This past Sunday several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, in what has quickly morphed into a full-blown diplomatic crisis, one whose consequences could be wide ranging in a region plagued by political instability. Qatar stands accused, by its neighbours, of causing instability in the region due to its ties to terrorist groups. The same accusation had previously been levelled against it during a 2014 crisis, similar to the ongoing one (involving the same set of actors). That row was eventually resolved. A swift resolution seems unlikely this time around, in light of an alleged statement attributed to the Qatari Emir, in which he both criticized leaders of the Gulf States for their destabilizing actions in MENA (The Middle East and North Africa) and called for a more conciliatory approach to their rival Iran. Saudi Arabia and company, it appears, are actively seeking to correct the behaviour of their regional ally as a consequence of that statement. Lest it be forgotten, both Iran and Saudi Arabia share a long-standing rivalry, which has in recent times evolved into a high-stakes game, geopolitically speaking. A result of that rivalry has been the long-running wars in both Yemen and Syria, largely influenced by either side. The events of the past two weeks have the potential to ratchet up tensions in an already troubled region.
Also of equal relevance to the crisis was President Trump’s visit to the region. Trump’s stance toward Iran is now recognized as having emboldened Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf neighbours. His opposition to Iran and the ever so unpopular nuclear deal, the US’s $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and his views on Islamist armed groups, are largely seen as having emboldened Saudi Arabia in relation to both Iran and Qatar.
Based on what has transpired in the last 48 hours, it is safe to say relations between the countries in question have never reached such alarming depths. The severing of ties involves several measures including air and land blockades, the ejection of its diplomats from the Gulf countries, the closing of the shared land border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and the decision to force Qatari nationals to leave the allied countries within two weeks. In the short term, the decision to close Qatar’s only border will have an immediate impact on its food supply, 40% of which depends on its land route via the aforementioned land border. In what has been deemed a well-coordinated move by the Gulf States, it is quite clear that an altogether new approach must be found in order to tackle the current dispute.
A different approach is required, especially at a time when Qatar’s response to the heightened tensions has largely been defiant (although it vehemently denies all accusations currently against at it). The Emir of Qatar even took the interesting step of offering the sternest of rebuttals towards Saudi Arabia, in the form of a call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, to congratulate him on his re-election. Such an action seems consistent with the recently released Qatari statement calling the actions of the Gulf States and Egypt a violation of its sovereignty. At the very least, it suggests that as a nation, Qatar is unwilling to follow a foreign policy agenda set by its neighbours, which ignores economic considerations such as the major offshore gas field it shares with Iran. In terms of what this means to the prospect of finding an amicable and peaceful solution to the dispute, it appears as though a less drastic stance by the Gulf States is required. For all we know, measures like the ones currently in place could serve to push Qatar further into Iran’s sphere of influence, a move which could signal a clear “drawing” of battle lines in a rivalry which has for so long been characterized by proxy conflicts and coordinated media campaigns on both sides.
Statements like the one released this week by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in which he downplayed the seriousness of the dispute, seem rather unfortunate considering the role played by the current US administration in driving much of the anti-Iranian sentiment. Not too long ago the Iran nuclear deal had provided the basis for a genuine warming of relations between the US and Iran. Yet, the present day shifting of alliances, pitting the US and its Gulf state allies against Iran, has led to much of the infighting witnessed throughout these past two weeks. Diplomatic craftsmanship and a recognition by all parties of the need to centre efforts on pressing matters, such as finding a peaceful solution to the wars in Syria and Yemen is what is most needed at the moment. Perhaps the same level of effort and planning that went into hosting a summit for Donald Trump during his first trip abroad could be of use in bringing about a peaceful and open dialogue between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours.
Of equal importance is the need to determine whether the accusations of terrorist links are even true. An independent investigation into these claims would go a long way in easing what must surely be an uncomfortable situation for the US, owing to how crucial Qatar is to any efforts aimed at tackling extremism and bringing stability to the region, Qatar is currently home to one the largest US military bases in the Middle East. The word “independent”, in light of the fact that Qatar considers the accusations (and the subsequent media campaigns) to be part of an orchestrated move by Saudi Arabia. An investigation would serve to remove any sense of bias/targeting. Only then could we begin to see a move away from the current impasse.
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