The Qatar Crisis: A Widening Gulf

After 100 days of the crisis around Qatar, it is evident that diplomacy is the only accepted way to handle it and more involvement of European and Asian major powers in the Middle East broadly and the Gulf specifically would be welcome, writes Valdai Club expert Wu Bingbing.    

On May 23, some statements on US President Donald Trump, Iran, and Hamas emerged on the Qatar News Agency site and were attributed to the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Although Qatar officials quickly denied these statements attributed to Emir Tamim, two weeks later, on June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain (Arab Quartet) along with some other countries severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade over Qatar by closing off their air space and shipping lanes.

In the US, two approaches to deal with the crisis could be observed. On June 6, one day after the break of relations, Donald Trump criticized Qatar of funding radical ideology in his tweets. Even before that, former US defense secretary Robert Gates suggested a possibility to establish an alternative to al-Udeid Air Base elsewhere in the GCC other than Qatar. Meanwhile, US defense secretary James Mattis and secretary of state Rex Tillerson hold a different approach. Mattis met with Qatari defense minister in Washington on June 14, and Tillerson announced US support for a Kuwait-led mediation effort. It seems that the second approach has become dominant in the US policy. As part of a round of shuttle diplomacy, Tillerson made a visit to the Gulf between July 10 and 14. Since Iran, and Turkey to a less degree, are benefiting from the crisis increasingly, a quick and diplomatic solution of the crisis serves the US interests better.

Russia and US Can Cooperate to Resolve Qatar Crisis Steven Heydemann
The conflict between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council has stabilized and has little risk of spillover, Steven Heydemann, Professor of Middle East Studies at Smith College, believes. According to him, little is expected to change, although the United States and Russia could cooperate to create a new regional security architecture in order to find a way out of the conflict.

On June 22, the Arab Quartet sent Qatar a list of 13 demands, including curbing ties with Iran, terminating Turkish military presence, shutting down Al Jazeera, and severing relations with Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar refused the demands, which were considered as interference in domestic affairs. Furthermore, on August 23, Qatar declared its decision to restore full relations with Iran after it called back its ambassador from Tehran in early 2016; while Turkey dismissed the demand to shut down its military base in Qatar. The GCC countries have divided into three camps over the crisis, with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain on one side and Qatar on the other, while Kuwait and Oman in the middle. Such a situation made GCC weaker and has contributed to strengthening the influence of both Iran and Turkey, which are consolidating their position as two regional super powers.

The idea of an Arab NATO serves the policy orientation of the new US administration, which considers Iran as the main threat and also tries to marginalize Turkey in the region of Middle East. In this regard, a united Arab coalition and its cooperation with Israel are fundamental and crucial for the interests of the US. Since Muslim Brotherhood could undermine Arab governments and Hamas threaten Israel, to restrain them is a common interest for Arab countries and Israel, supported by Trump administration. So, achieving a higher level of solidarity of GCC and pushing Qatar away from Iran, Turkey, Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas is regarded as a crucial step for such a policy.

However, in reality the crisis pushed Qatar closer to Iran and Turkey, just opposite to the original plan. During the crisis, Qatar appears to be resilient and its oil and gas sector seems largely unaffected by the blockade and sanctions. On July 18, the Arab Quartet announced six general principles to Qatar, which could pave the way for an early solution of the crisis but also deliver a signal that Saudi Arabia and UAE have limited leverage to make Qatar fully surrender. UAE, noticing such a signal could damage its position, insists in the 13 demands, while Saudi Arabia shows some flexibility. Meanwhile, Qatar keeps requiring to remove the blockade first in order to create a dialogue environment for any negotiation.

Several factors would jointly dictate the result of the crisis: How much damage could be further done to Qatar by Saudi Arabia and UAE to make Qatar fully surrender? How far could the US tolerate Iran and Turkey to benefit from the crisis? Would there be a winner in the competition for the support of the US between Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar? And finally, could major powers outside the region such as Russia, France, and China play larger roles? Saudi Arabia and UAE would try more to punish Qatar, by supporting Qatari opposition forces and creating tensions within Qatar, even among the members of Qatari royal family. Qatar's response is understandable and acceptable for the US on the condition that Iran shouldn't be the winner, especially when targeting Iran directly is difficult for the US now. The idea to move al-Udeid to other places is still unrealistic but always a leverage over Qatar. Although the diplomatic efforts by Russia and other countries are not decisive to the crisis, they have successfully delivered the message that diplomacy is the only accepted way to handle the crisis and could encourage more involvement of European and Asian major powers in the Middle East broadly and the Gulf specifically.

On September 9, Saudi Arabia suspended any dialogue with Qatar after a phone call between the leaders of two countries, which shows the complexity of the crisis. People have to be patient before a diplomatic solution could be seen, which for sure looks neither easy nor quick currently.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.