Implications of Qatar crisis
On August 5, it will be two months since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – all three members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – along with Egypt, severed ties and transport links with Qatar, another partner in the six-member grouping, accusing it of supporting extremists. The charge has been strongly denied by Qatar, which sees it as politically motivated. Underscoring the depth of concern the crisis is causing well beyond the region, Britain, France, Germany, the United States, European Union, Turkey and Kuwait, another GCC member, have so far unsuccessfully tried to end the rift. The blockade came just days after US President Donald Trump gave a speech in Riyadh pledging himself to the Saudi side and against Iran. His tweets after the blockade seemed to indicate that he, too, saw Qatar, a country of nearly 2.3 million people, as a supporter of terrorism although the country is a longstanding military ally of the US and even hosts an American military base.
The quartet initially insisted Qatar accept a tough 13-point list of demands to end the dispute, including severing ties with Islamists groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, limiting ties with Iran, an arch rival of Saudi Arabia in the region, expelling Turkish troops stationed in the oil and gas rich country and shutting down news outlet Al Jazeera. Qatar has refused to accept the demands saying these undermined the sovereignty of the country.
Subsequently, a month after severing the ties they scaled down their demands asking Qatar to commit to six principles that included commitments to combat terrorism and extremism, prevent financing and safe havens for such groups, and suspend all acts of provocation and speeches inciting hatred or violence. They also want Qatar to reduce ties with their arch-foe Iran and close down the Turkish military base. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have become increasingly concerned about what they see as Qatar's cosying up to Shia Iran. Qatar, a Sunni state that shares its massive North gas field with Iran has traditionally taken a less aggressive stance towards Iran.
The blockade, if continued, will have a profound impact on Qatar, which imports half of its food through land border with Saudi Arabia. The action is also likely to affect the construction industry and may cause a delay in Doha's preparation for the 2022 football World Cup. The event is already facing allegations of workers ill-treatment. Also, its aviation sector will be hurt as Qatar Airways, one of the world's fastest growing carriers takes the longer westbound flights due to a closure of the Saudi airspace. If the dispute deepens, Qatar the world's biggest LNG exporter with pipelines in the Gulf may retaliate by cutting off supplies to its neighbours including the UAE. Any instability in the region would also send the oil prices spiralling in the international market. Currently, Qatar is airlifting most of its supplies primarily from Turkey and other parts of the world. Iran is also providing a supply of essential commodities.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the last senior leader to tour the region to try to resolve the crisis. Before him, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson and Foreign Ministers from France, Britain, and Germany, too, toured the region. The Turkish President, who visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, appears to have received a cool reception in Jeddah upon his arrival. A brief statement carried by the Saudi state media said that his talks with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman focused on efforts to combat terrorism and its sources of funding. Qatar's Emir (ruler) Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is reported to have told the Turkish President that Qatar is prepared to engage in dialogue but that any resolution to the crisis must respect its sovereignty and that no terms can be dictated from the outside.
Turkey and Qatar are important backers of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that has challenged Arab rulers. Saudi Arabia and UAE have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Turkey has sent fresh troops to its military base in Qatar, its first in the Persian Gulf since 2015, since the crisis erupted, to the discomfiture of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE. The Muslim world seems to be confused over the crisis. This is evident from the fact that not many Muslim countries or organisations, like OIC and Arab League, have taken any worthwhile initiative to defuse the crisis. Since the Arab Spring, the Iran-Saudi rivalry has been playing out in civil wars, diplomatic manoeuvrings and internal conflicts in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen. Observers are of the view that the spat, which shows no sign of ending, could have long lasting economic and security implications for the region, including coalition efforts against ISIS.
While the quartet is accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism, Christopher Jaffrelot, professor of Indian politics and sociology at King's Indian Institute, recently wrote that the irony is that Saudi and other nations in the Gulf have also been supporting Salafis and Jehadis for a long time. He says while Riyadh fights against al Qaeda and the Islamic State, Saudis have been accused of financing Pakistan-based groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Haqqani group network. LeT is still active in India. India, which has nearly 6.30 lakh of its citizens working in Qatar, has urged all parties concerned to resolve their differences through a constructive dialogue and peaceful negotiations based on well-established international principles of mutual respect, sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
It is imperative to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis before it worsens, and that may not bode well for the world as a whole.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. Views expressed are personal.)