The Gulf imbroglio: For USA, business has won

Dhaka,  Fri,  21 July 2017
Published : 18 Jun 2017, 21:25:30
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The Gulf imbroglio: For USA, business has won

Muhammad Zamir
The evolving progression of events in the Middle East over the last few weeks has cast its own shadow on the region. The dynamics started with the Iranian presidential election on May 19.  The next in the chain was US President Donald Trump's visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia spanning May 20-21. That created a matrix of political speculation. This was followed soon afterwards by the controversial news story on  May 24 that claimed Qatari Emir Tamim bin-Hamad al-Thani had allegedly said that "there is no reason behind Arabs' hostility to Iran". Qatar immediately denied having Emir Tamim making any such statement through the official Qatar News Agency. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in response, according to Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "adopted an alternative narrative treating the news story as true and responded quickly with a burst of outrage." Internet connectivity and access to Qatari media was blocked so that the official denial could not be read.

On June 03 the Twitter account of Bahraini Foreign Minister was hacked for several hours which that government blamed on Shiite opposition activists in that country. The foreign minister however did not point fingers at Tehran. The seed of Gulf disunity was sowed.

After that on June 05, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, the tiny but gas-rich peninsula, for its support of "terrorism". This development drew greater attention throughout the world with Egypt, Maldives, Mauritania, Senegal, the Khalifi Hafter government of Libya and the Saudi-supported government of Yemen joining their ranks. Among these countries, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE closed all transport ties by air, land and sea to Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE also gave all Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave their territories, and banned their citizens from travelling to Qatar. The UAE and Egypt expelled Qatari diplomats, giving them 48 hours to leave. Saudi Arabia closed down a local office of Al Jazeera but said Qatari citizens would still be allowed to take part in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. 

Observers claimed that the timing of the diplomatic whirlwind, two weeks after the visit of Donald Trump, was crucial. They suggested that Trump's speech in Saudi Arabia, in which he blamed Iran for instability in the Middle East and urged Muslim countries to take the lead in combating radicalisation, in all likelihood emboldened Gulf allies to act against Qatar.

 Qatar's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani responded by pointing out that the country would "still have access to the world through international sea lanes and international airspace".

In a matter of hours the situation became highly complex, more so, because the holy month of Ramadan had started in the Islamic world.  This added a different dimension to the scene. Qatar, it may be pointed out, is dependent on imported food. A substantial amount of that is normally transported across the border from Saudi Arabia, which had now been closed. There was also the concern regarding the movement of construction materials needed for the energy industry and also for completing the preparations for the 2022 Football World Cup.

However, Qatar appeared to be less fazed than expected. Qatar's exports are dominated by oil and gas and they are mostly seaborne. Consequently, the assumption was that Qatar's economy would not be immediately hit.

While the severing of ties was sudden, it appears to have been caused through tensions that have been building for years and particularly in recent weeks. Broadly, two key factors drove this decision; first, Qatar's relationship with Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and secondly, its good relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.

The core issue at the moment is Qatar's support of Islamists around the Middle East region. It emerged quite evidently during the Arab Spring. Support for Hamas in particular places Qatar deeply at odds with many states, such as the US, who view Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Other Gulf monarchies also prefer to deal with Fatah, Hamas's secular rival, as the representative of the Palestinians. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, in particular, expressed their resentment against Qatar in recent times for its alleged policy of emboldening Islamist groups around the region. Saudi Arabia has also claimed that Qatar is supporting "Iranian-backed terrorist groups" in the Saudi province of Qatif and also helping the Iran-backed Houthi armed group in Yemen. This accusation was made despite Qatar's deployment of an estimated 1,000 troops to support the two-year Saudi-led campaign there.

Qatar's relationship with Bahrain has been contentious. It referred its border dispute with that country over the Hawar Islands to the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1991. Also under dispute were the town of Zubara on mainland Qatar, the Janan Islands, and a number of reefs vital in establishing maritime boundaries. An armed confrontation between the two countries was narrowly avoided in 1986 thanks to Saudi intervention. The ICJ eventually decided that Bahrain had claim over Hawar Islands and one of the reefs, while Qatar was awarded the other reef, Zubara and the Janan Islands.

Tehran-based Gulf analyst Souzan Krdli, who previously worked at Qatar University, has observed that Doha's relationship with Tehran and others in the Middle East has reflected that country's attempt since 1995 "to carve a policy that is independent of its neighbours". She has added that the continuation of this independent foreign policy on the part of Qatar has meant banking on the economic and diplomatic ties Qatar has forged through investment, natural gas export, diplomacy and mediation.  Krdli has noted that unlike previous disputes, when Qatar took immediately made conciliatory moves towards Saudi and the UAE, it is taking a more "defiant" stand this time.

Sudan, Iran, Turkey, France and the US have all called on the concerned countries to resolve their differences. Kuwait has also offered to mediate. They have done so because there is a general belief that if there is no mediation from a third-party, the crisis could further escalate.

It needs to be remembered that countries in the Gulf are key to the US-led coalition against ISIS. This is particularly true of Qatar which hosts the US military's Al Udeid Air Base, the main regional centre for daily air missions and coordination of all air operations in that area. There is also another factor - Iran. Analysts have consequently warned that the current divide within the GCC could undermine the US administration's longer-term goal of challenging Iran's alleged destabilising activities across the region.

The current scenario has assumed a complex dimension because Iran appears to be leading a solid coalition as opposed to its disparate group of opponents. The newly elected Iranian leadership has pointed out that regional tension is "not welcomed by Iran". Iran has also offered food shipments to Qatar. So has Turkey. In fact Turkey's parliament has now allowed more of its troops to be deployed in the Turkish military base in Qatar as "an apparent show of support for Qatar". Turkey, with its strong trade links to Iran and apparent unwillingness to have a confrontation with its neighbour, is supporting Doha's approach to the Iranian threat.

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir has called on Qatar to cut ties with Palestinian group Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories and also with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, if it wants to end its isolation in the Gulf region. Qatar's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Than, has responded: "there is no single evidence that the Qatar government is supporting radical Islamists."

This current political dynamics has also gained another dimension because of leaked emails of the UAE Ambassador to Washington which revealed that the UAE spent considerable resources lobbying US officials to gain their endorsement after the 2013 military coup brought a violent end to Egypt's democracy dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood'. It has also been alleged that the Emirati Ambassador coordinated closely with pro-Israel think-tanks in Washington to promote the view that the conservative monarchies, military dictatorships and Israel were the bulwark against Iranian expansionism and Sunni Islamists.

In a significant development, Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 13 made a phone call to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and warned that the blockade against Qatar by its neighbours would make it harder to reach a peaceful end to the war in Syria and would not help in fighting the terrorist threat.

This evolving scenario appears to have persuaded the USA to adopt a more positive and constructive engagement. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington in the middle of June. Spokesperson Heather Nauert noted after the meeting that they talked about the need to work together.  She characterised the mood "as being one that is hopeful" where "the worst is behind us."

Incidentally, it was announced on June 14 that the USA and Qatar had signed an agreement under which the latter would buy from the former F-15 fighter jets with an initial cost of $12 billion. This apparently is how the US Administration is attempting to navigate the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Gulf. The aircraft purchase was completed by Qatari Minister of Defence Khalid Al Attiyah and his US counterpart Jim Mattis in Washington DC. It appears that business has won once again.

This is indeed reassuring, particularly for Bangladesh and its more than 380,000 expatriate workers associated in different spheres of activity in Qatar. They have watched with dismay that neither the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) nor the Arab League has taken any steps to defuse the unfolding crisis within the Ummah.

The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. 

muhammadzamir0@gmail.com

 
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