Poorly-planned Qatar-GCC diplomatic crisis could irreversibly alter Gulf

Poorly-planned Qatar-GCC diplomatic crisis could irreversibly alter Gulf Security Architecture

(First Post) — In what could be called an unprecedented escalation of tension between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours, the regional leaders seems to have reached the point of no return. The crisis involves the regional security order in which Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the entire spectrum of political Islam has been unanimously identified as the most hostile and destabilising of players. Qatar and its leader Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa is seen as a key ally of players of political Islam, friendly with Iran, and a spoiler of the regional security vision that UAE and Egypt have been jointly advancing.

One thing is very clear, these steps are not meant for a negotiated outcome of the crisis; this is to coerce the Qatari decision-makers to change their policies. Emirati commentator and prominent artist Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi writes in Newsweek that the many non-negotiable demands by the Gulf States include the reigning in of the misuse of Qatari-linked charitable organisations, cessation of incitement against the Egyptian State and reconsidering Qatar’s ties with their Iran. The list of demands includes the expulsion of all Muslim Brotherhood leaders and their Hamas affiliate figures from Qatar, along with Azmi Bishara and Islamist writer Yasser Al-Za’atra.

Should Qatar accept all or some of these demands depends on what Doha can gain and lose from this crisis. It is true that the crisis is not heading towards a military intervention as of now, but there is a clear objective to get rid of the irritants persisting in Qatar-Gulf relations for quite some time. As long as trust is not restored between the key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, these tensions will keep resurfacing every now and then.

Diplomatic crisis
File image of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman (left) and UAE’s Prince Mohammed bin Zayed — both key players in the present crisis. AP

The key demands that the four Arab countries have put forward to Qatar are, however, problematic and less assuring for a durable trust restoration. Qatari support to the Islamist opposition forces in all Arab countries is a serious issue. Islamist forces have been used by each and every government in the region. In Jordan and Morocco, they have been coopted; in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, they were given limited access to political life; in Yemen, they were used to defeat Houthis when the Houthis fell out with Saudis in 2011. It is very difficult to imagine that any country is really willing to or capable of completely expelling Islamists from political life. in 2013, the Salafis were used against the Brotherhood to topple down the elected president Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Iran also, Qatar is not the only country. Kuwait and Oman maintain close diplomatic links with Iran. In 2016, Egypt resumed its trade ties with Iran and has increased its political interaction, although they have fallen just short of starting full diplomatic relations. According to a European Union report, UAE is the fourth largest trading partner of Iran — accounting for 23.6 percent of Iranian trade. In 2007, at the GCC Summit held in Doha, the UAE president Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed held a closed-door meeting with then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is known that the Gulf States’ inability to stop the invasion of Iraq still remains the biggest reason for instability and insecurity.

Qatar’s sheltering of Islamists or the Brotherhood seems to be a secondary reason as each country maintains some level of contact with them. The major difference, irreconcilable perhaps, is their respective vision for regional security.

Whether Saudi Arabia and more particularly King Salman was willing to escalate the crisis to this level is still doubtful. Qatar and Saudi Arabia had come to a common platform after the Saudi embassy was attacked in Iran and since then, the two sides have improved their relations. The Saudis are unhappy with the way Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had been handling Egyptian affairs, particularly Egypt’s support to a Russian veto of the French resolution on Syria. Riyadh had called the Egyptian vote “painful”, according to Al-Arabiya. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have several differences over Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Sudan. Egypt’s rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad, whose support to former Muammar Gaddafi loyalists in Libya and secret contacts with Iran and Yemen’s Houthis had made Saudi-Egyptian relations trickier.

Two years after the Saudi military operation in Yemen, the Saudi economy has started showing signs of fatigue. King Salman’s ability to bargain and take decisive steps  seems to have weakened. The Iranian threat, exaggerated occasionally, is exploiting Saudi resources. Amid a weakening Saudi economy and political leadership, there is a steady rise of an assertive UAE and its ambitious leader Mohammad Bin Zayed, who enjoys immense support from el-Sisi.

It is not just coincidence to see Khaled Al-Tuwaijri — former head of the Saudi Royal Court, who has been leading a quiet life since his dismissal by King Salman in 2015 — start tweeting in favour of King Salman. In his tweets on Monday night, he showered praise on King Salman for his uncompromising decision-making. Tuwaijri has the strong backing of bin Zayed. His return to public life will mean an end of the brief policy shift King Salman had executed by removing pro-el-Sisi, and pro-Emirates advisors from the royal court in 2015.

In Syria, the Gulf States are mostly excluded from the peace process, particularly from the Astana dialogue. UAE’s claims for regional leadership will get more credibility if UAE is able to dictate the outcomes in Yemen and Libya. Egypt and UAE have steadily brought up former Gaddafi loyalist General Khalifa Haftar to challenge the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord. Qatar stands opposed to UAE ambitions in Yemen and Libya. If the UAE tried to reinstal Ali Abdullah Saleh, Qatar would favour the Houthis. The Saudis have been clearly sidelined in Yemen and Libya by none other than the UAE and Egypt.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”18″]The crisis seems to be poorly planned as all extreme measures have been adopted in just one round leaving Qatari consciences deeply humiliated regardless of options they choose in their compromise.[/perfectpullquote] Qatar will try to come out from the crisis by offering some symbolic sacrifices — expelling a few Islamists and Hamas leaders, but the prolonged hostility from its neighbours will force Qatar to find more reliable neighbourhood and security assurances, which would require a gradual but imminent exit from the current Gulf Security Architecture.

It is not clear whether this crisis is to really remove threats originating from Iran, Hamas, Brotherhood, or to assert UAE-Egyptian leadership over Saudi Arabia. As there are many unresolved issues among the anti-Qatar bloc, the current show of unity has to pass many crucial tests.