Small Sheikhdom Strength: Cavalier, Cautious, and Compliant GCC Alignments

By Tyler Parker
Submitted to Session P5739 (The Gulf: Games of Thrones, 2019 Annual Meeting
Intl Rltns/Aff
Arabian Peninsula; Gulf;
Comparative; Current Events; Foreign Relations; Gulf Studies;
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a tenuous alliance fracturing under the weight of its members’ divergent interests. A key factor in the GCC’s tensions has been how its smallest members have approached their bilateral relationships with Saudi Arabia following the Arab Spring. Qatar has pursued cavalier defiance of Saudi leaderships’ hegemonic ambitions, Kuwait has opted for cautious and selective engagement with Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain has remained compliant to its crucial patron in both word and deed. Despite their similarities as Sunni monarchies with high non-citizen populations, sizable fossil fuel endowments, and significant dependence on United States (US) security patronage, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain have pursued drastically different alignments with Saudi Arabia. What are the factors which determine their diverse alignments? Drawing on the neoclassical realist paradigm, I postulate that each state’s alignment approach with Saudi Arabia stems from the composition of its domestic power assets; namely, its economic vitality, societal cohesion, and values projection. In this paper, I will use primary source government statements and assessments from both the Gulf and US, as well as secondary source economic data and policy reports, to analyze and describe each country’s resource holdings and trade capacity, governance structure and demographic makeup, and policy makers’ diplomatic and branding priorities. Using this evidence, I will argue that Qatar’s strong power assets allow it to hedge against Saudi Arabia, Kuwait’s moderate power assets cause it to ‘leash-slip’ from Saudi initiatives, and Bahrain’s weak power assets force it to bandwagon with Saudi Arabia. It is my aim that these findings will promote a better understanding of GCC alliance dynamics, demonstrate the influence of domestic variables on the foreign policies of small states, and offer a foundation for further study of the Gulf’s contentious political future.