Power struggles in the Gulf

by Christopher Davidson

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Gripped since June 2017 by the so-called ‘Qatar crisis’, the Persian Gulf seems as unstable as ever.  What started out as a dispute over the role of political Islam and Qatar’s supposed interference in its neighbours’ affairs, has escalated to charges of Qatar supporting international terrorism. Those claims came from the self-proclaimed ‘Anti-Terror Quartet’ - comprising the United Arab Emirates along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. Their demands on Qatar ranged from severing all ties to the Muslim Brotherhood to closing down the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network. By cutting trade relations, the plan was to force their tiny neighbour to the negotiating table. That has not happened.  More than a year since the economic blockade was started there remains a deep chasm between the six Gulf monarchies. How did things come this far.

The six states in the Golf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been organised since 1981. They were long concerned over Saudi Arabia’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, and Riyadh’s dominance of the GCC. For some years, Qatar had been trying to build up alternative alliances in the region. Part of this strategy was reflected in Qatar’s funding of the Al-Jazeera television network, which has long been dominated by Arabs sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. In 2011 the Qatar-Al-Jazeera-Brotherhood alliance received its golden opportunity and was eventually able to work to install a Brotherhood president in Egypt in 2012. This was of great concern to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which both lost a key ally in Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) and worried that an alternative form of Islamic government, based on elections rather than hereditary monarchy, would eventually spread to the Gulf states.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia and the UAE succeeded in ousting the Brotherhood president of Egypt and installing a military dictator, but they continued to fear the Qatar-Al-Jazeera-Brotherhood alliance, with Qatar blamed for financing Islamist groups in the UAE, Yemen, and elsewhere. Tensions were eventually resolved diplomatically by the end of 2014. But in 2017, with the new US President Donald Trump seen as more likely to support their position, the climate changed. Saudi Arabia and the UAE – along with Bahrain and Egypt – seized the opportunity to reignite their dispute with Qatar, hoping to end Doha’s relations with the Brotherhood once and for all, and to shut down Al-Jazeera.  The Anti-Terror Quartet kicked off the Qatar crisis, imposing the blockade, despite its ramifications for the overall GCC-wide economy.

Thus far, Qatar has not backed down. Meanwhile, the blockade has had limited impact, partly because of Qatar's proactive stance. Seeking to avert economic woes, it has diverted as much as $60 billion of its sovereign wealth funds into local banks, in an effort to stabilize the local economy.  Qatar’s sovereign wealth funds have also sold off or reduced their stakes in major international investments (including Credit Suisse and Tiffanys) in an effort to raise revenue. Most Qatari citizens appear to back their leaders, with an outpouring of public support for Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Qatar has mounted a public relations campaign to demonstrate that it has many allies in the broader region, including Turkey and Iran.  It has also fought back at accusations that it funds terror by trying to link both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to terrorist organizations. Al-Jazeera has played a major role in this campaign, publishing a number of leaked emails that have sought to embarrass the UAE’s influential ambassador in Washington DC.

Meanwhile, tensions have mounted with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been lobbying the US for some sort of permission to take more severe action against Doha.  They have also been promoting two exiled members of the Qatari ruling family as possible replacements for the current emir, perhaps in an effort to force a bloodless coup d’état.  It is understood that they have also helped to fund a new Qatar opposition movement, which last year held its first public conference in London.  Apart from the exiled businessmen Khalid Al-Hail, it featured non-Qataris and, thus far, has had very little impact.

Bahrain, Qatar's small neighbour, has publicly backed the stance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but faces significant complications, not least because the Sunni monarchy has historically drawn support from its own Brotherhood-like Sunni movement (Al-Menbar), in the face of much larger Shia opposition groups.  During the crisis so far, Kuwait has honed its historical role as a regional neutral trying to broker some sort of diplomatic solution. Oman has also sought neutrality but has done little to disguise its sympathy with Qatar, for example publicising its supply of foodstuffs to Doha during the blockade.

The Muslim Brotherhood remains committed to Qatar, with a nod to the state as a source of financing, and Al-Jazeera as its media platform. Qatar is also seen as harbouring a number of key Brotherhood exiles, who are currently unable to return to Egypt.  Iran sees the Qatar crisis as an opportunity to form a closer relationship with a GCC state and, as such, to continue undermining Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s overall position on the Arabian Peninsula. It is understood to have provided aid to Qatar throughout the blockade.

Similarly, Turkey has trumpeted its solidarity with Qatar, beefing up its small military base and providing considerable supplies of foodstuffs and other items to help it weather the blockade.  The Iraqi government maintains a frosty relationship with Qatar, with many elements in Baghdad blaming the small state for having supported extremist Sunni groups in Syria and Iraq, including the Islamic State. Israel similarly has poor relations with Qatar and remains distrustful of Qatar’s support for movements in Palestine, including Hamas.

The most immediate impact of the crisis has been felt by the GCC. In theory at least, is supposed to represent the interests of its six monarchical members and unite them. But the organisation has never really succeeded in providing its member states with collective security, nor a more integrated free market. Nonetheless it has always had some sort of symbolic value, indicating a basic willingness from all its members to pull together in times of adversity.  But the Qatar crisis appears to deal a deathblow to the organization: It is difficult to imagine Qatar around the same table as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  Oman is similarly unlikely to play a strong future role in the GCC, having considerably improved its relations with Iran, and being blamed by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE for allowing weapons and other materials to flow to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.  Perhaps a new ‘bloc’ may form, comprising of Qatar, Oman, and Iran.  Such a formation would be able to provide a significant counterweight to a smaller, Saudi and UAE-dominated GCC.  It is unclear, however, where the US would stand on this, as it would still have military facilities in both blocs.

The greatest threat for Qatar, is that confidence in its economy may flag.  If a period of significant economic hardship ensues, this may erode the legitimacy and popularity of its leadership.  It is important that Qatar continues to liquidize a number of its overseas assets so that these can be more easily funneled into its domestic economy.  If this is not done, then not only will Qatari citizens be impacted, but foreign investors and contractors may take fright, with implications for several of Qatar’s current major infrastructural projects, and of course its hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.  In tandem with ensuring a safety net for its domestic economy, Qatar must continue its public relations campaign, as it is essential for Qatar that world opinion remains on its side, and that powerful outside players, including the US, continue to see Qatar as a useful ally and partner.  It would probably make sense for the PR campaign to move away from its current‘negative’ strategy, painting Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a poor light, and instead turn to a‘positive’ strategy, highlighting the usefulness and importance of Qatar as an international trade partner.

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