Another dispute in Middle East
In a significant development that threatens to destabilise the Middle East further, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have decided to cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar. For a region that hosts more than seven million Indian citizens, New Delhi is closely observing developments on the ground. Speaking to the press, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said on Monday that the decision of seven countries to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar would not affect India. Swaraj said it was an "internal matter" of the Gulf Cooperation Council. "Our only concern is about Indians there," the Minister said. "We are trying to find out if any Indians are stuck there." There are more than 6 lakh Indians in Qatar. Tensions between members of the GCC have spiked to such an extent that the likes of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE have blocked land, air and sea crossings.
Already in the midst of two wars in Syria and Yemen and dealing with the threat of the Islamic State, this development has the potential to increase volatility in the region further. For the uninitiated, tensions between Qatar and the rest of the GCC isn't new, but the decision of individual members States to break diplomatic ties and issue travel blockades has taken matters to a whole another level. With the sole exception of Egypt, the rest are part of the GCC, which has seen Saudi Arabia traditionally sitting at the head of the table. Officially, all members of the GCC are allies of the United States. Tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is a result of the former's desire to pursue its own path on the subject of foreign policy, which has led to establishing contact with the likes of Iran. The Sunni-dominated Arabian kingdom sees Iran as a major rival in the region, with each country jousting to exert greater influence in the area. An understanding of this dynamic allows observers to decipher the immediate trigger that resulted in Monday's development.
A few days after United States President Donald Trump met leaders of the GCC at a summit in Riyadh last month, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani had apparently expressed his disappointment with the outcome. Reports indicate that the Emir of Qatar was unhappy with the Saudis for placing too much faith in Trump, who himself is facing a political crisis at home. More pertinently, however, the Emir had criticised the virulent anti-Iran rhetoric expressed at the Riyadh summit. "Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and it is unwise to harbour hostility against it," he reportedly said, not to mention the fact that he had earlier congratulated Hassan Rouhani on his successful bid for re-election. Further, he is reported to have claimed that the Hezbollah was a legitimate resistance group, a social welfare organisation and a political party, while "Hamas is the representative of the Palestinian people". These are organisations that have often found themselves on the wrong side of the Saudi-led GCC. Finally, tweets from Qatar's Foreign Minister included statements that his government had ordered the return of its envoys from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
Soon after all this had become public, the Qatari government disowned these comments and claimed that its media institutions were hacked. Fellow members of the GCC and their media groups, however, did not buy Qatar's explanation of events, even though the allegations of hacking are not without precedent. In response, a spate of editorials in media outlets from Saudi Arabia and UAE went on a rampage against the Qatari royal family, accusing them of supporting armed terror groups and defending Iran at a moment when Arab countries should come together against it. At the end of all this back and forth, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE snapped all ties with Qatar, officially accusing it of supporting terrorism (a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black). Egypt soon followed suit, after the country's military dictatorship established close ties with the Saudi kingdom.
Qatar has often complained in the past of a concerted campaign by fellow nations in the Arabian Peninsula to discredit it because Doha does not kowtow to the line taken by the Saudi kingdom. For the richest country in the world (in per capita terms), which also possesses massive reserves of oil and natural gas, Qatar has often taken a foreign policy route independent of the Saudis. Doha has built business ties with Iran over its natural gas reserves while supporting the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other armed groups in conflicts following the Arab Spring. Riyadh and its fellow allies in the Arab Peninsula have stated that these actions are contrary to the position taken up Saudi-led "Sunni" alliance. It is no secret that the Saudi Kingdom, backed by the supply of American arms, has played a pivotal role in aiding the surge of extremist Sunni ideologies and terror modules across the region, extending all the way to the Indian subcontinent.
In fact, Qatar also stands accused of the same. Riyadh's problem with Qatar, however, stems from the fact it does not support the same armed actors like Saudi Arabia in certain conflicts, resulting in growing tensions. United States President Donald Trump recent decision to supply arms worth billions of dollars to Riyadh has further accentuated that divide between the two nations while exacerbating tensions with Iran. "Trump, in serious trouble at home, has waded into the region with much bravado and simplistic Manichean perceptions of good and evil and friend and foe, but with little knowledge and understanding of the historical sources of regional contentions. By aligning the US politically and militarily with the Saudi-led 'Sunni' alliance that is in confrontation with the Iran-led group,
Trump has bolstered the hawks in the kingdom and reduced any possibility of engagement and confidence-building with Iran by giving the Saudi rulers the sense that the US is their partner in their 'existential' contention with Iran. Their alliance, firmed up in Riyadh last month, has made West Asia more dangerous than it has ever been in recent times. Confident in the support from the US, the Kingdom's deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman framed the rivalry with Iran in starkly theological terms, and said that Tehran's aim is to wrest control of Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Madinah," writes Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat who has represented India in West Asia, in a column for an Indian news website.
Will the recent spate of tensions result in an all-out armed conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and Qatar? It seems unlikely, primarily because the United States has established massive military bases in both Qatar and Bahrain and any attempt at military confrontation may force Washington to intervene. As a core ally of the GCC, the US is unlikely to allow a further conflagration of this dispute.