Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 November 2019

How current Qatar-GCC crisis has roots in Doha’s decisions after Arab Spring

Qatar bet on the ascendancy of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and backed them as a means to spread its influence across the Middle East and North Africa – an issue that has once again come to the fore, writes Taimur Khan
The Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, attends a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the Bahraini capital, Manama, on December 6, 2016. AFP
The Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, attends a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the Bahraini capital, Manama, on December 6, 2016. AFP

ABU DHABI // The current crisis between Qatar and its two powerful neighbours is the most far-reaching internal dispute the GCC has yet faced, with the potential to have a lasting impact on the bloc’s future.

Qatar has been at the heart of tensions with fellow GCC members before, most notably throughout the 1990s, but the current eruption of hostility has its roots in Doha’s strategic decisions after the Arab Spring in 2011. Qatar bet on the ascendancy of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and backed them as a means to spread its influence across the Middle East and North Africa.

For Riyadh, and for Abu Dhabi in particular, the Brotherhood is viewed as a threat, and as the Arab Spring devolved into regional turmoil, Doha became increasingly at odds with its two most powerful Gulf allies. The differences came to a head in 2014, after the overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist president, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrawing their ambassadors.

The new Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, agreed to demands over Doha’s support for Islamist groups and the criticism of fellow GCC members through Qatar-based media, and Saudi King Salman, who ascended the throne in 2015, sought to bring Qatar back into the fold amid the kingdom’s rivalry with Iran.

But it is now clear that Sheikh Tamim’s promises on curbing support for Islamist groups were not kept to the expected degree, made worse by an unacceptably ambiguous stance on Iran.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia, emboldened as the twin pillars of Donald Trump’s Middle East policy, have apparently decided that the risks posed by Qatar’s policies are too great, and are willing to raise the stakes higher than ever before to force Qatar to fall fully into line with them.

What is not clear is what Sheikh Tamim can do this time to address the deep-seated problems, and what concessions will be sufficient. Already, risk consultancies are reporting to clients that a change in leadership could be required to defuse the crisis.

“Any de-escalation to the crisis is likely to require a leadership change in Qatar,” Control Risks said in a note on Monday. “Such a resolution would likely be triggered by, first, a consensus within the Al Thani family that mediation or smaller concessions would not appease Saudi Arabia, the UAE and ... second, signals from the US that it would not pressure these countries to back down.”

To avoid such a drastic outcome, observers say, a broad shutdown of Qatari media would be required, along with the expulsion of a number of senior figures involved with outlets such as Al Araby Al Jadeed and others. “Fifty per cent of this is about their media machine,” said one UAE-based observer. “From a Gulf perspective, it’s gone out of control.”

Beyond the measures Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have already taken to isolate Qatar, there have been threats of even greater economic levers in store, with a Saudi official saying international firms may be forced to choose between conducting business with Doha or Riyadh, and by extension the UAE, the two largest Gulf economies.

“Clients are calling and checking on what precautionary action they need to take because they do not want to undermine their business relations with the UAE and Saudi,” said Ghannem Nusseibeh, the founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, a London-based strategy and management consultancy.

Qatar has little leverage over its neighbours, but its foreign relationships are its greatest asset.

The forward headquarters of the US Central Command at Al Udeid airbase is key for Doha. “Clearly having the US there is a big thing for the Qataris because it gives them an external guarantee of security,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House in London. “Right now the presence of Al Udeid might be the only thing standing between Qatar” and an even more serious crisis.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would be happy to see the base relocated, but the permissive agreement with Washington (it is the only Gulf base where it can land B-52 bombers), its utility in ongoing operations and America’s strategic desire not to be dependent on one country or axis, mean that this is highly unlikely in the short term.

So far, the US defence and foreign secretaries have called for de-escalation and offered to mediate. “A big question, and I think this is something Washington will be looking at now, is how can these states come to the table and resolve their differences,” said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank “Because this is very disruptive” for US interests in the region.

Other world powers may also try to mediate, given their dependence on Qatar’s gas exports, which have not been interrupted for now. Others, such as Russia and Turkey, have other important strategic and economic ties to Doha.

“Qataris have been very strategic in using these deals to bolster their security and give external partners a vested interest in Qatar’s survival,” said Mr Ulrichsen. “We may be seeing that now put to the test if things escalate over the next few days.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: July 21, 2017 06:51 PM

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