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Conflict and Fragility

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Qatarsis of the Gulf means more conflict in the region

04 Jul 2017 - 17:23
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perplex, the world looks on as the Gulf descends into deepening political conflict. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and other allies have deployed a mix of diplomatic ostracism and economic sanctions to bring Qatari foreign policy in line with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – or so their narrative goes. Today, Qatar finds itself isolated from its closest neighbours in stark economic and political terms. It averted an economic crisis by rapidly identifying alternative sources of vital imports, re-routing supply chains and re-orienting exports. The country’s gas-based wealth can absorb the financial consequences of its partial blockade. The political crisis is, however, real. With no solution in sight, it needs to be more thoughtfully considered how the crisis should be understood and what consequences it might have.

What the crisis is not
Contrary to what some commentators have suggested, the crisis is not a ‘Gulf family dispute’. This is because family disputes are not typically characterised by harsh rhetoric, hostile measures and the threat of complete rupture from the start, followed only weeks later by a public problem statement and an intrusive list of demands - that have already been rejected. Reality, however, saw a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar materialise overnight, expulsion of Qatari residents and severance of diplomatic ties. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, indicated that its entire 13-point list of demands is non-negotiable, while the Emirati ambassador to Russia, Omar Ghobash, indicated that it would be ‘goodbye Qatar’ [from the GCC] if it did not meet demands. These include closure of Al-Jazeera, cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, terminating military cooperation with Turkey and taking anti-terrorist measures that reflect Saudi conceptions of terrorism.

Neither is the crisis a credible bid to restore the collective identity or values of the GCC for the simple reason that the GCC is an intergovernmental framework with a modest organisational structure. It enables cooperation when it suits. The GCC’s main achievement is the creation of a limited common market. It has never been a manifestation of shared Arabness and common destiny. Rather, it is an alliance of convenience of Gulf countries aligned with Saudi Arabia (the UAE and Bahrain) and those with a more independent foreign policy (Kuwait, Oman and Qatar). 

Instead, the crisis has all the hallmarks of a Saudi-led effort to impose its political view of the desired regional order on Qatar and to shore up Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian Arab base. The confrontational approach it has chosen, makes it difficult for any of the royal families involved to back down. The Saudi political view on the regional order has three important elements:

The key is that it brokers no political dissent, thinking or ideology that might undermine the legitimacy of current ruling families. This explains the abhorrence of Saudi Arabia and its allies of Qatar previously hosting the Hamas leadership, its relatively liberal broadcaster Al-Jazeera and its friendly relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah. Instead, Saudi Arabia and its allies favor a closed political space that maintains their absolutist monarchies by trading economic prosperity for political supremacy, buoyed by natural resource rents.

In addition, the view of Saudi Arabia and its allies on the region reflects a particular understanding of political Islam in which religion legitimises politics and politics enables religion to govern social interaction. It is a delicate balance in which there is no space for alternative governance models that are also religiously-inspired, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Ennahda party in Tunisia. This helps explain Saudi-led demands that Qatar severs ties with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, and that the country hands over individuals and freezes assets of those that Saudi Arabia and its allies consider terrorists. The former offer alternatives that might call the symbiotic relation of religion and monarchy in Saudi Arabia into question; the latter consider it degenerate.

Finally, the political view on the region of Saudi Arabia and its allies is firmly anti-Iranian and seems premised on the logic of ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’. Yet, Qatar does what Kuwait and Oman do: it seeks good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as others. This helps explain Saudi-led demands that Qatar severs its ties with Iran and ends its military collaboration with Turkey.

There may only be poor outcomes
Such a brief reflection suggests that resolution of the crisis may have only poor outcomes. If the Saudi-led alliance is able to impose its will on Qatar, Iranian-Saudi adversity is bound to deepen. This is because once Saudi Arabia feels more firmly in control of its own backyard, it can engage with renewed vigor in the many proxy battlefields of the region. The combination of endless petrodollars, a firm alliance and a Saudi crown-prince who has shown little restraint in reducing Yemen to ruins, might well see conflicts in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq escalate once more. Yet, realisation of ‘GCC unity’ seems unlikely - short of military intervention - because of the nature of the demands made and because both Kuwait and Oman are likely to cautiously distance themselves from the project.

Alternatively, if the Saudi-led alliance is thwarted or simply ignored by Qatar, a permanent cold war is likely to descend on the Gulf. This would effectively split the GCC. Should this happen, the Iranians will think that Nowruz came twice as Saudi Arabia and its allies will be distracted in both Yemen and Qatar, leaving Iran free to achieve its aims in Syria and Iraq. Yet, this will only heighten the Saudi perception of Iran as existential threat. There’s no telling what the response might be.

It cannot be excluded that a compromise will be found that defuses the present crisis. Yet, the recent appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince of Saudi Arabia does not stem hopeful given his track record in Yemen. In any case, from an international perspective it is less relevant whether Saudi Arabia and its allies achieve real or Pyrrhic victories, and more relevant that either outcome is likely to fuel the flames of already existing conflicts. That is something for the White House and European Union to think about – and act on.