It all started on May 23 when an alleged fake news report run by a Qatari news agency stated Qatar’s support for Iran and a U.S designated terror group from Palestine, Hamas. This was the tipping point for decade long tensions between Doha and its neighboring countries to simmer over.
The news report released statements by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. In these statements, which Qatar maintains are false, the Emir called Hamas ‘the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and said that the country shares “strong relations” with Iran, a region archrival of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia.
The report was widely publicized in other Arab countries despite Qatar reiterating that it was fake and that the Emir never spoke the statements attributed to him.
Meanwhile, the leaked emails of the Emirati envoy in Washington seem to show his country s long-running desire to counter Qatari influence.
These two events triggered what we now know as the Gulf crisis: On 9th June, nine countries cut off diplomatic ties with the tiny but rich state of Qatar. These nations include three members of GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), Bahrain, UAE and Saudi Arabia. The rest of the countries are Egypt, the Maldives, Mauritania, Yemen and the U.N.backed government of Libya. Four additional countries – Djibouti, Jordan, Senegal and Chad – have downgraded their ties with Qatar.
Qatar’s foreign policy has always been rather different than that of the rest of the Gulf States. While Bahrain largely follows Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, Qatar has diverged from other members of the GCC. After the Arab Spring, Qatar aligned itself with Islamist political parties such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood which has been declared as a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia and United States. Qatar’s state funded news network Al Jazeera also seems to support these groups as champions of democracy. Qatar was also amongst the most active backers of Islamist fighters in rebellions in Syria and Libya. This coupled with the fact that Qatar enjoys close ties with Tehran, has bothered the Saudi led bloc.
Egypt also considers the Brotherhood to be dangerous. During the 2011 Arab Spring, Qatar backed the Brotherhood and the protestors against the then-President Hosni Mubarak. It supported Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader and a member of the Brotherhood. This stands in stark contrast with Riyadh whose support was for Mubarak and currently backs President Abdel Fateh el-Sisi , a former military leader. Qatar’s news agency Al Jazeera has been widely criticized of supporting the Brotherhood during the Arab Spring. Several Al Jazeera journalists were detained in Egypt for supporting Mohammed Morsi.
Qatar has also been accused of backing Yemen’s Houthi rebels which is a startling claim given that Qatar, until the day before the crisis, was part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebels, who are allegedly backed by Iran and ex-President Saleh.
Middle Eastern expert Hassan Hassan explains that the countries of the region can be divided into two camps: “one that seeks to advance its foreign interests through support of Islamists, and one whose foreign policy is guided by opposition to the rise of Islamists.” Qatar falls into the first category while the Saudis and Emiratis fall into the second category.
Several Arab countries have accused Qatar of sponsoring terrorism, including al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Nusra Front, Afghan terror group Taliban, and Hamas. However, even Saudi Arabia has been accused of financing Nusra Front.
President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh also seems to have emboldened Saudi officials. On Tuesday after the crisis, Trump tweeted about Qatar, linking it to funding of radical ideology.
Doha shares good diplomatic ties with Iran. The ownership of South Pars/North Dome Gas Condensate field, the world’s largest natural gas field, is shared by Iran and Qatar which unites the countries in wealth. Qatar became the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) owing to the shared gas field. Doha has struggled to maintain good relations with the GCC and Iran simultaneously.
The crisis shows deep rooted and complex divisions in the Middle East which the west often tries to downplay by portraying it as nothing more than tensions between Saudi-led Sunni bloc and Iran led Shiite bloc.
There seems to be no easy solution to the crisis in the foreseeable future. The crisis could lead to food and water shortages in the country because of the blockade imposed by its neighbors. Doha has called this a “collective punishment”. Intermarriages between Qataris and nationals of other GCC countries have resulted in families being torn apart because of Qatari citizens being ordered to leave Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE within 14 days. Qatar’s air travel came to a halt after the Gulf neighbors decided not to fly their airlines to Qatar. Qatar was forced to suspend its flights to the countries that imposed the blockade.
It’s hard to gauge what happens next. Oman and Kuwait, the remaining GCC countries not involved in the crisis, may try to exert what limited power they have to reach a compromise between the four Gulf States caught up in the crisis. The United States may intervene as well considering that Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East though Trump’s series of tweets seems to go against the instincts of the American foreign policy. Qatar has significant fiscal reserves, enjoys good relations and political support of Erdogan and Turkey and is a key energy partner for Russia and China. Saudi Arabia and Emiratis may soon realize that cutting off ties and attempting to isolate Qatar is not as easy as they thought.
Originally published on Dunya News