23 February 2019

Saturday, 12:46



Despite previous setbacks, Qatar’s isolation from its neighbours continues



The anniversary of confrontation between the Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt and their recent ally Qatar was marked by a sharp escalation of tension. Perhaps the reason is Saudi Arabia’s willingness to force events as an instigator and the main driving force behind the conflict.

Saudi Arabia is under the pressure of the US, which is concerned about Iran’s potential to become an unconditional beneficiary in the Arab confrontation.

According to Reuters, in a telephone conversation in April with King Salman al-Saud, President Trump requested him to restore the relations with Doha. Noting that the enmity of Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Qatar does not make any sense, the head of the White House gave a period of three weeks to resolve the crisis.

Three weeks passed and Riyadh did exactly the opposite by initiating a tender for the construction of a water canal that would turn Qatar into... an island state.

The tender ended on June 25, and the winner, which will be announced in three months, will have to dig within a year a 60-kilometers-long and 200-meters-wide canal designed to cut off the territory of Qatar from the Arabian Peninsula.

That's not all. Saudi Arabia is going to use the island as its own piece of territory (1 km wide along the canal) to locate its military bases and to construct... a dumpsite for storing radioactive waste.


Thirteen requirements

In May 2017, at the summit of regional leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia decided that it could convince the US President that Qatar was guilty of financing international terrorism and interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, which are reasons to punish Qatar.

A week later, with the support of several Arab countries, Riyadh ceased diplomatic and economic relations with Doha. The land border, through which up to 80% of imported food arrived in Qatar, was closed, access to UAE trade ports was denied (ports of Qatar are not yet able to receive large-capacity vessels), and Qatar Airways is prohibited from using airports and airspace of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Saudi Arabia put forward thirteen requirements to Doha. And did so in such a manner that there was no doubt - it is about deliberate confrontation, even to the possible use of military force. Thanks to the mediation mission of the emir of Kuwait, it was possible to prevent an armed confrontation.

Initially, President Trump supported the anti-Qatar coalition. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!” Trump wrote on Twitter. A couple of days later he said even more sharply: “Qatar, unfortunately, historically was a sponsor of terrorism at a very high level.”

A question of which of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf supports terrorism is not so simple. To varying degrees, many of them are involved in this. Thus, Trump's statements look extremely reckless, especially the recognition of their merits in initiating a conflict between countries that are American allies. In addition, Qatar has an American air base and the headquarters of the Central Command. Therefore, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson immediately visited Doha with assurances that allied ties are unshakable. In an attempt to defuse the situation, the Secretary of State and his Qatari counterpart even signed an agreement on joint struggle against terrorism. However, this step did not impress the organisers of the blockade.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric with respect to the conflict in the Persian Gulf has gradually changed. During his meeting with the Emir of Qatar at the White House in April this year, Trump even called him “a friend” and “a true gentleman.”


The effect is insignificant

A year later, the IMF admitted that the negative effect of the blockade was insignificant and the country's economic growth remained stable. Last year it was 2.1%, and this year it is expected to be 2.6%.

The blockade contributed to the opening of Qatar's market for foreign investment. Thanks to reforms, foreign investors can buy real estate in the emirate, to open companies without the participation of local partners, as well as make use of other indulgences.

The program of food security initiated by the Qatari emir Al-Thani caused the growth of patriotic sentiments among the population and added to it popularity.


Everything is confusing

Situation in the Middle East has become more complicated after the blockade of Qatar. Young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed failed to measure the consequences of his actions. Of course, he got benefits in the short term, using the Qatari card to eliminate opponents inside the country but complicated the situation in the region as a whole.

Counting on strengthening the leadership positions of Saudi Arabia not only on the Arabian Peninsula but also throughout the Arab world, the prince has so far only split in the ranks of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) and the military coalition of 39 Islamic countries (IMAFT).

For example, Kuwait and Oman did not support the anti-Qatar coalition. Rather they preferred helping Qatar as much as possible to overcome the problems arising from the blockade. Most of the IMAFT countries also did not break their relations with Doha entirely.

Iran and Turkey seized this opportunity to use the crisis around Qatar to strengthen regional influence.

One of the main goals of the blockade is to force Qatar to stop political and economic cooperation with Iran. But these efforts were counter effective, as Doha managed to establish quite strong and comprehensive (including security) relations with Iran over the past year, although it had not actively communicated with Tehran previously because of the so-called “Arab solidarity”.

Just the other day, Qatar expressed gratitude to Iran for its support during the boycott and announced its intention to continue developing long-term cooperation. “We intend to strengthen our relations with Tehran in all areas. We highly appreciate the position of the authorities and people of fraternal Iran regarding the siege of Qatar. Doha will never forget this,” said Emir al-Thani in a telephone conversation with the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hasan Rouhani.

This sounds quite bold in the context of the expected US sanctions against the states and companies cooperating with Iran.

Another requirement is to close the Turkish military base near Doha. Although Ankara is Saudis ally in IMAFT, they are very sensitive to Turkey's aspirations for a dominant role in the Islamic world. Ankara and Riyadh still refrain from open confrontation at official level but at least the attempts to boycott Turkish goods through social networks is an evidence of tensions in the Turkish-Saudi relations.

Not everything is perfect inside the anti-Qatar coalition either. For example, Bahrain has reasons for concern, since its Shiite majority is not in power but sympathises with Iran.


Politics is an art

The weakening of Saudi Arabia’s regional leadership due to a number of serious foreign policy failures such as the protracted war in Yemen, loss of control over the situation in Syria and Lebanon, as well as the failed blockade of Qatar forces the Crown Prince to act more harshly despite some reputational losses. Perhaps this is the reason for the construction of a water canal on the border with Qatar. But this idea was then glossed over with stories about the construction of resorts with hotels, beaches, and marinas along the canal. It makes us wonder though how all these resorts will look like next to a nuclear waste dumpsite.

On the other side of the conflict is a calm, well-balanced policy of Emir Al-Thani, who has always emphasised that Qatar did not want confrontation or revenge, instead offering a dialogue on equal footing and without threats. These statements were made in parallel with heroic actions to save the country and its people from the consequences of the most severe blockade.

The apparent success of this policy was also reflected in the recent report released by the UN Human Rights Council, which condemned the four Arab states for unleashing a “discriminatory and unjustified economic war” against the people of Qatar.

In fact, Qatar has never ceased supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which is recognized in many countries as a terrorist organisation. Neither has it refused cooperation with Iran, which is threatened by US sanctions. Rather, it improved relations with Turkey, and secured US commitments on “joint efforts to prevent any external threats to the territorial integrity of Qatar...”

Qatar achieved a lot during a year in blockade. Perhaps it will be able to benefit from becoming an island state too.

“Politics is the art of the impossible,” said the last president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel. And the Emir of Qatar proves this in practice.