Despite its name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is no stranger to tension and competition between its members. Some of these differences will doubtless come to light over the course of the 37th annual GCC summit, which kicked off on Tuesday in Manama, Bahrain. Though the GCC’s leaders gather at dozens of high-level meetings each year, the annual summit functions as a sort of state of the union, a chance for the group to flesh out its shared policy priorities. The meeting will showcase the bloc’s unity, a testament as much to the GCC’s carefully crafted image as to the ties that bind the group together. At the same time, it will highlight the underlying divisions that have always existed in the GCC.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates demonstrates that the GCC is not a monolith, even when its members are strategically aligned. Though the two countries have fought side by side against the Houthi rebels in Yemen’s enduring civil war, for instance, they are increasingly at odds over how best to negotiate an end to the conflict. As the United Arab Emirates continues to progress in its efforts at economic diversification, it could emerge as a leader in the bloc, even while publicly deferring to Saudi Arabia, traditionally the GCC’s cornerstone. Egypt has recently become another area of disagreement between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. After a period of strained relations, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was expected to meet with the Saudi king over the weekend to mend ties — under Abu Dhabi’s mediation. Stratfor sources indicate, however, that the meeting fell apart when al-Sisi refused to abide by King Salman’s demands for reconciliation: that al-Sisi publicly condemn Syrian President Bashar al Assad and that he pledge to stop supporting Syria’s military.
From King Salman’s perspective, al-Sisi’s obstinacy suggests that he is more interested in the Syrian government’s survival than in Saudi Arabia’s continued financial assistance. The Saudi king is also reportedly annoyed that Cairo seems to treat Riyadh as a cash machine rather than an ally. In fact, his assessment is not too far off the mark; for the first time in several years, Egypt has the financial leeway to pursue its own foreign policy objectives, regardless of Riyadh’s position. Under the conditions of its recent deal with the International Monetary Fund, Egypt had to seek economic assistance from other sources as well. Although the GCC provided a significant share of that funding, Egypt also appealed to a wide array of international lenders in an attempt to forge new economic alliances. Between the first disbursement of the IMF loan and the aid Cairo received from various countries around the world, Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves reached $23.1 billion in November, a five-year high. Egypt’s president, meanwhile, knows that his country’s stability is a priority for the GCC and that, despite King Salman’s grumblings, Riyadh will still bail Egypt out if its financial straits worsen.
Over the next few months, several issues will add to the strife between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, leaving the United Arab Emirates and the rest of the GCC to preserve the bloc’s strategic alliance with Cairo. In April, al-Sisi signed a deal to transfer ownership of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia as a token of Cairo’s commitment to Riyadh. But as Egypt’s economic situation improved — while popular and legal backlash over the transfer mounted — al-Sisi began to reconsider. Now his main priority is courting the public support he needs to carry through his proposed reforms, rather than entreating Riyadh for economic assistance. Egypt’s judiciary has been a useful ally in this endeavor, albeit perhaps an unwitting one. Since a judge invalidated the deal June 21, Egypt’s higher courts have consistently postponed a final ruling on the appealed case, helping al-Sisi to at once vex the Saudi king and appease his public.
Cairo will also have ample opportunity to ruffle Riyadh’s feathers with its policy on Syria. As government and loyalist forces gain ground in Syria, Egypt will work to ensure that it is on the side of victory, especially since the al Assad’s administration’s policies align with Cairo’s own anti-Islamist, pro-military stance. With every display of its support for the Syrian government — whether joint military trainings or arms shipments — Egypt will rankle Saudi Arabia all the more, much to the United Arab Emirates’ dismay.
Behind the messages of unity and accord that will prevail at the GCC summit this week, discord and competition will persist between some of its members, however quietly. And long after the meeting’s conclusion, delicate issues such as Egypt and Yemen will continue to test the GCC’s cohesion.