New lines drawn in the Middle East
By VRINDA GUPTA | June 8, 2017
In what seems to be the first major disruption in Middle Eastern diplomacy in decades, four Arab countries have cut ties with the small Gulf state of Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have reduced relations with Qatar to the point of expelling immigrants. Maldives, the government of East Libya and Yemen soon decided to follow suit and widen the rift. The tiny, futuristic peninsula was immediately hit with a crisis when all air, land and water routes to and from the country were closed. If that wasn’t defining enough, Qatar was also expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels in Yemen.
Qatar is well on its way to globalization. The generous reserves of oil in the country have allowed it to become one of the largest exporters of liquid gas in the world and it was gearing up to hold the FIFA world cup in 2022. The country’s chances of hosting this tournament are now uncertain. Qatar may be in danger of having a food shortage, as it heavily depends on Saudi Arabia and the UAE for imported food. The Qatari people are worried enough to stock up in the event that the embargo takes a toll on food supplies. The newly formed blockade has also struck a major blow on Qatar’s economy. The air industry has especially suffered, with state-owned Qatar Airways losing out on air traffic due to flight suspensions.
Although unprecedented, one cannot be completely surprised with this state of affairs. Qatar has repeatedly been accused of supporting non-state organizations such as al-Qaeda, Hamas and the Taliban of Afghanistan. This includes funding, providing arms, and giving haven to the leaders of these terrorist groups. In 2014, there was an eight-month suspension of relations, which was limited to the withdrawing of ambassadors by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE. The reason stated at the time was again, Qatar’s alleged links to the same terrorist groups. Yet, Qatar continues to deny accusations of supporting radical Islamist terrorists and rebel groups.
U.S. President Donald Trump visited Riyadh recently, where he spoke to 50 Arab and Muslim leaders about the importance of collectively fighting Islamic extremism. He did not hesitate from singling out Iran, a country that Qatar has cordial relations with- something else Saudi Arabia does not like. When an official website of Qatar claimed that a Qatari emir described Iran as a powerful force in the region, Saudi Arabia and UAE were quick to block nearly all Qatari media sites. The country later claimed that the website was hacked and the emir said no such thing. With Trump encouraging counterterrorism initiatives and what seems to be taken as an insult from the Qatari government, the decision of King Salman, monarch of Saudi Arabia, seems warranted.
Despite Qatar hosting the USA’s largest air base in the region, Trump has recently taken to Twitter to express his praise for the isolation of Qatar. The base was used for the US-led air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and is also home to thousands in the US military. This is what puts the USA’s interests in the country on hold. Full co-operation amongst the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is crucial in the anti-ISIS coalition, and this could prove to be difficult when three of its members have cut ties with another. Up to the present, fortunately, there has not been any dialogue of States pulling out of the GCC. On a more long-term basis, the divide in the Gulf will complicate the Trump administration’s approach towards Iran.
During his campaign, Trump consistently undermined the 2016 Iran nuclear deal pioneered by former President Barack Obama. Soon after assuming office, however, Trump claims that since Iran has honored their side of the deal, his government would do the same. This certainly does not mean the administration has nothing to say about Iran. Defense Secretary James Mattis has been a constant and open critic of the Shi’ite Republic, holding it accountable for the destabilization in the region. Relations between the USA and Iran have been reduced to a bare minimum since Trump’s travel ban and the current situation would diminish the effects of any confrontation. The gap created by the breaking of ties creates a space for Iran to come in and strengthen its alliance with Qatar, which would doubtfully be appreciated by the USA, Saudi Arabia, or other countries in the region. Surely enough, Iran has volunteered food shipments and has offered three of its ports to import supplies. It also urges for dialogue instead of coercion.
Qatar stands to lose a lot from the dramatic suspension in relations by its neighbors. Aside from a reduced food supply and a hit to aviation, the country may have a reduced demand for oil from the UAE. There also presents the growing chance that the Middle East’s first world cup will be delayed. All Qatari citizens are being forced to leave the Arab states, although Saudi Arabia has made an exception in allowing Qatari citizens into the country only for pilgrimage. As one of the only allies of Iran in the region, Doha used to be a spearhead in acting as a neutral player in regional conflicts. Somewhere along the way, this mediation seems to have turned into alleged backing of violent terrorism. All eyes are on Kuwait now, which as a seemingly impartial member of the GCC, could play the role in aiding reconciliation, as it did in the similar dispute of 2014. It is the region’s own interest that the impasse is overcome before ISIS finds a way to take advantage of a disorganized coalition.