There’s a crisis on in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Qatar was handed down a list of 13 points to comply with, and a land, sea, air embargo placed by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman, with Egypt also joining the lot. By all standards of international diplomatic practices, it was a rather ham handed way of dealing with a sovereign state.
The author analyses the impasse and provides an in-depth glimpse into the historical background of Qatar’s uneasy relations with the GCC states. He goes onto evaluate the current situation and assesses the impact the episode will have on the future of GCC.
THE GULF CRISIS – THE GAME OF DEMANDS
June 5, 2017 will probably go down as the darkest day in the history of an otherwise fairly cohesive regional organisation – The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Council comprises of the rich kingdoms or Emirates of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. Three of its powerful members viz Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain along with Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar without any notice and enforced a sea, air and land blockade hoping to break the tiny emirate’s back and resolve, politically and economically, to force it to fall in line.
A similar confrontation was witnessed in 2014, but at that time it was limited to recall of ambassadors and severing of diplomatic ties which were eventually settled with Kuwaiti mediation and signing of internal broad understandings. Apparently, these were handwritten agreements and signed by the respective leaders to be enforced in good faith. The intra-council competition and mutual recriminations of intervention in the domestic affairs of one another however, have been quite common even after the agreements. Fake news through the hacking of Qatar News Agency Website and attributing unsavoury comments to the Emir of Qatar precipitated the unprecedented blockade.
Saudi Arabia, the oil rich Kingdom was hither-to-fore the acknowledged leader of the GCC or for that matter of the Arab world with UAE ceding it that privilege. Saudi King is also the custodian of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. Due to this providential authority in the Islamic world it willy-nilly derives a unique authority, respect and privilege which it guards with great alacrity and enthusiasm.
On the other hand, in recent decades gas rich Qatar with the highest per capita income of over US$140000 and over USD 340 billion in reserves had began to flex its financial muscle and political clout through its conference diplomacy in concert with the US and other western powers. The resultant influence indeed was disproportionate to its size much to the discomfort of the old order. It also won the rights to host FIFA World Cup Football in 2022 – a great honour for a small country – that may have chagrined its neighbours.
In the international discourse Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood, Palestinian Hamas, Afghan-Taliban etc., alone or in collaboration with like minded Turkey or the pariah Persian state Islamic Republic of Iran. It was an anathema for the four blockading countries who for the sake of convenience called themselves the Anti-Terrorism Quartet (ATQ). It played a significant role in the fight of the Libyans and Syrians against Gadaffi and Assad, respectively. Qatar also helped the Americans and others in securing release of their nationals from the clutches of Al Qaida, Taliban and other groups. In fact, the West conveniently used Qatari conduits to subserve their foreign policy objectives in the region while they progressed their short-lived honeymoon with Iran and appreciated its assistance in anti-terrorism initiatives too. Besides, the richest Emirate played a role in those countries through investments and high stakes .
Qatar hosts the largest American Air base at Al –Udeid with over 10000 personnel. The base is used to target ISIS and others in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Even in the wake of the blockade US conducted naval exercises. The crisis was partially triggered by the uncanny tweet of President Trump, after his very first visit to Riyadh where he addressed over 50 Muslim leaders and the theme was to eradicate and fight against terrorism and extremism.
The Tweet became a catalysing pointer towards Qatar for financing various extremist groups. It encouraged the four Gulf states to suddenly embark with unprecedented hostility, while terming Qatar’s actions as “illegal and un-Islamic”. This was also done during the holy month of Ramadan.
The blockading countries even told their citizens to leave Qatar and Qataris to leave immediately thereby causing a humanitarian furore with several mixed families caught in the middle. But Qatar vowed to fight it out while calling for dialogue and asking for the demands as no one knew what they were! Instead of retaliating, Qatari leadership assured everyone, especially nationals of the ATQ countries, to continue to live and work in Doha. In addition, the Qatari leadership fanned across major capitals of the world explaining the irrationality of the unprecedented war-like situation.
Given their own somewhat suspect credentials and the manner in which the seize of Qatar was announced and enforced, Qatar’s measured response seeking dialogue, accommodation, clarity and non-reciprocity provided it the moral high ground and global sympathy. Except for four other smaller countries highly dependent on Saudi and UAE doles they could not get other countries to break off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Even Jordan only scaled down the diplomatic representation by asking the Qatari Ambassador to leave. Trade was affected. They were supplying huge quantities of fruits and vegetables, almost 500 trucks to Qatar, which were not allowed to cross the border.
An unintended result of the blockade was that Turkey and Iran stepped in immediately to ensure that supplies were not affected, obviously indebting Qatar to them. On the other hand, fearing the young Crown Prince Salman’s propensity to embark on adventurist foreign policy and to deter any aggression against Qatar the Turkish Parliament and President Erdogan expedited the establishment of a military base that had already been agreed to. Turkey started sending soldiers and equipment overtly to ensure security and stability in the region. This led to the situation becoming more tenuous. Moreover, disapproving of the irrational approach of the ATQ, the Americans and other western countries urged them to spell out their demands and grievances in order to find a solution.
Eventually, after two weeks the four countries gave a list of 13 demands to the Emir of Kuwait, who having felt the pain of an aggression himself in the past by Iraq, appreciated the situation Qatar was in and being an elder and respected Statesman wanted to resolve the stand-off within the ambit of GCC.
The 13 demands were sweeping and extraneous in nature and according to a large number of countries were unreasonable and not implementable. For the Qataris it was an affront to their sovereignty and independent foreign policy since it was required to “Align itself with other Arabs and the Gulf, militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as in financial matters”. The demands included closing down of Al Jazeera that was charged with fomenting trouble and unrest especially through its Arabic channels; sever contacts with Muslim Brotherhood; handover or expel 59 individuals and 12 organisations/charities associated with fanning extremism in the middle east; scaling down or ending relations with Iran and close down the Turkish base. The demands were leaked and UAE ‘s Minister Gargash found them childish, thereby undermining the possibility of any serious negotiations.
Qatar clearly found the demands unpalatable as these were to be complied with in 10 days and involved periodic audit for over 10 years to ensure compliance. No one believed that these humiliating demands could be met since they seemed to smack of a dictation being given to the vanquished by the victors. Besides, Qatar was not willing to ask the Turks to leave or severe relations with Iran with whom they share the largest gas field. Besides, several other GCC countries including UAE, Kuwait and Oman maintain relations and ties themselves. Qatar rejected the demands.
Despite Trump’s off the cuff comments, Pentagon and State Department tried to play a mediating role in addition to Kuwaiti efforts to deescalate the crisis. Tillerson and Foreign Ministers of Germany, UK and France embarked on shuttle diplomacy urging the leaders to scale down the rhetoric and engage in dialogue to normalise the situation. To address the major contention of Qatar financing terror and extremist outfits, on July 12 he secured an MOU with Qatar. Subsequently, Qatar also amended its laws to align with the requirements. In fact, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani issued a decree on July 20 establishing new rules for defining terrorism, terrorism financing and freezing funds, as well a rules for preparing the national terrorism lists, amending the existing law. Tillerson expressed satisfaction and urged ATQ to lift the land blockade. He added “Qatar has been very aggressive in implementing that agreement on terror financing so I think we are satisfied with the efforts they are putting in”. UAE also appreciated this effort.
After 45 days into the seize, in his first ever address to the nation on July 21, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Thani referred to the hacking of the Qatar News Agency(QNA) website and posting the statements falsely attributed to him. “It has become evident to those near and far that this campaign and the steps that followed it had been planned well in advance, and that its plotters and implementers carried out an attack on the sovereignty of the state of Qatar by planting statements that had not been spoken, in order to mislead public opinion and the world and achieve predetermined goals”.
US had already concluded that the QNA was hacked from UAE which was denied by the later but it did put pressure on them. Similarly, a UK report and US Senators castigated Saudi Arabia as the main funders of the radical ideologies and groups that dwarfs Qatar in comparison. It has been surmised all across that the countries in the region have been involved in supporting one or the other group indulging in extremist activities or terrorism. It may not have necessarily been done by the governments but they may have overlooked the presence and activities of such groups. Hence, their credibility was at its lowest.
On July 21, Emir of Qatar, whose popularity has soared, once again called for the dialogue on the basis of respect for sovereignty, equality and justice stating that Qatar is ready for talks but will not compromise on its sovereignty. He said, “Any solution to the crisis must be based on two principles: first, the solution should be within the framework of respect for the sovereignty of each State. Secondly, it should not be in a form of orders by one party against another, but rather as mutual undertakings and joint commitments binding to all”. He further added that “We are ready for dialogue and for reaching settlements on all contentious issues in this context.” However, in the meantime, due to international pressure and also the fact of the seize not yielding the desired results, the blockading countries reduced the demands to six principles and outlined these at a UNSC briefing . This is a positive development and could lead to a dialogue and eventual settlement of the issue. But for the Qataris, the hurt and humiliation will not go away too soon and a paradigm shift in the geo political space is quite on the cards. The future of GCC is also apparently shaky.
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