with Qatar and never joined the blockade. That has much to do with the Omani concerns with the Emirates, as Abū Zabī for years tried to intervene in Oman and stage a coup against the old Sultan Qābūs. But Sultan Qābūs was a person from the old generation, which was cautious about long disputes, and after all failed Emirati attempt gave way for diplomacy. At the outbreak of the Gulf crisis, Kuwait also leads by a ruler of the older generation paid all effort to mediate and seal off the rift. Which unfortunately for Kuwait never gained any substantial support except Oman.

            While the rift widened and the blockade became solidified as a permanent reality, unlike that plan was, to be a swift method to bring Qatar to its knees, the GCC practically fell apart. The Qatari-Turkish alliance not only solidified in this crisis but spiraled out and that is present in so many fronts all over the region. Between the two camps, however, two non-partisans, Oman and Kuwait were left behind.

            That is how it was supposed to stay until one of the camps manage to finally overcome the other. On one hand, Riyadh and Abū Zabī with Cairo behind them did their best to sabotage the link between Doha and Ankara, and also to isolate the Turkish presence in the region. On the other Qatar became the financial engine behind so many Turkish ventures. This aspiration aimed to break the Saudi-Wahhabī monopoly, as the spiritual leaders of the Muslim Arab world, and by now openly challenge the Saudi position. That was clear in the gesture of transforming the Hagia Sophia to a mosque, or by openly – and very rightfully –  mocking the Arab League for its ineffectiveness, and lately by sending the message that Turkey’s wars in Libya, Syria, and Iraq will continue. While Qatar was satisfied with the “neutrality” of Oman and Kuwait, that is how the situation was meant to stay, until one camp wins, and reparations on the GCC can be done. Given that is still possible. But in January changes started to happen.


Oman and the Emirates

            On 10 January long term ruler of Oman, Sultan Qābūs (1970-2020) passed away. By reasons still not entirely clear it was not the As‘ad ibn Ṭāriq, a cousin of Qābūs and a long time supposed heir, who took his place, but another cousin, Haytam ibn Ṭāriq. And that sparked tension with the Emirates immediately. For one, the new Sultan allegedly for long detested the Emirati attempts to undermine the old Sultan’s authority and stage several coup attempts against him. But it had a personal side of it as well, as weeks before the old Sultan passed away his death was circulated in the Emirati news, while a toxic campaign was started against then heir-apparent Haytam ibn Ṭāriq accusing him to be a Turk, not even an Arab. In result, a famous scandal happened between the new Sultan Haytam ibn Ṭāriq and Emirati Crown Prince – de facto ruler of the state – Muḥammad ibn Zāyid at the reception in Muscat, when the new Sultan welcomed foreign delegations congratulating him.


            As it turns out now, this was only the beginning of the problem. There has been a long disagreement between the Saudis and the Emiratis on one hand and the Omanis on the other about Yemen. Oman and specifically late Sultan Qābūs had a very bitter experience with militancy spiraling out of Yemen, as back in the ‘70s the South Yemeni government at the time was supporting separatist movements in Oman, only quelled by British, Jordanian and Iranian help.

            Qābūs was always cautioned about this matter and had it as a priority. The unification of the two Yemeni states with all its problems and the brutal civil war following it greatly mitigated this problem for Oman, but still, Muscat kept a close eye on its problematic neighbor. That is why it never even considered joining the Saudi Coalition’s intervention in Yemen, knowing too well what a quagmire it can become, which turned out to be a perfect judgment. Quite the contrary, Oman made several attempts to mediate between the Yemeni group, and with some temporal achievements. And here it is very remarkable that while in Yemen Oman was a very active intermediary, no such attempts were made at all in the crisis with Qatar. These Omani approaches troubled the Saudi-Emirati tandem. Which saw a problem, an unwanted and unpleasant intrusion to a Saudi-Emirati lead affair. Especially for the Emirates, it was problematic trying to carve out a new South Yemeni state, which is a natural threat to Oman. And of course, there were the strategic concerns by the Emirates again Oman for the Musandam Peninsula right at the gate of the Straights of Hormuz under Omani sovereignty, which the Emirates wished to appropriate. As several Arab experts, like Egyptian Ṣābir Mašhūr, pointed out, Riyadh and Abū Zabī started to put pressure on Oman, by opening upfronts in South Yemen with little strategic, economic importance, but inconveniently close to the Omani border.

            The other way of putting pressure on Oman was to close down all Emirati and – much smaller – Saudi investment and development projects in the Sultanate. These investments were made by the late Sultan to develop the state and the living conditions while holding on to its transitional social structure, and to harbor good neighborly behavior, many of these projects were partly won by Emirati firms. These meant huge Emirati investments, but also huge profits for the Emirates in the long run. These are numerous in the Sultanate, many are in key sectors or symbolic projects. Shutting these down meant a huge problem for the new Sultan, as the state had to power to finish these, or invite other partners, but not while the legal Emirati partners are involved and sabotaging progress.

            The case of the Sultan Qābūs port project is a typical example, which explains the matters well. This project was started in the 2010s by the previous Omani leadership. That is practically building a new part of the Omani capital overlooking the Muscat Bay, which would mean a huge boost for Omani commerce and tourism. And that is also the biggest port of Oman, the main gateway to the outside world. After the main draft was drawn partners were invited in 2016, and in June 2017 the Emirati Damac Group Dubai – major hotel and tourism firm – won a $1 billion contract, owning 70% of the project. The rest was owned by the Omani state-owned Omran Company, another tourism development enterprise. During the three years passed very little planning and almost no actual construction was done on the project, which came to a complete halt in January 2020. That lasted for months as the Omani side pushed for progress, and finally, on 18 July 2020, it was announced that the Omran Company – so practically the Omani state – appropriated the whole project for the breach of the contract and the lack of progress. On 26 July Damac responded that the decision has no consequences to the Damac Group, as it has 20% ownership in the Omran Company taking over the project. This might be so, but the result is that from that point on the Emiratis cannot stall the development and lose a huge profit. And if they press the issue the Damac Group might even have to pay reparations. That is of course just one example but perfectly symbolizes that the ties for a good partnership made by the previous Omani leadership are not wished for by the new and being slowly cut.

the Sultan Qābūs port in Muscat on project design and map

            At the same time, Oman is solidifying new friendships, some specifically irritating for Abū Zabī. On 3 March 2020 – so already under Sultan Haytam – Turkish state-owned weapons contractor HAVELSAN signed a contract to deliver arms to Oman, but also to become a gateway for arms supplies to the region. HAVELSAN Technology Oman LLC – the effective Omani contractor – is 70% owned by HAVELSAN Ltd. – owned by the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation (TAFF) – and 30% by Omani Masirah International. The model is very familiar with the Qābūs port project. That is not a slight step, as TAFF is directly linked to Turkish President Erdoğan and is the biggest supplier of the most sophisticated Turkish drones. In fact, recently Oman has become the third-biggest buyer of Turkish arms globally, thus channeling huge funds to the Turkish economy. Some of these funds even a year ago were going to the Emirates, though via very different channels.

            So it seems that long attempts to change the government in Oman had finally yielded results. Just very different ones Abū Zabī expected. The lesson is important because it not only means the death sentence for the GCC, but also many other states can follow suit for such behavior.


It does not jut Oman

            Also recently a resurgence can be witnessed in Omani foreign politics. Under Sultan Qābūs Oman was a very important peace negotiator, especially in the region and with Iran. The most significant achievement for this was laying the foundations in secret negotiations between Iran and the Western partners, which lead to the JCPOA in 2015. That role is slightly diminishing, while the engagement within the Gulf, previously a very cautiously and lightly handed matter, increased. In June 2020 Sultan Haytam congratulated Qatari Emir Tamīm for his seventh anniversary in power. That infuriated the Emirates, but also showed that Oman is willing to push for a new, more active role. Thus openly taking the side of the Qatari-Turkish camp. That is because on 15 May 2020 Omani Foreign Minister Yūsaf ibn ‘Allawī was tasked by Sultan Haytam to deliver a message to the Prime Minister of Kuwait that the Sultan is willing to support the Kuwaiti mediation in the Gulf crisis, especially in light of the Corona pandemic. A mediation, which is stagnant and practically non-existent since 2018.

            The message is obviously less about the mediation, and much more a signal that Oman is wishing to join forces with Kuwait. Either with Qatar or even without. So far this signal had very good reception, and though might not on the level of full alliance with Qatar, in fact Kuwait had little energy to concentrate on this matter. Because big changes are on the horizon in Kuwait as well. Seeing how it played out in Oman is a very troubling omen for the Emirati leadership.


Kuwait about to change?

            Recently news started to circulate the ruler of Kuwait, aṣ-Ṣabāḥ al-Aḥmad al-Ğābir aṣ-Ṣabāḥ started to hand over some of his powers to his Crown Prince brother, Nawwāf. But much beyond that, right before his last surgery this summer, the Emir held a meeting with the whole royal family not only to reassure support for Nawwāf in case he does not survive but also to appoint an heir to Nawwāf as well.

            That is all very understandable since at age 91 Sheikh aṣ-Ṣabāḥ is understandable concern that he might not rule for long. But his future successor Nawwāf, who is appointed Crown Prince since 2006, when Emir aṣ-Ṣabāḥ took the throne is also 83 years old and is a worse health condition than the Emir. If the information is correct, during the meeting an understanding was reached that Nawwāf’s successor would be his half-brother Miš‘al al-Aḥmad aṣ-Ṣabāḥ, head of the intelligence and Deputy Commander of the National Guard. The interesting thing is that even the appointment of Nawwāf in 2006 was problematic, as the two main branches of the Kuwait royal family are supposed to take turns, but the new Emir and his Crown Prince are both from the same aṣ-Ṣabāḥ branch. And so is Miš‘al al-Aḥmad. Even more interesting that while Sheikh aṣ-Ṣabāḥ and his heir-apparent did not really have a strong background with the military and are very strong supporters of the GCC, Miš‘al is more a military man. Yet he is also at the age of 80. This all would indicate a sense of insecurity within Kuwait, which requires some sort of power concentration in the otherwise remarkably democratic small state.

            It is lesser how much Sheikh aṣ-Ṣabāḥ trusts the Omani support for mediation and feels it genuine, but that is noticeable that all this come at a time when Oman is clearly distancing itself from the Riyadh-Abū Zabī Axis and pulling closer to Turkey, even more than to Qatar. It is safe to expect that soon enough there will be rapid changes in Kuwait, as all possible heir are at high age. But looking at how the change in Oman worked out for the Emirates, it is a very gloomy prospect for Abū Zabī. Especially that sparks already started to rise, now between Egypt and Kuwait.

            Another interesting fact that Omani Sultan Haytam is accused to be a Turk. His father indeed was born in Istanbul and his mother was indeed a Turkish citizen, but not a Turk. She was Kamile İlgiray a Circassian. Nonetheless, that makes current Sultan Haytam eligible for Turkish citizenship. While the Turkish past in a very negative one in the Gulf, especially for the Saudis, as many members of the Saudi dynasty were killed by the Ottomans, there is one royal household, which is also linked to the Turks. Though briefly, but very intimately. Father of the current Kuwaiti Emir, former ruler aš-Šayh al-Aḥmad al-Ğābir aṣ-Ṣabāḥ was married to an Ottoman princess in 1940s. Though none of the current Kuwaiti leadership was born from this marriage, the moral link is a strong one. And quite probably soon it will be the source of other vitriol campaigns.


Results: a New Gulf order?

            It is very early to judge the possible change in Kuwait and what course it will take after that, but so far it is pulling closer to Oman. And Oman is clearly taking a stance against the Emirates.

            If that goes in this way the GCC will indeed break up to two groups of 3. Oman and Qatar, but possibly even Kuwait will be allies of Turkey – Kuwait is already pulling closer to Iran -, while the Saudi-Emirati tandem can only hold on to Bahrain.

            That is a very sad prospect for a once ambitious project, but it was not destined to end this way. There where possibilities for consolidation. It was the relentless efforts by this Emirati leadership to control the Gulf, which indeed yielded them some control over the Saudis, but drove them to many failed quests. Like the wars in Yemen and Libya, the plots in Oman and Tunisia, and the Gulf crisis. All ended negatively, and by now reached a dead end. It is hard to know what else it will cause, but the death of the GCC is surely the biggest catastrophe for the whole region.