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Gulf Troika Troubles 23, April 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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The following article was published on 13 March 2014 by the New America Foundation. The original article can be found here.

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It had been coming, some might say, for years. The announcement of the removal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini Ambassadors from Qatar is the latest step in worsening relations between the brotherly Gulf States. The Gulf troika are angry that Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, angry that Qatar has typically taken a conciliatory line towards Iran, angry that Qatar did not support Saudi sponsored groups in Syria, and angry overall that Qatar just will not do as it is told.

This dispute remains – at the moment – limited to individually unimportant acts of political showmanship. Yet, the Gulf is a region that does not need any more complications. If clashes in the region that supplies much of the world’s oil and gas transcend from rhetoric to reality, they could undermine economic recovery efforts around the world.

How did we get here – and how likely is this to blow up into a larger, regional conflict? First, a little background on the Gulf: At first glance, one might expect the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to get along better. They are united to varying degrees by broad religious beliefs with Sunni Islam serving as the dominating denomination. The same families, tribes, and economic systems spread across the GCC states; hydrocarbon industries dominate, which has contributed to the creation of similar political systems. And in the face of Iran, an ideologically, historically, politically, and religiously antithetical state menacingly close by, it would be natural to assume that GCC states would overcome their differences and coordinate their action. In fact, the Iranian threat was the instigating factor behind the formation of the GCC.

Aside from a lack of the necessary maturity of the GCC states to overcome their differences, the key reason for their divisions lies in US protection agreements. Coddled with security agreements and reassured with the presence of huge US military bases in the region, the GCC states don’t feel the pressure to overcome disagreements at the behest of overarching security concerns and are insulated from the realities of their region.

The announcement of the removal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini Ambassadors from Qatar is the latest step in worsening relations between the brotherly Gulf States.

The subsequent bickering has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the early 1990s it reached the level of border clashes between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and in 1996 Riyadh is alleged to have support of a counter coup against former Emir Hamad Al Thani after he took over from his father in 1995. This sour bilateral relationship limped on until 2002 when Saudi Arabia finally had enough and removed its Ambassador from Doha. He did not return until 2008, symbolic of Saudi Arabia finally coming to terms with the independence of Qatar. Though it became independent from Britain in 1971, Saudi Arabia’s rulers still saw the Qatari Peninsula as essentially part of Saudi Arabia: it had extracted taxes from those on the Peninsula, it commanded the loyalty of large tribes draped across the ‘border,’ and Qatar’s leadership in the 1970s and 1980s had shown deference to the Kingdom.

The post-1995 leaders were different. They sought to carve out Qatar’s independence, implementing a raft of policies that served to simultaneously antagonize Saudi Arabia and ram home Qatar’s independence. It worked: Qatar riled the leadership in Riyadh and unequivocally established Qatar’s independence.

Eventually, with the return of the Saudi Ambassador to Doha, the countries reached a compromise:  Saudi Arabia understood that it could not control Qatar anymore, but the more egregious examples of Qatar’s behaviour – notably Doha-based news organization Al Jazeera’s pointed Saudi-focused exposés – had to stop, which they did.

The Arab Spring upset this negotiated truce. Qatar used the links that it had been cultivating for decades with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel most of its support and it was initially successful. It played an important role in the removal of at least two entrenched leaders in the Middle East: Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Mubarak was a stalwart who had friends in the Gulf. Worse still, he was replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood Government: a movement that had long been anathema to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In particular, both countries feared the group’s influence domestically. Now, their brotherly state, Qatar, was directly boosting an organization that had created a movement with the power to marshal the support of hundreds of thousands of Muslims.

Qatar used the links that it had been cultivating for decades with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel most of its support…It played an important role in the removal of at least two entrenched leaders in the Middle East: Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

As Qatar’s support for various Muslim Brothers became increasingly a problem for neighbouring Gulf states, so too the speeches from Qatar by the Muslim Brotherhood’s most prominent cleric, Yusuf Al Qaradawi, were becoming symbolic of the burgeoning differences. In late January 2014 he accused the UAE Government of being ‘against God’, which drew a predictable reaction on social media and led to the summoning of the Qatari Ambassador to the UAE Foreign Ministry for an explanation. This occurred around the same time that he was also uncomplimentary about Saudi Arabia’s links to the military junta in Egypt and rumors surfaced about deep anger in Riyadh as to Qatar’s meddling with Houthi rebels in Yemen. These exact issues have antagonized before, but in this new climate, they have taken on a new importance.

Diplomatic relations haven’t improved much since the start of the Arab Spring. But the recent withdrawal of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini Ambassadors doesn’t indicate big change if it is merely symbolic. What Qatar’s leadership needs to work out is whether this is instead one more step along a continuum of escalation.

Because it could be that the UAE and Saudi are in the process of escalation, or they could simply be trying to change Qatar’s discourse and direction; to cow the independent streak that it has displayed for two decades. They may be trying to take advantage of the young Emir in his first year in office.

Emir Tamim is now stuck between the Scylla of not being able to capitulate in the face of such pressure and the Charybdis of needing to normalize relations to a degree lest the situation escalate even more. The closure of Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, for example, would be devastating in the short term at least for Qatar’s economy, which is hugely dependent on this link in lieu of a port of sufficient size.

The closure of Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, for example, would be devastating in the short term at least for Qatar’s economy, which is hugely dependent on this link in lieu of a port of sufficient size.

So what’s Qatar to do? Emir Tamim’s options are limited. In private and over time, Qatar can promise to quieten down its support for its various Muslim Brotherhood contacts around the Middle East. Many of them have in any case been outmaneuvered in recent months and are less useful today. Restoring a semblance of non-biased reporting and editorial control at Al Jazeera Arabic by redefining its editorial line or removing some journalists, could restore the channel’s image, which has plummeted recently as its Muslim Brotherhood-supporting policies have gathered strength. This would be good for Al Jazeera’s wider reputation, good for Qatar, and placatory to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In the coming weeks, the Emir of Kuwait will launch a mediation effort, a reminder that Kuwait and Oman have not joined in this boycott: That’s not surprising given Kuwait’s fractious domestic politics and Oman’s independent stance. It also underscores an important point: This is not a united GCC front against Qatar.

Since the initial Ambassadorial withdrawal, Emirati and Saudi journalists have been pressured to stop writing for Qatari newspapers: I am sure that that Qatari press will survive. If relations remain at this nigh-on puerile level, then we can hope that Saudi and the UAE have finished for this round. Though the Kuwaiti Emir may offer a shorter-term palliative, for a lasting truce, we might have to wait for leadership changes in the two antagonistic states: something that is likely not that far away in both states given the ages and ill health of their leadership.

 

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