Qatar and the Crisis in the Middle East
Photo Credit: The Financial Express
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Qatar and the Crisis in the Middle East

Jun. 12, 2017  |     |  0 comments

On June 5, 2017, the Gulf Arab state of Qatar suddenly suffered diplomatic isolation and an economic blockade for what its critics alleged to be its support of terrorism. As of this time of writing, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE — key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — along with Egypt, Yemen, Mauritius, Mauritania, the Maldives, and the eastern government of Libya, have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. This Saudi-led coalition has also imposed an economic blockade, with Saudi Arabia closing off its land border with Qatar, and the coalition members sealing off Qatar’s air and sea connections, including overflight and port access. Regional banks have begun “cutting their exposure to Qatar,” in fear of likely financial sanctions. Saudi Arabia has closed the local office of Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV channel; Jordan has revoked Al Jazeera’s operating license; and the UAE has warned that it will “prosecute and punish with fines and jail time people expressing sympathy for Qatar on social media.”

The eruption of the Qatar crisis was the culmination of years of grievances. Roula Khalaf reminds us that “for some time, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been enraged by the democratic winds blowing in the wake of the Arab spring and Qatar’s enthusiastic embrace of revolutionaries, including political Islamist extremists. While Qatar secretly hoped revolutions would march all the way to the Gulf, led by a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi and Emirati leaders were resolved to extinguish these flames long before they reach the Gulf.”

Qatar’s maverick behavior in the Gulf was rooted in its palace coup of 1995, when the pro-Saudi emir was ousted by his son, the father of the current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. As Marc Champion notes, that was also the year when Qatar made its first shipment of liquified natural gas (LNG) from the North Field — the world’s largest natural gas field — which it shares with Iran. Qatar’s exploitation of “the world’s third-largest gas deposits” have transformed it into “not just the world’s richest nation, with an annual per-capita income of $130,000, but also the world’s largest LNG exporter.” This gas-derived bounty “allowed it to break from domination by Saudi Arabia,” and Qatar has since established “its own ties with other powers including Iran, the US — Qatar hosts US Central Command — and more recently, Russia.”

This independent behavior fueled resentment, and “the rest of the region has been looking for an opportunity to clip Qatar’s wings.” As David Des Roches notes, just a fortnight before the Saudi-led crackdown on Qatar, a major foreign policy conference in Washington DC presented evidence of Qatar’s alleged misdeeds including “its support for Hamas, Islamist fighters in Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its willingness to provide refuge for Taliban members.”

One particular misdeed which helped trigger the current crisis was the USD 1 billion ransom payment Qatar is alleged to have made this April for members of its royal family who had been kidnapped while on a falconry trip to Iraq. This ransom payment allegedly “paid off two of the most frequently blacklisted forces of the Middle East in one fell swoop: an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria and Iranian security officials.” The allegation of the Qatari payment to Iran was particularly egregious to the Gulf Arab states as they regard Iran as “fueling conflicts in the Arab world.” Qatar has issued a strong denial of these allegations of its support for terrorism, though it has admitted that it “could still do more to … stem terrorism financing” emanating from its territory.

The Saudi-led coalition is, at this time of writing, preparing a list of conditions that Qatar will have to fulfill before relations can be restored to normal. These include demands that Qatar “stop its alleged financing of Middle East extremist groups,” including “al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria and Yemen,” and that it “sever relations with the political leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.” To facilitate this, the Saudi coalition has issued a list of individuals and organizations who have allegedly “financed terrorist organizations and received support from Qatar.” The list includes Yousuf Al Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based cleric who is associated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, as well as 18 Qataris who are “businessmen, politicians and senior members of the ruling family including a former interior minister.”

The Saudi coalition is also demanding that Qatar “significantly scale back the Al Jazeera media network,” which Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have long seen as a meddlesome Qatari instrument designed to “destabilize their countries.” Following the Saudi coalition’s isolation of Qatar, Al Jazeera’s telecommunications infrastructure has come under “systematic and continual hacking attempts” which are “gaining intensity and taking various forms.”

To emphasize their demands, the Saudi coalition is prepared to impose “additional economic sanctions” on Qatar. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, has stated that “a sort of embargo” could eventually be imposed on Qatar.

Kuwait, one of the GCC members which has not joined the Saudi coalition, has emerged as the local mediator in the crisis.

It does not appear, however, that Qatar is about to back down anytime soon. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani has stated that the kingdom is “not ready to surrender, and will never be ready to surrender, the independence of our foreign policy.”

To prepare for possible military intervention from the Saudi coalition, Qatar has “put the military on its highest alert,” and issued a warning to “the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, saying they would fire on any naval ships from those countries that enter into its waters.” In addition, in a move that could further expand and escalate the crisis, Turkey has sent troops to Qatar to bolster its defenses.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a senior Turkish official explained: “We feel Qatar and Saudi Arabia are very close friends and we do not want to differentiate between them and take sides.” However, in the current situation, Turkey “will not allow Qatar to be beaten up.”

Turkey’s military support is in concordance with the Turkish-Qatari strategic alliance under which “Ankara would protect Qatar from external military threats” in exchange for Qatar’s support of the Turkish economy. In addition, Turkey’s ruling AKP Party (Justice and Development Party) has a decades-long friendship with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — one of the extremist movements the Saudi coalition has denounced Qatar for supporting.

Should the conflict escalate, Qatar holds a powerful trump card over the UAE, as it supplies the LNG which allows the UAE to “generate half its electricity … Without this energy artery, Dubai’s glittering skyscrapers would go dark for lack of power unless the emirate could replace Qatari fuel with more expensive liquefied natural gas.” Not surprisingly, the LNG pipeline was not among the connections the UAE severed with Qatar. For the time being, Qatar has confirmed that it will “respect the LNG gas agreements it has made with the United Arab Emirates.”

The US has offered to mediate in the crisis. US President Donald Trump has recommended Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has “dealt with Qatari leaders for years as chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp.,” to be mediator, and has also invited the parties in the conflict to a meeting at the White House. However, any perception of US impartiality in the conflict was quickly destroyed by Trump’s personal tweets indicating his support for the Saudi initiative, and Qatar has declined Trump’s invitation, explaining that its emir “has no plans to leave Qatar while the country is under a blockade.”

Kuwait, one of the GCC members which has not joined the Saudi coalition, has emerged as the local mediator in the crisis. Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah has flown to the UAE and Qatar, and has also met with his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Tamim to discuss ways to end the crisis. However, a diplomat in Kuwait has stated that the crisis is not likely to end soon, and that “the feeling here is that it is going to take a while to fix. It is more about preventing things from getting worse.”

Iran has offered Qatar assistance “with securing food supplies” and has offered to “designate three of its ports to Qatar,” should these be needed. Russia has also offered help with food supplies. Dzhambulat Khatuov, the Russian First Deputy Minister of Agriculture, has confirmed that Russia is “ready to increase food deliveries to Qatar” should Qatar make the request.

In the meantime, countries in the Muslim world which have remained neutral thus far, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan, may find themselves pressured into choosing a side. Impoverished countries like Somalia which depend on “humanitarian assistance and budget support” from wealthy Arab states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, could face a dilemma should the Saudi coalition demand that they sever ties with Qatar.

China has called on the “relevant countries” in the conflict to “appropriately resolve the disputes” between themselves, pointing out that “maintaining peace and stability in the Gulf is best for everyone.” China has significant economic engagements with the key countries involved in the crisis, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran. Some of these economic partnerships could be damaged should the crisis escalate and China be forced to take sides.

In the case of China’s economic friendship with Qatar, both countries have growing trade and investment relations, including USD 8 billion worth of Chinese investments in Qatari infrastructure projects that were signed in 2014, as well as a major contract for China Railway Construction Corp to construct a stadium for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. However, the long-standing allegations of Qatar’s support for terrorist groups have been “a source of unease for Beijing,” especially given China’s security concerns over “the influence of Islamist extremism spreading … into China’s northwestern Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.” In addition, like the other countries in the Saudi coalition, China has encountered problems with Al Jazeera’s “interference” in its internal affairs, and in 2012 an Al Jazeera journalist was expelled from the country. Should the crisis escalate, China will have to weigh its economic interests in Qatar against its security concerns.


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