6 July 2017

The Implications of Qatar's Isolation

One of the most dramatic global events thus far this year has been the decision by Saudi Arabia and many of its allies to blockade their erstwhile ally, Qatar, a move that has added to the already considerable political divisions within the Middle East.  Of course, while Qatar has been a Saudi ally for decades, it has also proven to be a thorn in the Saudis’ side, taking an independent line with regards to many issues, not to mention hosting the media group Al Jazeera.  Now, as Saudi Arabia seeks to consolidate its leadership position among the primarily Sunni countries of the Middle East and North Africa, it has decided to bring more independent-minded Sunni countries such as Qatar in line.  Moreover, Saudi Arabia remains focused on curbing Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula, and Qatar’s relatively friendly ties with Tehran were becoming a major concern for Riyadh.  As a result, Qatar now faces the prospect of being totally cut off from its former allies on the Arabian Peninsula, a development that significantly threatens that small country’s future security and prosperity.  This development is just one of many in recent years that are part of the ongoing dramatic realignment of alliances and political power in this highly unstable region.

A number of events triggered this dispute that resulted in the blockade of Qatar.  Among them were the joint development by Qatar and Iran of a giant natural gas field in the Gulf, the apparent criticism of US and Saudi foreign policy by the ruler of Qatar, and the refusal by Qatar to restrict Al Jazeera’s criticisms of the governments of Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.  This resulted in four countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates) cutting off all ties with Qatar, while a number of other countries reduced their ties with the suddenly-isolated Gulf state.  As this cutting of ties resulted in Qatar’s only land border being closed, Iran and Turkey were forced to come to its rescue and begin supplying the country with basic goods, including food products, that were no longer available due to the border closure.  After this alleviated some of the pressure on Qatar, Saudi Arabia and its allies issued a new set of demands on Qatar.  These included the shutting down of Al Jazeera, the expelling of “extremist” groups from Qatar, the severing of ties with Iran and the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar.  After Qatar rejected these demands, Saudi Arabia and its allies warned that this would result in Qatar’s permanent isolation on the Arabian Peninsula.

There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia has been calling the shots when it comes to the efforts to isolate Qatar.  This is part of the grand Saudi strategy of bringing together most of the world’s primarily Sunni Muslim countries under Saudi leadership in order to combat what Riyadh views as growing Iranian and Turkish influence in the region.  Moreover, Saudi Arabia has moved to pressure smaller Gulf states to more closely integrate their defense and economic policies with their larger neighbor.  Already, some countries have moved to closely align themselves with Riyadh in this, and other, disputes.  The United Arab Emirates has emerged as the Saudi’s closest ally in the Gulf, supporting the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen and the recent efforts to isolate Qatar.  Egypt, the region’s most-populous country, has also moved closer to Saudi Arabia in recent years thanks to Saudi support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as for Saudi financial support for Egypt’s beleaguered economy.  Meanwhile, the Trump Administration in the United States appeared, at least initially, to give its full backing to the blockade of Qatar, accusing Qatar of financing militant groups around the world.

Despite its vast gas-provided wealth, Qatar is a very small and vulnerable country, located at the heart of one of the world’s most dangerous regions.  Moreover, Qatar’s independent line in recent years has left it with few close allies, and many of the countries that it would consider as allies have turned against it during this latest crisis.  Still, Qatar has some countries that are supporting it in its hour of need.  For example, Iran moved quickly to provide Qatar with the goods that it could no longer receive from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but Iran’s support has further hardened the resolve of the Saudis and their allies to punish Qatar.  Turkey is another country that has come to the aid of Qatar, due in part to the fact that Turkey has a military base in that country, as well as the fact that Ankara aims to prevent the Saudis from dominating the Middle East.  Meanwhile, two Gulf states, Kuwait and Oman, have refused to join the blockade against Qatar and have sought to mediate a solution to this standoff.  Ironically, the one country that might be the only one that can convince both sides to reach a deal is the United States, as it has no interest in seeing its giant military base in Qatar being jeopardized, while the Trump Administration has called for Arab unity against what it sees as the rising threat to global security emanating from Iran.  What is certain is that divisions on the Arabian Peninsula are widening, adding another threat to the security of this most volatile region.