look into the Qatar crisiz
BY Usman A Khan Tahir
The political labyrinth that is the Gulf
These countries accuse the Qatari monarchy of supporting Sunni Islamist terrorism and Iranian designs on the region. Later on, Maldives, Senegal and Mauritania also severed their ties with Qatar, whereas Jordan downgraded its diplomatic ties with the country
For many years, Qatar — an energy-rich country smaller than Beijing — has carved out a foreign policy that is very much independent from its bigger Arab neighbours like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). The foreign policy takes an even more interesting shape when, on one hand, the gas-rich country tries to maintain good relations with Iran; on the other hand, supports anti-Assad militants in Syria. Interestingly, their paths converge when it comes to Palestine, where both the countries support Hamas much to the chagrin of Israel. Similarly, Qatar houses one of the biggest American military bases in the Gulf, but espouses a stance on the Muslim Brotherhood completely opposite to that of the US, especially the Trump administration. Qatar floods the region’s airwaves with its influential Al Jazeera, which is very much a part of the country’s foreign policy.
On Monday, five countries in the region — Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen and Egypt — severed ties with Qatar. These countries accuse the Qatari monarchy of supporting Sunni Islamist terrorism and Iranian designs on the region. Later on, Maldives, Senegal and Mauritania also severed their ties with Qatar, whereas Jordan downgraded its diplomatic ties with the country.
These nations not only abruptly suspended diplomatic relations, which they have done in the past as well, but also shocked many by cutting off air, land and sea travel to and from Qatar. Furthermore, they even banned Al Jazeera, and UAE decided that tweeting in sympathy of Qatar would get you 15 years in jail. All the countries except Egypt, which has 250,000 people working there, ordered their citizens to leave Qatar.
The move created an immediate crisis for Qataris, whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. Residents were rushing to stock up on food and cash because 40 percent of its food is imported from the Saudis. Qatari diplomats and citizens had to scramble to meet a 48-hour deadline to leave the countries where they had been posted.
According to some analysts, the sudden escalation was taken as a sign that Saudi Arabia and its allies had been emboldened by the recent visit of President Trump to the Saudi capital, where he publicly embraced the Saudis as a frontline partner in fighting terrorism as well as countering Iran’s influence.
Aversion to Iran
One of the reasons behind the decision by Saudi Arabia and UAE to isolate Qatar centres on its perceived softness toward Iran. Some comments attributed to the Emir that Doha maintained good relations with Tehran also compounded the diplomatic situation. Qataris on their part have strenuously denied these comments, saying their website was hacked.
However, it is crucial to note that the GCC is not unified in its policies toward Iran. Kuwait seeks a balance in its own relations with Tehran. When it comes to Oman, the country frequently plots an independent path and it didn’t participate in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Dubai also relies on Iranian trade for one-third of its economic productivity. In fact, it is Qatar that by and large struggles to reconcile its distrust of Iran with the need to formulate pragmatic policy toward it. To this extent, ironically, the Qatari view of Iran is far closer to Saudi than elsewhere in the Gulf.
One more reason for Qatar’s isolation centres on the perceived threat of political Islam, especially Muslim Brotherhood, to the Gulf monarchies. This is by far the biggest point of difference between Qatar and the UAE, which explains why Egypt has decided to cut ties with Qatar.
Since 2011, the revolutions in the Arab world saw Qatar courting a whole host of actors, many of whom had Islamist connections. For Egypt and the UAE, this is a particular bone of contention. They are deeply unhappy with Qatar on that front. It is likely that here is where Doha will have to bend to the GCC’s collective will. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are not likely to back down until Qatar divorces itself from its regional alliances.
When it comes to the US, although Trump has waded into the diplomatic furore, clearly signalling his displeasure with Qatar, US assets in the peninsula are too valuable to risk. The US, UK and France are not likely to take sides in this dispute. Similarly, eastern energy consumers China and Japan are unlikely to jeopardise their own energy security by breaking off relations with the Qataris, and a swift return to business as usual is in the interest of all parties.
Egypt’s inclusion on this list of countries may be perplexing for a few. But a statement by the Saudi Arabian Press Agency (SPA) offers insights into Egypt’s motivations for wanting to isolate Qatar. The news agency said that Qatar embraces “various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood group, Da’ish (ISIS), and al Qaeda, promoting the ethics and plans of these groups through its media”.
The statement’s reference to the Muslim Brotherhood is equally important. The Brotherhood briefly governed Egypt (in 2012 and 2013) following the country’s 2011 Arab Spring protests, which led to the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The root of the diplomatic tussle between the GCC countries is Qatar’s foreign policy not being perfectly aligned to that of Saudi Arabia’s. The severing of diplomatic ties is a strong message being sent by the GCC, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to force Qatar to alter its foreign policy and do some course correction
Egypt’s current government, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, came to power on the heels of a summer 2013 military intervention. The Egyptian military billed its intervention as a glorious “revolution”, a response to a popular demand to save Egypt’s true citizens from the “terrorist group” that had hijacked Egypt’s revolution. But, while the Egyptian military considers itself to be the saviour of the Egyptian people, political scientists and mainstream news outlets have consistently labelled the military intervention a “coup”, much to Sisi’s furore.
To the Egyptian government’s dismay, Al Jazeera has offered up intense coverage of the rights violations, as well as of some of the Sisi administration’s political failures and blunders. The Sisi government has come out saying that Al Jazeera’s critical coverage “constitutes a pro-Brotherhood position.” But this is a problematic conclusion to draw because the coverage of many of the international news outlets about Egypt is not too different to that of Al Jazeera.
The root of the diplomatic tussle between the GCC countries is Qatar’s foreign policy not being perfectly aligned to that of Saudi Arabia’s. The severing of diplomatic ties is a strong message being sent by the GCC, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to force Qatar to alter its foreign policy and do some course correction.
Granted, the current situation is severe, the GCC is not going to greatly alter its structure. More likely to emerge is the same slightly dysfunctional GCC structure, just with a bit quieter and subdued Qatar.