Qatar Crisis: What’s it all about?
Six Arab countries led by the Saudi Arabia suspended the diplomatic relationship with Qatar and accused the energy-rich state of sponsoring “terrorism”. Some of the involved nations have already issued the travel bans with Qatar which has created an immediate crisis for the country. Most of these governments are not on the same page and have their own reasons to cut the ties with the country.
Even though the developments may come as a surprise, one thing is certain – the crisis has more to do with the long-standing geopolitical tensions rather than outright widely propagandized security concerns.
The current diplomatic crisis goes back to a statement by the head of the state of Qatar during a military graduation speech in May 2017. Sheikh Tamim was quoted several statements that favored the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Iran (whom UAE also has good buisness ties). Regardless his comments were fabricated or not, it triggered a response from the neighboring governments. And, within a couple of hour’s accusation were made from both sides. Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera published leaks that linked the officials from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to a pro-Israeli think tank. Following this, Gulf States banned Al Jazeera, made additional accusations and announced their intent to suspend the relations with Qatar. The course of action by Arab states was later joined by allies such as military dictator led Egypt, Bahrain, client regime of Libya, the Saudi-sponsored government in Yemen and the Maldives which has close financial ties with the UAE.
As soon as the decision was announced Saudi security forces blocked the Qatar land border and in addition to the blockade Emirate Airlines, Gulf Air, Fly Dubai, Etihad Airways canceled flights to Doha. Meanwhile, Qatari citizens have been given two weeks to return to Qatar. Closing the land border and the air space is meant to exert the pressure on Qatar as the country has only one mainland border and two main air routes. Furthermore, as a small country in the east of the Arabian Peninsula and west of the Persian Gulf Doha is dependent on the import of goods. About 40% of Qatar’s food imports are shipped from Saudi Arabia. Turkey could elevate Qatar’s food imports but a sharp increase in food prices is unavoidable. Doha’s dependency on food import is its biggest vulnerability.
Conflicting Foreign Policies of Qatar and Saudi bloc
By applying the pressure on the Qatar the Saudis hopes to change the status quo in the region. The two countries have a long history of conflicting foreign policy. For instance, when Riyadh cut off its ties with Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood, Doha and Ankara stepped up and compensated. When Saudis endorsed the field marshal Haftar the Qatari’s did the opposite and promoted the Islamist militia in Tripoli. Despite a small population, Qatar has been able to forge its own foreign policy. This is due to the fact that the country lacks the ethnoreligious tensions as has been the case of Turkey. The country is abundantly rich in energy resources. This level of security allows for Doha tens of millions of dollars from its one hundred billion infrastructure plan which is set aside for the FIFA 2022 World Cup games to the insurgent groups such as Afghan Taliban against foreign invasion, Syrian rebels against despotic regime, militants of Hamas against Israeli occupation and Muslim Brotherhood against puppet military elite, Somali Islamists and Sudanese rebels. While this network of Qatar maybe an eye sour for many nations but from Qatari perspective by transforming itself as an independent mediator and enabling back channel diplomacy Qatar gains leverage with countries that seek to negotiate or control the behavior of these groups. Saudi Arabia has also backed insurgent groups in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. The same controversy applies to UAE, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and USA. There is no innocence in this geopolitical struggle. For better or worse, Qatar’s this type of network allows the country to play a significant role in the Middle East and thus earn the favor of Washington (for example, Qatar’s hosting of Afghan Taliban talks with the US and South Asian regional powers). To that end, American policymakers have tolerated Qatar’s network, its neighbors, however, have not.
In 2014, authorities in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had a fallout with Doha over the support of Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Al Jazeera’s critical coverage of the political events in the region, as a result – Saudi Arabia and UAE temporarily withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. Doha reeled back support for its network and made some assurances which returned relations to normal, yet at large Shiekh Tamim still refuses to play at the hands of King Salman and instead turned to Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood. Within two years Turkey opened its first military base in Qatar and this has given Ankara a greater capacity to reshape the politics in the Gulf region but it also upset the Saudis. A more recent convergence of factors is president Trump’s visit to Saudi kingdom in May 2017 which inadvertently emboldened the leadership in Riyadh. Only after few days, King Salman singled out Iran as the main sponsor of terror. It is possible that policy makers in Saudi also saw an opportunity to force Doha to realign its foreign policy with that of Riyadh. The sheer scale of media spectacles in Saudi Arabia suggests a campaign to discredit Qatar was already planned ahead of this crisis. As such, after years of threat and pressure – the Saudis coordinated a plan of action to change the course of Qatar’s foreign policy.
Real Reasons behind the blockade
While Saudi Arabia has historically funded most of these groups which it labels as “terrorist” now to further their own geopolitical interests – the real reasons for this blockade according to the David Hearst of Middle East Eye are:
“Their real demands, which were conveyed to the Emir of Kuwait – who is acting as an intermediary – are the closure of Al Jazeera, de-funding of Al Arabi al-Jadid, Al Quds al-Arabi, and the Arabic edition of Huffington Post, along with the expulsion of Palestinian public intellectual Azmi Bishara
This is the media that reveals – in Arabic – the stories that these Arab dictators most want their citizens not to read. Not content with muzzling their own media, they want to shut down all media that reveals the inconvenient truth about their despotic, venal, corrupt regimes, wherever it is in the world.”
According to an article by Elizabeth Dickinson published in the Foreign Policy Magazine in 2014:
“Qatar, meanwhile, placed a long bet that political Islam was the next big thing that would pay off. “Qatar believes in two things. First, Doha doesn’t want the Saudis to be the major or only player in the Sunni region of the Middle East,” says Kuwaiti political scientist Abdullah al-Shayji. “Second, Qatar wants to have a role to play as a major power in the region.”
And, the reason Saudi Arabia fears Muslim Brotherhood is the democratic and non-violent nature of the organization and the massive public support it enjoys globally despite decades of severe oppression against them. This is also the reason Riyadh did substantial lobbying in U.S. to avert the Arab spring in 2010 which was rushing towards the country to overtake the corrupt monarchy.
Saudi Public Diplomacy in Shambles:
For over decades Saudi Arabia pumped billions all across the Muslim world to promote a ‘specific stream of clerks’ that gave theological legitimacy to their actions and created humanoid-robots that played to the tunes of the Saudi monarchy and justified their every ill action. These so called scholars claim to be torch bearers of ‘manhaj’ of the likes of Allama Ibn Tayymiyah and Ahmed Ibn Hanbal (May Allah be pleased with them) who despite suffering severe persecution refused to be complicit in the crimes and corruption of rulers. However, the latest blockade against Qatar to toe the Saudi line by elevating sufferings against common Qatari people in the blessed month of Ramadan has generated a massive sympathetic wave in favor of Qatar in the Muslim as well as the non-Muslim world. An example of this backlash can be found in the online community especially by reading their comments on the Saudi-backed state media.
Till now, the Trump-administration has judiciously maintained the balance without annoying any of the factions. But ten thousand American marines are stationed in Qatar and Washington needs airbases to keep its own geopolitical interests alive in the region. Meanwhile, for Qatar the country can’t survive in a volatile neighborhood without a security guarantor, so Doha needs Turkey and Washington to preserve its sovereignty. Therefore, whatever decision these states make, all have to consider their respective interests at stake.
All in all, in the disunity of Muslim Ummah – Israel is the real winner in the region – to firm its grip on the occupation of Al Aqsa and further the agenda of greater Israel.
Shafa’at Wani is a postgraduate student of International Relations at Academy of International Studies, JMI New Delhi.