Tension around Qatar: What Next?

The conflict between Qatar and other states of the Arab world is unlikely to be resolved shortly, Valdai Club experts say. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia took the course of confrontation, Egypt has more complaints towards Qatar’s foreign policy, which Cairo considers as a threat because Doha supports the oppositional Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The conflict between a number of Arab states and Qatar was brewing for a long time, but now it has entered the acute phase. The confrontational course was taken by Saudi Arabia, which is concerned about the emerging rapprochement between Doha and Tehran. Nevertheless, other countries have their reasons for rejecting Qatari policy in the Middle East. The key factor in the development of the situation is the position of the United States, which is still not fully clear yet.

“There is nothing surprising in the fact that the Arab countries have joined Saudi Arabia,” said Vasily Kuznetsov, head of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Some countries have their own motivations. Bahrain generally sees Iran as the main threat. Qatar is accused of establishing relations with Iran, betraying the consolidated policy of the GCC member states.”

Egypt, which broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar following Saudi Arabia, accuses Doha of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the current government regards as a terrorist group. In 2013, the matter nearly brought to a diplomatic conflict between them, but then it was avoided thanks to the mediation of Saudi Arabia and other countries.

“Now Saudi Arabia has taken steps against Qatar, and Egypt could not afford to stand back. But Egypt does not see any threat from Iran, because it is not a very sensitive issue for Egypt like for Saudi Arabia,” said Nurkhan El-Sheikh, professor of political science at Cairo University.

Richard Burchill, Director of Research and Engagement at the TRENDS Research & Advisory, based in the UAE, told valdaiclub.com that the situation around Qatar is “quite clear.” “Qatar is known to be working with a wide range of terrorist groups, including primarily the Muslim Brotherhood, they allow their leaders to stay there, they have events that are supportive of them,” he said. “They also work closely with Hamas, which distributed its new charter from Doha, making it quite clear where their funding and support comes from.”

Richard Burchill believes the reaction of the Gulf countries was reasonable. “The current situation and the responses being seen from the GCC states are well in line with how they are able to respond when a neighborhood state is causing such difficulties,” he said.

According to Vasily Kuznetsov, Saudi Arabia and the Arab states took the course for isolation of Qatar, but the crisis is unlikely to be protracted. “I do not think it will last long,” he said. “The conflict is unlikely to be fully resolved or overcome, but there will be a certain de-escalation."

The most important question is the role of the United States. According to Kuznetsov, Washington will take a neutral position. “I do not think that the US will play a decisive role,” he says. “It is unlikely that it will be able to mediate or seriously influence the situation. I think that events will develop within countries, and the United States will follow the position of neutrality.”

Nurkhan El-Sheikh has a different opinion. According to her, the US can interfere in the most decisive way in Qatar’s domestic policy. “The United States can remove Thani, for example, and put in somebody else which has happened many times, not in only Qatar, but in other royal families in the Gulf,” she said. This would be enough for Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, but not for Egypt. Qatar should change its attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood, but this cannot be expected yet, Nurkhan El-Sheikh said. Therefore, the restoration of relations between Qatar and Egypt will take more time and efforts, than between Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other, the expert believes.

According to Burchill, the role of the United States in the Middle East raises more questions. “President Trump came to the Gulf, gave a very clear message: very clear that Iran is a security threat, very clear that those supporting terrorism in the region need to be stopped. But what we are seeing in Trump’s foreign policy generally is a lot of talk and not necessarily a lot of action [...].So I can’t tell the US is going to be able to make a difference on this one,” he said.

As for Russia, it will not support one side or another in this conflict, Vasily Kuznetsov said. “[The Russian president’s spokesman] Dmitry Peskov said that Russia hopes for an early resolution of the conflict, but on the whole it takes a neutral position,” Kuznetsov said. “I think this is quite a logical decision. Russia has well-developed relationships with both sides of the conflict. Therefore, it is pointless to take sides.”

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.