The Qatar Blockade Is Consolidating Serious Regional Divisions

Instead of calming down, the situation in the Gulf is becoming even more complicated. It is likely that the crisis will go on for a while still, and new relations will emerge from it.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud shakes hands with US President Donald Trump during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017. Credit" Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud shakes hands with US President Donald Trump during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017. Credit” Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters

This sordid three-month old drama began at the end of May, when global media reported that on May 25, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, had, while addressing a military parade, warned Saudi Arabia about depending too much on US president Donald Trump as a political ally against Iran, given Trump’s political problems at home. Further, he was reported to have advised his Gulf partners to reach out to Iran as an Islamic country and a “major regional power” for the “stabilisation of the region”, and to view the Hamas and Hezbollah as “legitimate resistance groups”.

Every one of these contentions was unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. These reports had appeared a day after Trump’s departure from Riyadh, his first foreign trip as president, when he had expressed full support for Saudi Arabia in its effort to put together a “Sunni” military and political coalition against Iran, and applauded the kingdom as a major ally in the war on terrorism and extremism.

Again, Hezbollah, Iran’s creation and ally, was the kingdom’s enemy in Syria, while support for Hamas was seen as reflecting Qatar’s long-standing affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological and political rival of some Gulf Arab states and Egypt.

The Qatar blockade

Qatar officially denied that its ruler had made any of those remarks, insisting that its official sites had been hacked. Notwithstanding these protestations, on June 5, Saudi Arabia put together a coalition consisting of the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and led a well-orchestrated campaign against Qatar that included the recall of ambassadors, closure of air space to Qatar’s national carrier and expulsion of Qatari nationals from their countries. The kingdom also closed its land border with Qatar, while the four partners also denied access at their ports to ships flying Qatari flags.

Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper accused Qatar of “breaking ranks” and choosing to “side with the enemies of the nation”, while Qatar’s official sites and the website of the Doha-based Al Jazeera network were blocked.

An editorial in the Abu Dhabi-based The National said: “For too long, Qatar has tried to face two ways, one eye on the Arabian Peninsula, one eye on Iran. That has to end. Comments such as [those of the Qatari Amir] … sow division between the GCC and our allies around the world. And of greatest concern, they give Iran the perception that it can divide the Gulf States.”

In a particularly harsh attack on Qatar’s royal family, Saudi Arabia published a letter signed by 200 descendants of the 18th-century cleric Sheikh Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, whose doctrines constitute the basis of the Saudi (and Qatari) doctrinal belief system, where it was asserted that the claim of the Qatari royal family to descend from their revered ancestor was fabricated, thus questioning the right of the Al Thani royal family to rule its island nation.

Regional divisions emerge

Not surprisingly, Trump entered the intra-Arab spat by strongly supporting Saudi Arabia. In a series of tweets, the president said, “During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology.” Trump, who made the cutting of terrorist funding a centrepiece of his trip to Saudi Arabia, said he was responsible for the tough Saudi action; he tweeted: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding.” Moments later, he added: “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

Qatar, however, found a friend in the Turkish president: Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the isolation of Qatar as “inhumane and against Islamic values” and said the methods used against the Gulf state were unacceptable and analogous to a “death penalty.” Daily Sabah, a newspaper with close ties to the government of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as Turkish foreign ministry sources, accused the UAE of having pumped $3 billion into the failed coup that the president blames on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who lives in exile in the US.

Iran said that its three ports on the Gulf would be available for shipments of essential supplies to Qatar and had already begun to airlift food supplies. Qatar also obtained support from Iraq and Oman. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came to Qatar’s defence by countering allegations that the Gulf state had funded militants. Al-Abadi said that a ransom paid by Qatar for the release of 26 members of its ruling family who were kidnapped in December 2015 while hunting in Iraq remained in Iraq’s central bank. Again, Oman, with Kuwait one of two Gulf Arab states to have refrained from joining the Saudi-UAE campaign, opened its ports to Qatari shipping.

The Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the final session of the South American-Arab Countries summit, in Riyadh in 2015. Credit: Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

The Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani attends the final session of the South American-Arab Countries summit, in Riyadh in 2015. Credit: Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

“Thirteen demands”

Two weeks later, on June 23, the quartet escalated the pressure on Qatar by presenting 13 demands as a pre-condition for lifting the embargo; these included:

  • Close down Al Jazeera television network and all its affiliates, plus other Qatar-funded news outlets
  • Close a military base operated by Turkey
  • Expel all citizens of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain currently in Qatar
  • Hand over all individuals wanted by those four countries for terrorism
  • Stop funding any extremist entities that are designated as terrorist groups by the US
  • Provide detailed information about opposition figures Qatar has funded
  • Shut down diplomatic posts in Iran
  • Expel members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard
  • Conduct trade and commerce with Iran only in conformity with US sanctions

The list required Qatar to stop interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs. Qatar also had to rescind citizenships given to people from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain or Egypt if it was deemed that they had broken the law of these countries. The list asked Qatar to pay reparations to the four countries that initiated the boycott as “compensation for its policies”, cut ties with terrorist, sectarian or ideological groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, end the funding of terrorism and hand over terrorists.

Finally, Saudi Arabia and its allies called for a monitoring mechanism to ensure that Qatar was meeting these demands, with checks once a month for the first year, every three months for the second year and once a year for ten years after that. Qatar was given ten days to accept these demands.

In response, Qatar insisted it would not accept any demand that compromised its sovereignty or amounted to interference in its internal affairs. It also denied various Saudi and UAE allegations against it. The Gulf state said that it would only negotiate an end to the crisis once the embargo had been lifted. West Asia commentator James Dorsey said that these demands, if accepted by Qatar, “would turn the Gulf state into a Saudi vassal, were unlikely to facilitate a quick resolution of the three-week-old Gulf crisis.”

Also read: Roots of Current Gulf Crisis Go Back to Arab Upheavals of 2011

Qatar responded to the land and air siege with considerable bravado. Qatar Airways, whose flights were forced to leave the region through Iranian airspace, began running up to eight extra cargo flights every day to bring fresh supplies of fruit, meat and vegetables to Doha. Executives have ordered new cargo planes and employees anticipate little difficulty in handling the increased freight. A $7-billion port, which started operations in December, is expected to pick up the rest of the slack with shipments from new suppliers in Iran, India and elsewhere.

To show that its finances could withstand any long-term economic blockade, Qatar on July 4 announced a boost in its gas production. The head of the state-owned Qatar Petroleum told a press conference that the emirate intended to produce 100 million tonnes of natural gas a year by 2024, up 30% from current levels. Qatar has also complained to the WTO and the International Civil Aviation Organisation against restrictions on its trade and flights.

Blockade consolidated

On July 5, the foreign ministers of the quartet met in Cairo and issued “six principles” that Qatar should accept before the sanctions can be lifted; these included:

  • Commitment to combat extremism and terrorism in all their forms and to prevent their financing or providing safe havens
  • Suspending all acts of provocation and speeches inciting to hatred or violence
  • Refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of states and from supporting illegal entities.

It initially appeared that these principles, which did not mention the 13 demands, would replace the demands issued earlier and, with their vague wording, could be acceptable to Qatar. This impression was soon corrected as in public briefings, the quartet’s ministers insisted on the full implementation of the 13 demands as a pre-condition for the lifting of the embargo. Initiatives by the amir of Kuwait and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson to resolve the matter diplomatically floundered in the face of the hard line adopted by the quartet, which reiterated the need for Qatar to accept the 13 demands.

Tillerson’s initiative was dogged by public differences between him and his president: while he described the Qatari position as “reasonable”, Trump said that he and Tillerson had “a little bit of a difference, only in terms of tone” on the Qatar issue. Qatar was “known as a funder of terrorism,” Trump insisted, “and we said you can’t do that.” He also said the US would have no problem giving up its important Al Udeid military base in Qatar; he said, “If we ever had to leave, we would have ten countries willing to build us another one.”

Later, on July 14, in a phone call with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Trump reiterated support for the countries boycotting Qatar when he “emphasised the need to cut all funding for terrorism and discredit extremist ideology,” the White House said in a statement.

Qatar's foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson exchange a memorandum of understanding in Doha, Qatar, July 11, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Naseem Zeitoon

Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson exchange a memorandum of understanding in Doha, Qatar, July 11, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Naseem Zeitoon

Saudi-UAE culpability

In recent weeks, the scenario has got even more complicated. Towards the middle of July, reports emerged in the US media that American intelligence sources believed that the UAE had orchestrated the entire crisis on May 23 by hacking into Qatari government websites and planting false and provocative statements attributed to the Qatari Amir, which the Saudis and others then used to begin the pressure campaign against Doha.

Another, possibly pro-Qatar, organisation, Global Leaks, hacked the gmail account of the UAE ambassador in Washington Yousef Al Otaiba and published messages suggesting that the arrangements to pressurise Qatar to change its political positions had been pre-planned between the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

It is obvious that Trump’s foray into West Asian politics has been a source of considerable disruption in the region. In backing the kingdom, the US president has been motivated by a visceral animosity for Iran and sees Saudi Arabia as a partner against Iran and Islamic extremism. But this has also meant Trump’s approval for the accession of the Saudi ruler’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as the crown prince with untrammelled political, military, intelligence and economic powers, his endorsement of the kingdom’s hard stand against Iran and his sanction of the tough position adopted by the kingdom and its allies against Qatar.

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky have written in Foreign Affairs that US backing has “given the Saudis and company a blank check in agreeing to underwrite the risks of confronting Qatar”. In the wake of the Arab Spring, both Prince Mohammed and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the effective ruler of the UAE, see a political threat to their domestic patronage-based, royal family-led order from the Muslim Brotherhood, and a strategic threat from Iran that is viewed as expanding its regional influence through its sectarian allies.

The collapse of the GCC

Buoyed by Trump’s support, both princes thought the moment opportune to end Qatar’s maverick postures relating to Iran and the Brotherhood and bring it back into the mainstream “Sunni” coalition set up to promote the interests of the kingdom and its allies who share their concerns about Qatar’s recalcitrant attitude.

But, as with other Saudi projects pursued by the impetuous crown prince in Syria and Yemen, the intimidation of Qatar has not yielded the expected results: not only has Qatar refused to back down, it has also found solid support in Turkey and Iran, thus discrediting at once both the Saudi plan to bring Qatar into the “Sunni” mainstream and the proposed “Sunni” alliance itself, given that Turkey has refused to be part of it. In fact, to assert the depth of their strategic partnership, Qatar and Turkey in early August conducted military exercises to defend “vital economic, strategic and infrastructure facilities,” as reported by a Qatari newspaper.

Also by Talmiz Ahmad: Qatar-Saudi Rift is Part of the Turmoil Trump’s Visit Left Behind in West Asia

The Saudi-UAE confrontation of Qatar has also called into question the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the grouping of six Arab Gulf countries which have traditionally been bonded by history, politics and culture. While internecine differences and rivalries have constantly bedevilled their mutual interactions so that they have been unable to build common security and defence institutions, the GCC has rarely been as divided as now, as people see major members countries browbeat and humiliate a smaller partner nation to compel abandonment of its cherished views and values.

The GCC now has a three-member core group of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, with Qatar, Kuwait and Oman viewed as outsiders. In fact, the latter two countries have every reason to be concerned that they too could be subjected to pressure to mend their ways: Oman is known to be close to Iran and had, indeed, facilitated the US-Iran engagement during the Barack Obama administration, while Kuwait has a legitimate Brotherhood-affiliated political party that stands for elections and has members in the national assembly.

Saudi King Salman (C) attends a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia May 31, 2016. Credit: Saudi Press Agency/Handout via Reuters

Saudi King Salman (C) attends a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia May 31, 2016. Credit: Saudi Press Agency/Handout via Reuters

The Saudi-Israel affiliation

Perhaps irked by its inability to get Qatar to mend its ways, Saudi Arabia has launched vicious attacks on its GCC partner through paid TV advertisements in the US. These advertisements have been sponsored by the “Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee” (SAPRAC), a pro-Saudi lobbyist, which has spent thousands of dollars on TV spots in the Washington area, portraying Qatar as supporting “terrorism” and destabilising US allies in the Gulf region.

SAPRAC is headed by Saudi commentator Salman Al-Ansari, who had in October last year written a controversial article advocating closer Saudi ties with Israel. He had then said that Prince Mohammed is “prepared and willing to develop real, enduring ties with Israel”. The kingdom’s detractors, Qatari and Iranian, are happy to highlight the fact that pro-Israel lobbyists are willing to support the lobbying efforts of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the US.

In fact, the Saudi-UAE affinity with Israel is clearly spelt out in a leaked email of the UAE ambassador in the US, Al Otaiba, who describes new political alliances in West Asia thus: “Qatar, Turkey, Hamas, and Muslim Brotherhood on one team. UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel on the other team.” He then makes the surprising comment: “We see ourselves as the moderate, secular faction, while Qatar champions the extremist/radical political Islamist team.”

The US analyst Mark Perry has said that “the Israelis nearly crowed when the Saudi-Qatari rift was made public, as it confirmed their view that—in the fight against Iran—they and the Sunni world see eye-to-eye.” Israel is delighted to associate itself with the Saudi-led “Sunni” alliance due to their shared animosity for Iran. Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s former defence minister, confirmed this when he said that Tel Aviv strongly supported the Saudi action: “The Sunni Arab countries, apart from Qatar, are largely in the same boat with us since we all see a nuclear Iran as the number one threat against all of us.”

The regional divide

The quick results that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had hoped for are not likely to realised any time soon, if at all. But since the quartet continue to insist on their all-or-nothing position, there is no scope for compromise either. Hence, there is little doubt that the stand-off against Qatar will continue. A writer in the Qatar-owned news portal, al-araby al-youm, has predicted that the status quo could continue for an “indefinite period”.

The distinguished writer on Arab affairs, Abdel Bari Atwan, is less sanguine and fears that the Saudi-led coalition could escalate matters and even veer towards a military solution to the impasse. He notes in this regard the Saudi foreign minister’s description of Qatari criticism of hajj arrangements for its pilgrims as a “declaration of war” and refers to persistent reports, not denied by officials, that Egyptian troops might be deployed at Bahrain’s Hawar island, facing Qatar. He concludes that the coming weeks could disclose “some shocking measures on the part of the four states blockading Qatar”.

Atwan may be hinting at a Saudi-initiated regime change in Doha. This has been a matter of speculation for some time, but gained considerable traction in recent days  in the context of a little-known Qatari royal family member, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani, being given a warm welcome in Saudi Arabia, with the kingdom highlighting his role in facilitating the opening of the closed Saudi-Qatar land border for the movement of Qatari pilgrims. He is also reported to have met King Salman, presently holidaying in Morocco.

Sheikh Abdullah, who normally resides in London, is a cousin of the former amir referred to as “Father Amir” and is the son of an earlier amir deposed by the grandfather of Sheikh Tamim. Official circles in Qatar said that the sheikh’s mission had been personal, not official, even as the country was convulsed in rumours of the sheikh being promoted by the kingdom to replace Sheikh Tamim. However, most commentators believe that the media attention given to Sheikh Abdullah was aimed at putting pressure on Sheikh Tamim, with little likelihood of a regime change being effected: in fact, the present crisis has boosted the amir’s status and promoted nation-wide loyalty to him.

Regional commentators do not see any useful role being played by the Trump administration in addressing the situation, given that his administration is deeply divided, with both secretary of state Tillerson and defence secretary James Mattis wanting to re-build the GCC coalition against Iran, while their president continues to back the Saudi agenda.

The editor of the Egyptian paper Al Shurouq, has noted that General Anthony Zinni, former head of Central Command, was recently included in a high-level official US delegation to pursue peace prospects in the region. Zinni, the editor says, has since 2009 been closely associated with the US arms industry, thus confirming with this visit that the Trump administration’s principal interest in West Asia will be defence sales.

The region will remain divided broadly on the lines envisaged by Al Otaiba in his leaked email, with the possible limited addition of Iran on the Qatar-Turkey side. In a tweet, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, had said that the crisis will be prolonged and “new relations will emerge and take shape”. He is likely to be very close to the truth.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat and consulting editor of The Wire, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.