By Marie Chetcuti
Recently, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain have launched draconian measures against Qatar, charging their Emirate neighbour of funding terrorism, maintaining intimate relations with Iran, and for their partisan reporting through the state-owned channel Al-Jazeera. In order to understand the dimensions and motivations of Qatar’s diplomatic blockade, it is necessary to address the long-standing history of regional discord between Qatar and Gulf nations. The current diplomatic rift represents a severe manifestation of such disagreements. However, rather than draw Qatar back within the Gulf fold, the blockade has produced a contradictory effect on curbing Qatar’s behaviour.
History of Tensions
Despite the severity of the current situation, Qatar is no stranger to such diplomatic rows, having weathered similar measures as a consequence of its previous foreign policy actions. The current situation follows years of growing tensions between Qatar and other Arab Gulf states around Qatar’s intimate association with the Muslim Brotherhood, its maverick reaction to the Arab Spring, and the partisan reporting through Al Jazeera.
Tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have long aggravated the diplomatic relations between these two countries. In 2000, then Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia threatened to boycott the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit held in Doha in protest of Qatar’s continued trade relations with Israel. In response to the pressure, Qatar shut down the Israeli trade mission. In 2002, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Doha following controversial comments made against the Saudi ruling family on Al Jazeera.
In the post-Arab spring era, Al Jazeera’s editorial lines were sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood – a group branded a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – subjecting Qatar to the disillusioned and indignant reactions of Gulf nations. On 5 March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain suspended ties with Qatar over its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and accused it of harboring ‘hostile media’ and interference in the affairs of GCC states.
The Siege of Qatar
On 5 June 2017, four Arab nations—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt—announced a diplomatic severance from the state of Qatar, triggering a crisis in the Persian Gulf. The Arab nations charged Qatar of funding terrorism, maintaining intimate relations with Iran, and supporting the antagonistic reporting of Al Jazeera. The Gulf countries accused Qatar of destabilizing the region through its support for Islamist groups and evasion of its commitments.
The accusations seem to be a reprisal against Qatar’s regened commitment to the 2013 Riyadh agreement. The first agreement laid out commitments to avoid interference in the internal affairs of other Gulf nations, including barring financial or political support to ‘deviant’ groups. The agreement explicitly cautions against supporting the Muslim Brotherhood as well as supporting groups in Yemen that could threaten neighbouring countries. The diplomatic rift prompted the Arab nations to halt air, land and sea travel, eject Qatari diplomats and recall own diplomats stationed in Qatar, and order Qatari citizens to leave the Gulf states within 14 days. Qatar has also been expelled from the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen. These diplomatic moves come two weeks after four Arab countries blocked broadcasting of Al Jazeera’s news channel.
No Formula for Resolution
Nearly seven weeks on and the draconian measures of the diplomatic blockade have not reconciled the Gulf crisis. On 11 July 2017, through the mediation of Kuwait, the Arab nations produced a 13-point list, spelling their demands for Qatar to end the crisis. Yet, Qatar remained unwilling to capitulate to the Arab demands, clarifying that certain elements will not be the basis of any negotiations.
Qatar is poised financially to withstand the blockade’s pressures with finance minister Ali Sherif al-Emadi reassuring “Qatar is extremely comfortable” with its financial position. In terms of GDP per capita, Qatar is one of the world’s richest countries. Asia remains Qatar’s largest consumer of Qatar’s lucrative oil and gas exports and academics expect that the current rift will not adversely affect the OPEC agreement to limit oil production.
Though Arab nations aspired to isolate and punish Qatar for its actions, the results have been far from what was intended. After the blockade, Turkey and Iran quickly pledged assistance by shuttling food aid by air and sea. Turkey also dispatched a small battalion of troops and armoured vehicles. The actions taken by Iran, especially, in defence of Qatar could drive closer ties between the two countries, rather than reduce diplomatic ties. The conflict could undermine the power of Saudi Arabia and shift power towards its regional competitor, Iran. The Gulf’s behaviour has undermined the GCC’s penchant for regional stability and commerce as Oman and Kuwait (also members of the GCC) are not participating in the boycott. The fractured responses by GCC states could provoke its disintegration.
Though the severity of these draconian measures is unprecedented, it remains to be seen whether such measures can have a constructive effect on Qatar’s behaviour. The comfortable position of the Qatari economy and the material assistance provided by Iran and Turkey seem to shelter Qatar from the pressures the Arab nations sought to exert. As Qatar refuses the 13-point list, the conflict seems to be at an impasse.
The status of the blockade and hitherto counterproductive measures provide ample reason for the Arab nations to redefine the conflict’s parameters. The 13-point list should be redrawn to offer more reasonable demands, and remove contentious ones – such as the closure of Al Jazeera or the Turkish military base. Such actions could represent a way out of the current impasse and generate progress towards a constructive resolution.
Marie Chetcuti is a postgraduate in International Relations at King’s College London. Her academic interests center on conflict and peace resolution in the Middle East, contemporary conflicts, and human rights.
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Feature image: Istock Photo from http://forward.com/opinion/politics/374026/explanations-for-the-qatari-diplomatic-crisis/