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Qatar- swift resolution or lengthy siege?

June 11, 2017

Evening view of the West Bay skyline from the Corniche in Doha, Qatar. Photo by StellarD

One or two people have asked me in recent days about the background to the rupture between Qatar and its neighbours. They know I have lived and worked in the region, and that I’ve written a fair amount about Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain over the past seven years. Qatar less so, though you’ll find one or two pieces if you search this blog.

None of this writing makes me an expert on the current situation, and I wouldn’t presume to be an authoritative source on the subject any more than someone whose views on the United Kingdom are based on experience of my country that dates from before the seismic events of the past two years.

That said, I’ve read plenty of analysis, ranging from a dissection by Hassan Hassan, an eminent political commentator, of the geopolitical aspirations of the Middle Eastern power blocs involved in the action, to Christina Lamb’s excellent piece in today’s Sunday Times, which dwells on the human as well as the political aspect of Qatar’s new-found isolation.

Hassan’s explanation is rooted in this description of a new reality in the region:

A new geopolitical settlement has emerged in the Middle East since the 2011 Arab uprisings. This realignment remains largely overlooked, even though much of what ails the region today can be better explained through it, instead of the traditional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran or the sectarian tension between Shia and Sunni.

The countries of the region can be divided into two camps: one that seeks to advance its foreign interests through the support of Islamists, and one whose foreign policy is guided by opposition to the rise of Islamists.

Countries in each of the camps are not necessarily aligned with each other so they do not form together on one side. This, understandably, makes it hard for policymakers and observers to view the region as such. But it is this realignment that could provide clarity to the United States as it recalibrates its approach in the region. Support or opposition to Islamists informs the foreign policies of the Middle East’s main powers. For some of those countries, it is the single greatest foreign policy driver.

Qatar, Hassan claims, is firmly in the camp of those who, like Turkey, support the Islamists. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain are in the other camp.  This may come as a surprise to those who believe that Saudi Arabia, considered by many to the principal exporter of the ultraconservative theology that is shared by many of the Islamist factions. They forget that Saudi Arabia has been under attack for over the past two decades by violent forces determined to bring down its rulers – first Al-Qaeda, and now ISIS.

The states seeking to isolate Qatar are united in their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar sits uneasily on the other side. It has good relations with Turkey and with neighbouring Kuwait and Oman. Although it has contributed troops to the coalition fighting the Iranian sponsored Houthis in Yemen, its relations with Iran are far less adversarial than are Saudi Arabia’s.

What particularly irks those who have taken action against them is Qatar’s refusal to disavow the Brotherhood. Its media empire, most notably Al-Jazeera, has infuriated both Sisi in Egypt and his allies with its perceived bias in support of Islamist causes, not least the uprising in Egypt that brought Mubarak down.

Lamb speaks of Qatar’s Janus-like foreign policy, its investments in the West contrasting with its harbouring of Taliban exiles and of Yusuf Qaradawi, spiritual head of the Brotherhood. She also describes the defiance of ordinary Qataris as they come to terms with their status as pariah of the Gulf.

After the initial shock of the blockade, Qatar has turned to defiance. Shops were replenished — with the exception of the Saudi chickens — while the ministry of commerce issued a video showing well-stocked shelves. “We can live for ever at the same standard,” said Al Thani, noting that only 16% of Qatar’s food imports came through the land border crossing with Saudi Arabia.

The toll on thousands of people caught on the wrong side of the border for work, studies or mixed marriages has nevertheless been great.

“The Saudis want to control us,” said Wafaa Al-Yazeedi, chairwoman of a state hospital in Doha, who has raised her son and two daughters alone since divorcing her Bahraini husband. Children in the Gulf take their father’s nationality, which means they are now facing expulsion.

“They can stop our food, our water but they can’t take our children,” she said, tears rolling down her face. “To do this in our holy month of Ramadan. Even if this is resolved, we will never forget.”

With these highlights I haven’t really scratched the surface of a highly complex story, let alone mentioned a further joker in the pack – the US, with its investment both in Qatar and in two of the three power blocs. What is going on in Washington – with Trump yapping away on Twitter about Qatar as a sponsor of terrorism and Tillerson in the State Department urging swift resolution of the crisis – is anyone’s guess.

But on some things I do have a view.

First, the Saudi/Egypt/UAE/Bahrain alliance will be betting on a speedy capitulation by Qatar. They will know that the longer the impasse remains, the greater the chance that Qatar will be drawn into Iran’s orbit out of a sense of self-preservation. The prospect of Iran gaining a foothold in the Gulf would horrify the Saudis. It could even be a casus belli.

Second, there have been suggestions that the Gulf alliance would like to see the overthrow of the current Emir. This would be an almost unprecedented event, in that it would have been so blatantly inspired by foreign actors. Other rulers have been deposed – in Qatar itself and in Oman – but any foreign support by their neighbours or by powers further afield (the US for example), has been shadowy and unproven. Both overthrows were seen at the time as internal affairs motivated by the desire to modernise what were backward nations. In fact the neighbouring monarchies have typically been inclined to support their brother rulers under threat – as they did with Kuwait in 1991, and more recently in 2013 when the Al-Khalifa family in Bahrain seemed to be on the verge of downfall.

Third, if Sheikh Tamim survives but is forced to give in to the demands of his neighbours, it will be a humiliation in a region where face is of paramount importance. Relations between him and his fellow rulers will never be the same again. And it’s quite possible that his resentment will be reflected in the wider population, who have for so long been fed the line that they are part of one big happy family of Gulf Arabs.

All of these factors suggest to me that one outcome is quite possible – the replacement of Sheikh Tamim by members of his family more likely to make the required concessions. Other developments, such as a military takeover by the Saudis and Emiratis, are less likely because of the long-term damage they would cause to relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council members, including Kuwait, which has shown more sympathy to the Qataris than the others.

It’s also possible that the current regime will tough it out. Its economic well-being as a major gas producer is unlikely to be jeopardised by the sanctions imposed by its neighbours. As long as it can keep its population onside, the inconvenience of what is basically a state of siege is unlikely to cause the country to grind to a halt.

But if the economic interests of wealthy Qataris start to become threatened, then the Emir and his allies will start to feel the pressure to cave in.

It’s easy to look on the current contretemps as a spat – a cat-fight in which rhetoric plays as important a role as claws scratching faces. Rhetoric is something in which the Arab world excels, often with no discernible consequences. Declarations of undying amity frequently precede actions that belie the sentiments. Likewise, blood-curdling threats are not always carried out.

But this is different. It will be seen by many Qataris as bullying. If the impasse leads to bloodshed, it will create yet another cycle of martyrdom. The temptation on the part of the Iranians and Turks to intervene might become irresistible. And the Gulf region will experience an instability and insecurity that makes the turmoil in Bahrain seem like a minor squabble.

The US, which has a military and economic footprint across the Gulf and Saudi Arabia – including 10,000 troops and a major airbase in Qatar – would be advised to tread carefully. Whether in the hands of Donald Trump it is capable of a coherent policy is highly questionable.

It’s understandable that we in Britain, with our chaotic political situation and the imminent Brexit negotiations, and Americans, obsessed with Trump’s problems at home and North Korea abroad, might overlook the argument between a tiny Gulf state and its neighbours.

We shouldn’t. It’s important and potentially dangerous.

From → Middle East, Politics, USA

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