The widening Gulf

There’s no solution in sight to the worst crisis to grip the region since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990

By Author   |   Published: 9th Jul 2017   12:00 am
A representational image from Qatar

The four Arab countries which had threatened to isolate Qatar have now vowed to take additional steps against the energy-rich Gulf state after it refused to accept their demands. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain accused Qatar in a joint statement of thwarting all efforts aimed at resolving the rift and reiterated that it intends to “continue its policy aimed at destabilising security of the region.”

On June 5, the four countries had cut diplomatic ties and severed air, land and sea links with World Cup 2022 host Qatar, accusing it mainly of supporting terrorism. They later issued an ultimatum to accept a 13-point list of demands that included cutting ties with terrorist groups, curbing relations with Iran and shutting media outlets, including Al-Jazeera.

Leaked documents published by The New York Times said that Qatar’s counter-terrorism efforts were the “worst in the region”. Qatar has always denied backing extremist groups, though Western diplomats say its lax oversight allowed funding of Sunni militants like Syria’s al-Qaida branch.

In Turmoil

Some analysts have pointed to the fact that this turmoil came after US President Trump’s trip last month to Saudi Arabia, wherein he publicly endorsed Riyadh as his primary regional partner, emboldening the Saudis and upsetting the geopolitical balance.

But in truth, many of the current tensions — with both Qatar and Iran — have been simmering for decades. Now it’s boiling to a crisis at a level unseen since the 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait, which ended in a war and burning of oilfields.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts at trying to mediate the Qatar crisis, while Trump’s own tweets appearing to back the Saudi-led isolation, have only compounded the uncertainty gripping the Gulf.

On June 7, Islamic State attacked the Iranian Parliament and the shrine of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, killing 18 people and wounding over 50.
Though IS claimed responsibility, the citizens of Tehran openly accused Saudi Arabia of backing the attackers. Their evidence? Newly minted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s comments in May that the kingdom would “work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”

On June 18, Iran declared that it has launched its first missile attack in over 15 years on foreign soil during the week targeting IS fighters in Syria in retaliation over the Tehran assault. Iran also openly acknowledged it was a message for Saudi Arabia and America.

There’s turmoil striking other Gulf countries as well, particularly the tiny island of Bahrain. A government crackdown on dissent for over a year continues unabated. Militants have responded by stepping up attacks on security forces.

Little Impact

Many observers expected Qatar to quickly capitulate after the crisis erupted. But Qatar has shown resilience. Sealing Qatar’s only land border with Saudi Arabia and blocking it from using the four Arab nations’ airspace and sea lanes has so far failed to bring Doha to its knees.

Initial runs on supermarkets in the country soon gave way to relative normalcy as authorities quickly found new ways to import food and goods from other countries. Turkey has helped plug some gaps, as has Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis.

Qatar’s economy, fuelled by its natural gas exports, seems to be weathering the crisis, though there has been pressure on its stock market and currency. The credit ratings agency Moody’s warned that it had set Qatar’s economic outlook to negative.

Government largesse has helped ease the situation. Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, said last week that the state is covering a ten-fold increase in shipping costs for food and medicine.

“The Qataris have, at the domestic level, done a good job of reassuring people. There will be no food shortages and things will continue sort of business as usual,” pointed out Noha Aboueldahab, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

No Capitulating

Qatar issued its response to the ultimatum in a hand-written letter from 37-year-old Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani that was delivered to Kuwait, which is mediating the crisis, earlier last week. The contents of the letter have not been disclosed, but the anti-Qatar bloc has described it as “negative” and failing to appreciate the gravity of the situation.

Qatar has strenuously denied that it supports extremist groups. It is refusing to shutter Al-Jazeera, one of its best-known brands, and sees the ultimatum as an affront to its sovereignty.

“Qatar is not an easy country to be swallowed by anyone. We are ready. We stand ready to defend our country. I hope that we don’t come to a stage where, you know, a military intervention is made,” Qatari Defence Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah told Sky News.

Its foreign minister too showed no signs of backing down during a press briefing in Rome on Saturday. “We believe that the world is governed by international laws, that don’t allow big countries to bully small countries. No one has the right to issue to a sovereign country an ultimatum. There is no fear from whatever action would be taken; Qatar is prepared to face whatever consequences,” he said.

Worried World

The crisis has become a global concern as neither side appears to be backing down. By refusing to give in to the Arab states’ ultimatum, tiny but wealthy Qatar is calling their bluff. Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, hosts some 10,000 American troops at its sprawling al-Udeid Air Base, and could be seeing this as its safety valve.

But this could mean that the Arab states could put in place more formal sanctions. Companies that do business with Qatar could be barred from working in the four Arab states. That is no idle threat since Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the region’s two biggest economies, and Egypt is its most populous market.

Measures like forcing Gulf banks to pull their deposits out of the country or disrupting shipments of its economic lifeblood, natural gas, could hurt Qatar hard. If these happen, Qatar could shut down an undersea natural gas pipeline running to the United Arab Emirates, a crucial power source for a desert nation that relies on desalination plants for water and air conditioners to cope with the scorching heat.

“This is bigger than the chemical weapons in Syria. It’s bigger than the Mosul fight in Iraq. Because if the Qataris are threatened enough, they’re going to turn to Russia and Iran,” pointed Ambassador James Jeffrey, the former US envoy to Iraq and Turkey.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdullah, UAE’s foreign minister, has kept up the pressure on Qatar. “To defeat terrorism, we must confront extremism, we must confront hate speech, we must confront the harbouring and sheltering of extremists and terrorists, and funding them. Unfortunately, we in this region see that our sister nation of Qatar has allowed and harboured and encouraged all of this,” he said.

The US is gradually changing its open support for Saudi Arabia and has asked Saudi Arabia and its allies to stay “open to negotiation” with Qatar. Russian President Putin has separately spoken with the leaders of Qatar and Bahrain, urging direct dialogue among all the states involved. But there is no breakthrough yet.