Turmoil in the Gulf and the Persian interest
by Sandhya Jain on 27 Jun 2017 8 Comments
With a sovereign wealth fund of $335 billion and a miniscule citizenry (12 per cent of 2.5 million residents), Qatar has long enjoyed the luxury of engaging in regional politics without fear of domestic unrest, unlike its neighbours. But on June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain injected high voltage instability in the region by severing ties with Doha over its allegedly “hostile and divisive foreign policy”.


Riyadh, which led the crackdown, demanded that Qatar give up its regional adventurism (read independence) and align its policy with that of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Saudi boycott was quickly followed by Yemen, the Maldives, Mauritius, Mauritania, and Haftar-controlled eastern Libya. Like Qatar, Jordan also has strong ties with Israel; it quietly lowered diplomatic representation in Doha. Without a rapid de-escalation of the crisis, Qatar could leave the GCC.


Widely seen as a nudge to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to step down, the Saudi action has been closely followed by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s abrupt decision to end the House of Saud’s system of rotating kingship within the clan and establish his own dynasty by appointing his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31, as crown prince (June 21).


The downsizing of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had excellent ties with Qatar and had successfully dismantled Al Qaeda’s network in Saudi Arabia, has been accompanied by whispers of Salman abdicating in favour of his son. With many royal family stalwarts sure to be unhappy at the sudden developments in Riyadh, the desert kingdom could itself face more instability than bargained for. In April 2015, Salman had deposed his half-brother, Prince Muqrin, in favour of the now axed Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.


The genesis of the conflict goes back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Qatar engaged with Israel, Hezbollah, and Iran, and established itself as a link between international powers and pariah groups. During the US invasion of Afghanistan, Washington reputedly urged Qatar to liaise with the Taliban. After the Arab Spring, Qatar enhanced support to the Muslim Brotherhood, expecting it to emerge victorious (it ruled Egypt for a year till the army takeover in 2013), which agitated Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their rule.


Qatar is also accused of ties with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Its Gulf neighbours insist that Doha expel all Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood members from its soil, freeze the bank accounts of Hamas members, stop supporting “terrorist organisations”, and stop giving Qatari nationality to citizens of the four countries.


Shiite-majority Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni minority, blames Iran for the 2011 uprising that Saudi troops helped to quell. The angry Arab states demand that Qatar degrade diplomatic and economic ties with Iran and expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards from its territory. Doha denies they are event present on its soil; most international observers agree. More pertinently, Qatar and Iran share South Pars, the world’s largest gas field, in the Persian Gulf, so ruining relations is not an option. In fact, Qatar congratulated Hassan Rouhani on his reelection as President of Iran. But Riyadh and Tehran back opposing sides in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, and seek to curtail each other’s influence in Africa, Asia and the Middle East in general. Doha is caught in the middle.


The current crisis was allegedly triggered by Qatar’s move to quietly pay a ransom of around $1 billion to Al-Qaeda and Iran-backed militias in Syria to release Qatari hostages.  Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claims his government has custody of the money (around $500 million). But Riyadh feels a covert deal undermines its counter-terrorism efforts and encourages militias to take hostages for ransom and political leverage. Yet Qatar helped release US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban (May 2014) and US journalist Peter Theo Curtis from Jabhat al-Nusra, then Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate (August 2014).


As of now, American policy seems confused. President Donald Trump initially expressed support for Riyadh, where he recently made a whopping $110 billion sale of arms, but was soon informed that the US Central Command’s largest overseas base, which manages all military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the air war against ISIS, is at Al Udeid, in Qatar. He later sold Qatar warplanes worth $12 billion.


The four Arab states have since presented Qatar with a list of 13 demands, including shutting down Al Jazeera television, closing a Turkish military base in Qatar, downgrading ties with Iran, and paying reparations, as the price of removing the blockade of food and trade items across its only land border (with Saudi Arabia).


Worried at dwindling supplies of food items, Qatar turned to Iran and Turkey, both of which sent shiploads of supplies. Ankara said the demand to shut its military base was interference in Ankara-Doha ties and moved fast to augment Turkish presence there.


Qatar has been asked to sever ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Jabhat Fateh al Sham, al-Qaeda’s former branch in Syria, and surrender all designated terrorists on its territory. Qatar asserts there will be no negotiations until the four nations restore economic, diplomatic and travel ties with Doha. Most foreign observers view the demands as too extreme to be acceptable. Moscow feels the dispute will thwart efforts to find a Syria settlement or fight terrorism.


Al Jazeera, Qatar’s state-funded satellite broadcaster that articulates a range of opinions and is immensely popular across the Middle East, has irritated Arab governments that exercise firm control over their own media. Tensions rose sharply in May after it published an article which quoted Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani as praising Israel and Iran, Riyadh’s regional rivals. Qatar claimed the article was planted by hackers, but few believed it.


A solution is still possible as Riyadh and Doha have previously resolved disputes through dialogue. Tehran, however, hopes the rift will weaken the GCC and US-Arab alliance to its strategic advantage, as it has been anxious over the possible emergence of an “Arab-NATO” ever since President Trump sought to unite Muslim countries against Iran.


Beijing has refrained from taking sides in the conflict, but fears that the unexpected flare-up could threaten its Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI) as the Saudi-Iran proxy war could spill over into Balochistan, a critical section of its ambitious project. Currently, all roads to and from the Gulf are in turmoil.  

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