Rein in Qatar. Gulf unity is at stake
Analysts of the Arab Gulf region have, for the past week or so, been obsessing over the deterioration of relations within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). And for good reason. Qatar stands accused of pursuing some very damaging policies—policies that undermine GCC international projects, generate suspicion of the Arab Gulf internationally and are greeted with outright hostility in other parts of the Arab world.
Consider that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and the Bayda Government of Libya have provided information linking Qatar to: al Qaeda in Syria, ISIS in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the Muslim Brotherhood and its many branches (including Hamas), and the jihadi Benghazi Defence Brigades and Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Libya. At the same time, Iran has made good use of its agents stationed in Qatar to stoke sectarian tensions and spur on violence in Saudi Arabia’s Qatif province and Bahrain. Qatar, it seems, turned a blind eye.
Most damaging of all is that Qatar is seen as undermining the stabilisation and security efforts of the GCC as an organisation. Whether supporting the Iran-backed Houthi in Yemen’s civil war, going it alone by supporting a spider’s web of jihadi groups, joining Turkey in developing a parallel military presence in the Gulf or working to further splinter Palestinian fractions by supporting Hamas but not Fatah, Qatar is out-of-sync with the very same GCC foreign relations commitments it has undertaken to work for. This is a serious problem.
The GCC has a tried and tested emergency response to regional crises: Peninsular Shield Force. Formed in 1981 to deal with Iran’s attempts to project the Islamic Republic throughout the region. Peninsular Shield came to support Bahrain as the country dealt with the buds of an Iranian insurgency and the joint operational capabilities of the GCC generated enough of a deterrent to limit external interference. All the years of military and intelligence cooperation, of constructing interoperability mechanisms is being undermined.
While the rhetoric had been steadily ratcheted-up, yesterday morning’s news that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and the Bayda Government in Libya have severed diplomatic relations with Qatar is a clear indication of the state of political tensions. And the boarding-up of Qatari missions was not symbolic. There are real consequences that will be felt in Doha as borders and airspaces close, food and fuel supplies halt and international prestige is tarnished. In the first hour after the announcement, the Qatari stock index plunged 7.6%, Qatar Airways have been redirected out of Saudi, UAE, Egyptian and Bahraini airspace and Qatari nationals have been given fourteen days to return home. Qatar’s actions will cost the country dearly.
Iran has just (at the time of this writing) cynically signalled that it would compensate Qatar for its losses and provide food aid. It is trying to exploit intra-alliance tensions as Saudi Arabia and the UAE - first and fifth largest exporters of food to Qatar - stop their food supplies. Qataris have swarmed the supermarkets and national morale is in a tailspin. What a tragic story this is.
Qatar belongs in the GCC and it belongs in league with the progressive forces in the Arab and Muslim worlds. But it cannot be a member of that union as long as it works against collective interests. This crisis will, eventually, pass. However, the Arab Gulf states have invested too much political energy to allow Qatar to unravel their strategic, economic and political position. In this age of spiking political violence and the rise of jihadism the forces of Arab and Islamic progress need all the help they can get and Qatar needs to be reined in from its adventurism and make its contribution as well.