Tension has occurred in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have accused Qatar of supporting Islamist terrorist groups including ISIS, al-Qaeda and The Muslim Brotherhood. They believe such action impinges on their security and stability. Diplomatic links have been closed, Qatari citizens living in any of these four countries have been expelled and all transport routes by sea, air and land through Saudi Arabia have been blocked. Additionally, these four countries have provided Qatar with thirteen demands they want to be met before the transport blockade is lifted. One major demand is the closure of the Qatari state-owned news network, Al Jazeera. Saudi Arabia and its allies believe the Emir of Qatar made statements on Al Jazeera, which criticized Saudi Arabia and praised Iran.
Qatar insists it has been a victim of false news the aim of which was to humiliate and undermine Qatar. The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed “surprise and regret at the actions of Saudi Arabia and its allies.” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani also asserted the sovereignty of his country had been contravened and that this was against international law. Qatar has hired a Swiss law firm to investigate human rights violations and compensation is being sought. According to Al Jazeera, 19,000 Qatari citizens living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have lost jobs, homes, places at learning institutions and business activities because they have been ordered back to Qatar. Such people have been targeted although they are not part of the state. The Qatar National Human Rights Chairperson has also labelled this as a violation of human rights conventions, and also international and regional agreements. The Times reported Qatar has rejected all demands made and has conveyed this message in strong rhetoric saying its country “is too rich to be threatened.” The Finance Minister of Qatar further explained his country has substantial financial reserves and therefore would be able to withstand any sanctions. He also noted the financial challenges faced by those imposing the sanctions were substantial hurdles for these countries to overcome.
Many countries throughout the world are concerned about the rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies. Russia voiced the importance of stability and cohesion in this part of the world as the fight against terrorism continues, while the United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, urged all involved to resolve their differences. Turkey and Iran have urged all parties to discuss their differences peacefully and reach a solution. Iran placed emphasis on the importance of respecting the sovereignty of each state and has through its Foreign Minister initiated dialogue with Qatar and Turkey. Turkey has offered support to Qatar and noted the crucial nature of regional solidarity. Deputy Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, James Piscatori believes the issue is far more complex than it might initially appear. His view is that Saudi Arabia wants to be the major influence in this region and Qatar is an obstacle in its way. David Roberts, Professor of Defense Studies at Kings College asserted to BBC News that the Qatar news report in which Sheikh al-Thani criticized Saudi Arabia and praised Iran, was merely voicing what many people thought was Qatar’s policy. In the past, Qatar has frequently rejected consensus decisions made by the Gulf Cooperation Council causing frustration in this region. Former attempts to get Qatar to change its behaviour have failed so stronger action was initiated.
Resolving the differences between all parties involved in this dispute through dialogue showing respect, tolerance and understanding seems an admirable way to sort out this complex disagreement. Putting it into practice will be much harder. While the United Nations and the United States may have offered assistance, the challenge requires a depth of knowledge and understanding of Arab-based culture and religion, including the accepted standards of behaviour acknowledged by the participants. This is essential as concepts of power, family links and pride are influenced by culture and religion. Local older Arab leaders have added authority as their knowledge of such matters including kinship systems through male lines is known in detail. The Emir of Kuwait is such an Arab leader and has had experience in a mediator’s role in the past producing a win – win outcome for all involved. He has a reputation for gaining common ground between conflicting countries and is held in high regard by those belonging to the Gulf Cooperation Council. Kuwait took a neutral stance from the outset of this conflict positioning itself to be a mediator if required.
Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and sells a significant quantity to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – two of the countries initiating sanctions against Qatar. Potential challenges could arise if the rift is prolonged. Forty percent of all food consumed in Qatar is imported through Saudi Arabia, another Arab state in conflict with Qatar. Other commodities and travel also use the Saudi route, which could provide challenges for Qatar. Turkey and Iran have seen the potential problems for Qatar and are allowing passage through their areas to assist. Over the years, Qatar has gained political support from these two countries as it supports Islamists unlike Saudi Arabia and its allies. Positive relations with the United States have also been formed resulting in the building of a large United States military base, which is used to fight ISIS. Some analysts have asserted President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia may have encouraged the stronger stance taken against Qatar. The conflict between Qatar and the other four countries is also influenced by Qatar’s closeness to Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran have opposing views on many regional issues, especially Iran’s nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia perceives Iran as having too much influence in Lebanon and Yemen, which provides a barrier for Saudi Arabia achieving its goal of being the major influence in this part of the world.
Isolating Qatar and acting aggressively is no way to resolve differences. Peaceful negotiation is more successful in producing outcomes all parties involved can live with. Both sides are now entrenched in their positions, which will make finding common ground and compromise more difficult although Qatar has indicated it is prepared to discuss matters. Kuwait’s Emir is now needed more than ever to resolve this conflict. His wisdom, knowledge, experience and expertise will be required to get all parties to negotiate with each other. The rest of the world needs to act cautiously to ensure the already tense situation is not provoked.