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How a few young leaders are shaking up foreign policy in the Gulf Cooperation Council

- August 11, 2017
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, at an April 19, 2017, meeting with U.S. officials in Riyadh. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AFP/Getty Images)

Why did Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates begin the boycott of Qatar that has roiled regional politics for the past two months? Many recent studies of Middle East foreign policy subscribe to the idea that such decisions can best be explained by the preservation of regime security. However, recent events show how this decision-making may be more specifically about succession security.

Regional foreign policy is not just about preserving the survival of a particular monarchical regime but ensuring the leadership of a particular set of individuals within the ruling family.

A shake-up in the Saudi line of succession

Succession security has recently come to the fore because of the rapid ascent of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The normally glacial and opaque process of Saudi leadership changes was disrupted when the 81-year-old King Salman bin Abdul Aziz took over after the death of his brother King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in 2015. Since then, King Salman has upended his brother’s plans for succession by removing both his 71-year-old younger brother, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, and the son of Salman’s older brother, 57-year-old Mohammed bin Nayef, from the line of succession.

In the process, King Salman’s 31-year-old son rose from obscurity to defense minister and now to crown prince. Recent reports that his predecessor, Mohammed bin Nayef, was removed from his position as crown prince through house arrest and a forced abdication expose the tension underlying the transition.

Since King Salman’s health is questionable at best, it may not be long until his son takes his place. The crown prince is seen as the architect of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war. Saudi Arabia’s embargo of Qatar also appears to be an initiative of his. These foreign policies, accompanied by the grand economic plans in Saudi Vision 2030, aim to shake up Saudi policies and forefront the crown prince’s agenda.

A dynamic crown prince in the Emirates

The Qatar embargo is also strongly supported by the United Arab Emirates. While the 68-year-old UAE president and emir of Abu Dhabi, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, nominally rules the federation, he has ceded most of the activities of leadership to his 56-year-old brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. The crown prince has pushed much of Abu Dhabi’s — and by extension the UAE’s — recent dynamism.

Since Abu Dhabi bailed out its neighboring emirate after the 2008 financial crash, Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Maktum, has been clearly relegated to the sidelines in the federation.

An alliance of “young sheikhs” amid a geopolitical power struggle

The two “young sheikhs” — Salman and Zayed — have found common cause against their 37-year-old counterpart in Qatar, Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani.

The Saudi and Emirati dispute with Qatar has roots in the larger geopolitical and regional balance of power, but their timing has a much more personal dynamic. The decline of U.S. influence in the Gulf — first under the Obama administration’s retrenchment and now under President Trump’s randomness — has left regional powers scrambling to fill the void.

The Persian Gulf monarchies survived the 2011 wave of popular mobilization through the judicious use of historical and economic assets. Since then, however, they have reacted differently to increasing Iranian power and the reverberations of the Arab Spring. Qatar actively supported the rise of new voices such as the Doha-based Al Jazeera television network and political players like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in contrast, acted to preserve autocratic regimes. Venues like Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Syria have witnessed the competition between Qatar and its rivals in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The domestic side of international agreements and boycotts

In 2013, Qatar and the rest of the GCC reached a series of agreements to mend these tensions. These agreements seemed to be linked to Emir Hamad’s abdication for his son Tamim a few months later. The perceived continuing influence of Hamad has contributed to the current crisis. Yet these foreign policies also serve a domestic purpose in succession dynamics. Mohammed bin Nayef’s opposition to the Qatar embargo may have been the final straw resulting in his being removed as Saudi crown prince. Meanwhile, the embargo has allowed Tamim to step out of his father’s shadow thanks to a wave of popular support.

The Qatar boycott also serves as a message to leaders of Kuwait and Oman, two GCC members that are not boycotting Qatar. With the Kuwaiti emir and crown prince in their 80s and the Omani sultan younger but more ill, leadership will soon transition in these two monarchies as well.

The international impacts of domestic succession politics

Previous rounds of succession security crises led to instability in the Middle East. During the 1950s and 1960s, palace coups reshuffled monarchs in the region while military coups removed their Egyptian, Libyan and Iraqi counterparts. Successions in the 1990s in Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain and Qatar led some to see the harnessing of populist policies by new monarchs as the herald of democracy — which it was not.

While the rules and tools of succession processes are becoming more routinized in the region, the implications of leadership shifts in a number of countries has more than just domestic ramifications. Diplomatic efforts at resolving the impasse will need to provide not just reassurances to states and governments, but to individuals as well. Today’s young sheikhs may secure their succession — only to imperil the rule of their dynasty.

Russell E. Lucas is an associate professor of Arab studies and director of global studies in the arts and humanities at Michigan State University.