In an unexpected twist of events, seven Gulf countries cut-off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Ironically Qatar has also been expelled from the ‘Islamic Military Alliance’ nicknamed as the Arab NATO on the charges of supporting ‘terrorism’ and political support to ‘extremist groups’ by Saudi Arabia, a nation well-known for spreading and promoting radical Islamist ideology of Wahhabism itself. Along with the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen ,Libya and Maldives have severed relations with Doha. Iran,the only member to be excluded in this alliance has put the blame on the visit by the US President last month for the worst diplomatic crisis, the Middle-East has seen in decades.
Qatari diplomats in various missions abroad had been asked to leave the country within 48 hours beginning the severing of diplomatic ties announced first on June 5 by Bahrain. Also Qatari citizens working in those countries had been asked to vacate. However the last straw in this unilateral and collectively engineered move was the imposition of an air and land embargo akin to a blockade. Major UAE carriers, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar’s national carrier, Qatar Airways terminated the to and fro flights from their countries as reciprocal measures.
This move has mainly been attributed to the historic decision of King Salman of Saudi Arabia to appoint his 31-year old son ,Mohammed Bin Salman as the Crown Prince and future heir to the kingdom circumventing Mohammed Bin Nayef, the erstwhile Crown Prince before this appointment. In a departure from tradition, the House Of Saud known for its caution, has taken some reckless decisions under his behind-the-scenes role as the Defence Minister. The brutal war in Yemen, the current diplomatic crisis with Qatar and the standoff with Iran bear the hallmark of his signature foreign policy. He has been known as the unofficial Person-In-Command as the Saudi King ages and undergoes dementia. His rise has been phenomenal, given that he now has a clear route to the throne with no obstacles whatsoever in the often bloody power struggle for monarchy. The Prince has been fundamental in aggressive policies towards isolating Shia Iran and quelling dissent by use of brute force. Qatar has supported the anti-IS Coalition in Syria to overthrow the regime of President Bashar-Al-Assad. Also, in an act of solidarity with the Gulf Co-operation Council(GCC), during the diplomatic standoff of 2016 with Iran, it recalled its diplomats but much to the displeasure of Saudi Arabia, did not sever ties with it.
Under the current leadership of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar has decided to carve out an independent foreign policy free from the Saudi Arabia’s orbit of influence. It had supported the rise of Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt’s Presidential Elections in 2011. This was widely regarded with suspicion in the Gulf, which feared that such revolutionary governments could topple monarchy and lead to a new wave of Arab Spring. Later when the democratically elected government was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 2013 by the Egyptian Military, Qatar sympathized with the Brotherhood. Soon the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia cut-off ties with Qatar. The nine month embargo only ended after the Kuwait played as the mediator. Currently too Kuwait is leading negotiation process to resolve the diplomatic crisis which has engulfed the region, the chances of which ending appear to be bleak.
This has been compounded by the fact that Al-Jazeera, the royal-family funded television network of Qatar has frequently aired content which seems to support Brotherhood in Egypt, the Hamas in Lebanon and Iran-armed Houthis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and its allies claim that under the umbrella of the GCC, Qatar is pursuing its own foreign policy goals and deviating from its well stated objective: Containment of Shi’ite Iran.
Qatar has maintained an on-off relationship with Iran. It admitted that Iran is a ‘big regional player’ and opposed the US-Saudi rhetoric on Iran being a destabilising force in the region and a supporter of terrorist organisations. The Emir also telephoned re-elected Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his historic win in Iran’s Parliamentary re-elections. This did not go well with other members of the Arab World. To rub more salt in the Saudi wounds, the Emir called Hezbollah “a legitimate resistance movement” only to delete them later and claim that their news site was hacked. But this proved to be the match in the powder barrel, the Arab nations unanimously imposed a blockade of the tiny yet economically powerful oil-rich Emirate. They closed their air spaces for flights originating from Qatar effectively creating an air embargo: The only land boundary it shares is that with Saudi Arabia.
With the essential supply lines cut-off ,it has been forced to purchase fruits and other food items from Iran across the Persian Gulf. Contrary to expectations ,it has further cosied up Doha to Tehran. Iran has increased supplies to it by almost 7 times. The Iranian Prime Minister also denounced the ‘siege of Qatar’ calling it unlawful and against international laws. Qatar was issued a list of 13 demands to revoke the embargo or face an unceremonious divorce from the Arab World and GCC. The most striking of the demands include shutting down of a Turkish Military Base , expelling the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and closing the shutters over Al-Jazeera and it’s affiliates.
Qatar has outrightly rejected the demands as unreasonable and non-actionable. It views this as an impingement on its foreign policy and justifiably such demands bear no resemblance to the initial reasons of ‘supporting extremist ideological groups’, they just being a ploy to size-down its sovereignty.
The U.S meanwhile has done a fine-work of balancing a tight-rope walk. The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson has publicly stated that some of the demands imposed would be ‘very difficult to meet’. Qatar seems unfazed to Saudi arm twisting tactics at present given its economic buoyancy in these turbulent times amid global recession. It’s the world’s largest LNG exporter and has a thriving financial industry, next only to Dubai. It is the host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Its military significance is also notable given that the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is headquartered in it. The air command of the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State is also in Qatar. This means stakes are too high for the U.S. to take a side in this diplomatic conflict since all the countries involved are major US allies.
… contd in Part 2 here.