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The Recent Gulf Rift and Why it is Likely to Persist

The Recent Gulf Rift and Why it is Likely to Persist

Hélène Dieck

On June 5, 2017 Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, followed by Egypt and Bahrain, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar. Early morning, the Saudi border was closed. The national airline Qatar Airways was prohibited from flying through their airspace. All land, air, and sea access between Qatar and the blockading countries was closed. Qataris were given 14 days to return to their country, while UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain asked their citizens living in Qatar to leave their life behind and return to their home country. From the outset, the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors spurred a human tragedy. In the middle of Ramadan, Qataris on pilgrimage in Mecca were no longer welcome, while bi-national families were forced to choose sides. Specific fines against any spoken or visible support for Qatar were established in the UAE. Originating from a different between ruling families, the dispute quickly rippled to the entire society, making it more likely that this rift would persevere.

The first day of the blockade, the quartet justified its decision by stating that Qatar was supporting terrorist organizations and was using its media network Al Jazeera to influence internal politics in the Middle East. These accusations came as a shock as there was no particular action that Qatar undertook that could have explained the sudden change of heart, from a valuable partner in the Gulf Cooperation Council to an enemy. Instead, the quartet felt empowered by the visit of U.S. president Donald Trump. Even though the U.S. has established in Qatar the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, used to stage attacked against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the novice president blamed Qatar for financing extremist terrorists. On the contrary, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar all made statements opposing the blockade and urging the parties to negotiate a peaceful resolution.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the first U.S. official to publically call for all parties to resolve their differences. The State Department pressured Saudi Arabia and the UAE to list their demands to lift the embargo. However, the quartet listed 13 demands that had to be met within 10 days for Qatar not to face further consequences. Those demands included shutting down Al Jazeera, stopping any support to Iran, to the Muslim Brotherhood, and to Hamas. From the outset, both the U.S. and Qatar deemed these demands unrealistic. Qatari representatives were successful in their portrayal of Qatar as a small country bullied by an overpowering neighbor unjustly attacking its sovereignty and dictating its foreign policy. In response, the quartet leaked a secret agreement between the countries pledging to fight terrorist groups, hoping to demonstrate that Qatar broke its promise, despite having shown no proof of such behavior.

As a matter of fact, experts dispute whether Saudi Arabian citizens support or finance more terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda than Qataris. After all, almost all Al Qaeda terrorists that perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Saudis. When Qatar is accused of supporting Hamas, in 2002, during the second intifada, Saudi Arabian citizens organized telethons to provide financial help to the families of Hamas suicide bombers. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also accused Qatar of meddling into their internal affairs. For example, Al Jazeera and the Qatari Government were accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Yet U.S. intelligence and Qatar both stated they had proof that the UAE hacked the Qatar National Agency in order to spread false official statements from Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, such as expressing support for Iran. With backing for the blockade lessening, the quartet eventually downgraded their thirteen demands to six principles that Qatar needed to agree to for them to renew relations. However, as stated during the early stages of the crisis, Qatar was ready to negotiate but only after the blockade was lifted. For their part, Saudi Arabia and the UAE refuse to lift the blockade and negotiate before these principles are endorsed.

Meanwhile, instead of weakening the country, Qatar citizens appear more united than ever. If the National celebration in Qatar was already quite fervent, the crisis spearheaded an unprecedented surge of patriotism, in which the Qatari Emir is the gravitational center. A Qatari artist created a painting of the Emir, assorted with the label “Tamim Al Majd”, meaning “Tamim the glorious”. It soon became plastered on every major building in Doha, stickers were put on every car, signature ceremonies organized in every office. Qatari entrepreneurs found in the crisis an opportunity to produce new products and services locally. For instance, a farmer decided to fly 4,000 cows to Qatar in order for the country to produce its own milk and stop relying on imports. In 2014, when Qatar’s neighbors severed diplomatic ties over similar concerns, Qatar initiated a program to become more self-sustainable, including encouraging local farming, stocking provisions, and diversifying sourcing of basic and strategic goods. As a consequence, soon after the blockade, instead of Saudi products, Qatari residents could find Turkish products in supermarkets. Residents and citizens make a point of showing their love for their country in any way their can. Some Qataris affected by the blockade went so far as to file lawsuits against the blockading countries to recover damages.

In the past, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were able to influence the ruling family. At the turn of the 19th Century, Jassim Al-Thani founded Qatar. His sister married a member of the Saudi royal family (al-Attiyah). In 1968, when the British exited the country, the UAE hatched plans to annex the peninsula. More recently, in 1972, Saudi relations deposed the Emir and replaced him with a more favorable ally in Khalifa Al Thani; who led Qatar until 1995 when, the Father Emir Hamad Al Thani took power via a bloodless coup.  Hamad asserted an independent policy, made possible by the recent economic boom in Qatar. Today, the drop in oil and gas revenues has a greater impact on Saudi Arabia than Qatar, since Saudi Arabia has a much larger population and started an expensive war in Yemen. Although the blockade has created challenges, Qatari citizens see the situation as an opportunity rather than a burden. Whatever the length and the outcome of the crisis, the feeling of being let down by close relatives and the new patriotism will most likely change relations between Qatar and its neighbors for the foreseeable future.

Hélène Dieck received her PhD from Sciences Po, Paris, France. She was previously responsible for elaborating military doctrine at the French Ministry of Defense and served as a visiting researcher at the RAND Corporation, Washington, DC. She currently works as a migrant welfare specialist at Qatar Foundation and recently published The influence of public Opinion on Post Cold War U.S. military interventions (Palgrave, 2015).

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Posted: August 8, 2017 at 10:30 pm

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