A standoff between the emirate and its neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, has sent ripples across the region – and beyond
In late June, the rulers of Qatar were studying a 13-point list of demands from a coalition of Middle Eastern countries, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which suspended diplomatic relations with the Gulf nation and cut off air and trade links, forcing the emirate to import food from Iran and Turkey.
Qatar was given until early July to comply with the ultimatum. Among its key demands were:
- Reduce diplomatic ties with Iran
- Shut down the al-Jazeera media network and its affiliates
- Halt the development of a Turkish military base in the country
- Sever all ties to ‘terrorist organisations’, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaida and Lebanon’s Hezbollah
- Stop ‘interference’ in the four countries’ affairs, including giving Qatari nationality to wanted citizens of those countries
- Agree to reparations, and monthly audits of compliance for the first year, once per quarter during the second year, and annually for the following 10 years
The demands were criticised as hypocritical – other Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, are well known to be sources of funding for extreme Islamist groups – and as arising more from personal animosities than principles. Ruling elites in the countries in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) have long been infuriated by al-Jazeera’s independence.
Britain indicated that it considered the demands unreasonable. ‘Gulf unity can only be restored when all countries involved are willing to discuss terms that are measured and realistic,’ said the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. ‘The UK calls upon the Gulf states to find a way of de-escalating the situation and lifting the current embargo and restrictions.’
The US approach under Donald Trump was typically confused, with the President claiming credit for the embargo and calling Qatar, which hosts a major American military base, a sponsor of terrorism. But both the State Department and the Pentagon criticised the Saudi-led crackdown, and Turkey rejected any military withdrawal from Qatar.
Below, Stratfor analyses the tensions underlying the worst diplomatic crisis the Gulf region has seen in decades.
The spark of a crisis
The current deterioration in relations was sparked by the remarks of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who was quoted expressing support for Iran, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood at a military graduation speech on May 23. Other Gulf states started banning Qatari media outlets, including al-Jazeera, and a flurry of accusations then flew through media outlets on both sides, possibly suggesting a concerted move by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to display Qatar in a bad light.
Closing Qatar’s only land border, with Saudi Arabia, and halting air and sea traffic was intended to put economic pressure on Qatar, which used to receive between 40 and 50 per cent of its food imports, including most fresh dairy, vegetables, fruit and processed cereals, overland. But when considering overall imports, the blockade will not have as much of an effect on Qatar, which receives only 8.8 per cent of its imported goods (including construction materials) from the UAE and only 4.3 per cent from Saudi Arabia.
The air travel ban will pile more problems on a struggling Qatar Airways, which immediately lost its right to serve 19 destinations in the countries that issued the bans. The state-linked airline was already dealing with a 38 per cent loss in its brand value over the past year (it is now worth $2.2 billion).
If the trade and travel blockades continue, Qatar may experience food price inflation, though food aid pledged by Iran could mitigate that, and the emirate, with the world’s highest income per head ($74,800), has said it can hold out indefinitely. In the highly competitive banking and financial-services sectors, however, prolonged economic sanctions could undermine Qatar’s competitiveness with other GCC states.
Those states want al-Jazeera shut down, along with other smaller channels like al-Araby al-Jadeed. Those media outlets, which routinely contradict the GCC’s heavily Saudi-influenced positions, have afforded Qatar an outsized influence on policy debates.
Echoes of the past
Parallels can be drawn between the latest crisis and the 2014 conflict that pitted the UAE and Saudi Arabia against Qatar. That arose from Qatar’s continued embrace of regional Islamist groups that the other two states deemed a threat, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Both disputes stem from the same root: Qatar lacks the demographic and sectarian diversity with which other GCC states must contend, freeing Doha to support regional groups that help it expand its influence without stirring up trouble at home.
As its ties with its immediate neighbours erode, Doha could turn to Iraq as well as Iran and Turkey. A June 5 meeting in Baghdad among those three countries, called by the head of Iran’s Expediency Council, highlights that possibility. Qatar and Turkey have built close and ever-growing ties, and Iraq’s powerful Sunni parliament speaker met with al-Thani on June 4, a sign of the countries’ positive relationship. While none of these countries could supplant the support that Qatar has enjoyed from the GCC network for decades, or from the United States, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to punish Qatar could spur deeper co-operation between Qatar and other non-GCC countries.
The embargo is a co-ordinated effort to push Qatar to align with the Saudi-led consensus on the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, which is shared by the US. But the rift also complicates Washington’s mission, since it counts on a tight Sunni coalition to manage regional threats like Islamic State. Qatar hosts the second-largest American military presence in the region, including the US command centre co-ordinating the fight against IS. A substantial percentage of American regional air sorties take off from the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
The US military announced that it did not plan to adjust its posture in response to the diplomatic row, reassuring Qatar and prolonging its ability to hold out under GCC pressure. Meanwhile, though the US routinely maintains military ties with countries that are at odds with one another, the severity of the intra-GCC split this time around only underscores the weaknesses of its effort to foster a viable ‘Arab Nato’.