Futility of Gulf Cooperation Council diplomacy towards Qatar
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
Shunning Qatar undermines a precious structure of pan-Arab diplomacy. The blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt against Qatar is more about relations with Iran than alleged links to terrorism.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatar has good relations with Iran and plans to deepen this connection. Iran shares several fields of natural gas with Qatar, a vast source of energy for export. In large quantities, Qatar exports LNG, liquified natural gas, to Europe and, despite the siege, it has not interrupted the flow of the vitally needed commodity to the United Arab Emirates, one of the four Arab states behind the blockade.
Even if one assumes that Qatar is being punished for its support of violent movements, it is worthy to note that Riyadh, the leader of the blockade, is actually the deepest source of dissemination of Islamist ideology. Scoring very poorly on religious and political freedom scales Saudi Arabia is the least qualified authority to discipline Qatar for supporting Islamist ideology.
Worried about the blockade’s impact on Washington’s relations with the oil-rich Arab states the US government is mediating quietly. In recent days Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding with the US State Department to formally join the global fight against terrorism. This reconciliatory gesture did not alleviate the diplomatic tension; last week, with the Qatar memorandum in hand, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson failed to persuade the punitive Arab bloc to lift the siege.
The blockading nations may have miscalculated. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain will eventually regret a siege-strategy imposed on a thriving GCC partner. Qatar is defiant. The demands for lifting the siege are unrealistic. To start with, it may not be in the best interest of Qatar to distance itself from Iran and Turkey. To close the vibrant Aljazeera news network is unrealistic. However, interrupting contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Islamist rebels of Syria may be achievable through negotiations.
Should the Qatar stalemate drag on for much longer the Saudis and their allies would most likely find themselves trapped in an overkill strategy. Before deciding to punish Qatar brutally the Saudis should have paid close attention to three glaring threats. First, Riyadh is currently under severe economic and political stress; equally burdened are the Egyptian and Bahraini regimes. Second, in this dispute, the international community is more in sympathy with Qatar than with its over-demanding opponents. Third, with the exception of Iran, not a single state -within the region or outside it- welcomes the weakening of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
To examine the factor of stress, observe the quagmire of the Saudi war in Yemen. The financial and moral cost for Riyadh in Yemen is extremely high. The media is finally exposing the US for helping the Saudis in their indiscriminate bombing of fighters and civilians . The spread of cholera is serious and Yemen is disintegrating into several rogue mini-states. Last week, the US House of Representatives voted against US participation in the Yemen war.
With alarm the Saudis examine the rapid erosion of their foreign currency reserves. Oil prices have dropped significantly, obligations in Syria and Yemen are high and domestic overspending is hard to control. As economic pressures mount over the next few weeks, and as the war in Yemen deteriorates further the Saudis may be the first to call for compromise. A face-saving formula would lead both sides of the conflict to claim “victory” and start negotiating unconditionally. In the Arab world the term “victory” has lost its true meaning over the past few decades.
The Saudis are aware that they are politically locked in a closed ideological framework. They have taught their people for generations that the Saudi style of life, ideology and religious practice are just “perfect”. Yet in real life Saudis have been highly dependent on outsiders for decades. Expatriates virtually run Saudi social services, defense systems, airports, hospitals and universities. The Saudis are not in any position to tell the Qataris how to think, run foreign affairs or establish international partnerships.
Second ignored threat: As for global public opinion on the Qatar dispute, the majority of nations do not seem to consider the blockade reasonable. In Washington the only source of support for the blockade is President Trump. Ignoring the president, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called for rational demands to end the dispute. The US has halted sale of arms to the Gulf region pending a resolution of the conflict. Several European countries have offered to mediate and expressed concern over the ongoing dispute. Germany is willing to monitor international transactions related to financing of terror groups. France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs is in the region this week to explore ideas for mediation. Russia and China are not happy with the embargo but have stayed tight-lipped. As the dispute lingers the blockading states will face mounting pressures to lift the siege.
Third ignored reality: The blockade is a direct threat to the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar’s forced exit from the GCC would compromise Oman and Kuwait’s role in a weakened structure. For pragmatic reasons Kuwait and Oman are on good terms with Iran; they are aware of Tehran’s current aggressive role in the region but they recognize the urgent need for rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Since its inception in 1981, the GCC has served as a common strategy of defense for six Gulf States. The GCC is a Mideast common market as well as a rich resource of employment for the Arab world and the wider international community. The GCC region is strategic for the US. Qatar hosts the US Central Command with its large air force base manned by 11000 Americans overseas, and Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet manned by 5000 US personnel.
With small native populations dependent on millions of expatriate workers the Arab Gulf states have in the past avoided wars and focused on developing a thriving culture of business. Saudi Arabia has broken a norm of conviviality by sanctioning Qatar, confronting Iran, bombing Yemen and ignoring the international community’s subdued alarm.
It is high time for the blockade to end and the dialogue to start. The blockade undermines the integrity of the GCC and the stability of the region.