By Fazzur Rahman
Today the Arab world seems to be completely enmeshed in an array of unending conflict and the region is utterly mired in one political catastrophe after another. The analysts of the Arab politics have already written the obituaries of the oldest Arab organization, ‘Arab League’. Another similar Islamic-Arab block, ‘Organization of Islamic Congress’, has long become a printing house for the ineffective resolutions and recommendations. And the same fate is likely to be lying ahead for another beleaguered body, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as the unfolding drama of Qatar blockade casts a doubt on the feasibility of the organization’s future itself.
It all began last Monday when in a sudden and shocking move, three members (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE) of six-member GCC announced to break all diplomatic ties with Qatar and asked its diplomatic staff to leave the soil within forty eight hours and the same was told to the member staff of Qatar’s mission in the respective country. The citizens and tourists were given two weeks’ time to return to their homes. It was not enough for the big brother in the GCC, Saudi Arabia, to punish the so-called brother of Muslim of Umma in this holy month of Ramadan. They further announced air, maritime, and land traffic blockade against Qatar, which created havoc amongst people in the country. It will have immediate impact on Qatar’s economy and moreover people might face difficulties because most of the food imports to Qatar come via the GCC. Iran, the real target of these exercises, has offered to help Qatar; Turkey, too, announced its support for Qatar. Qatar has been asked to wind up its camp in Yemen which until Sunday was a member of the Saudi-led war there. Not to allow the situation aggravate further, the wise man of Arab, Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad flew to Saudi Arabia which has asked Qatar to terminate diplomatic ties with Iran, freeze Hamas account, order MBH members to leave the country, and shut down the Aljazeera TV channel, in addition to many other demands. The UAE has warned its citizen not to express any sympathy towards Qatar and doing so might invite five years of jail.
The move of three GCC members was later followed by Egypt and ironically by Yemen and Libya too, which are in tatters and struggling relentlessly but unsuccessfully to have united sovereign governments at home. What was more ironical was the announcement of Maldives and Mauritania to fall in line, countries which most of the GCC inhabitants cannot even locate on the map.
Many have and continue to explain this development in different ways and some have already seen it as the first aftereffect of President Trump’s visit to the region. It all began when the current ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, tried to refute in a function what President Trump had said about Iran during his recent visit to Riyadh. To the chagrin of both Saudi Arabia and UAE, Sheikh Tamim had said that Iran cannot be demonized like this and it is a great state and contributor to the stability of the region. He also warned against relying too much on the US when Trump himself is facing a tough time back at home. The ruler had all appreciative words for Hezbollah and Hamas – too bitter a pill for Saudi Arabia to swallow, which has always seen a brewing threat in the political discourse of these forces. No amount of denial and allegation of hacking on the part of ruling family in Qatar helped in soothing the anger. News portals and social media in Saudi Arabia and Egypt took no time to launch an illicit campaign of vilification against Qatar.
Egypt could not have missed this moment to settle its old score because Qatar was not only a staunch critic of dethroning of Morsi in 2013 but also offered sanctuary to many members of the MBH – a declared terrorist group in Egypt. Later the issues precipitated when the man-in-charge of US-Saudi relationship in the United Sates threatened the Qatari ruler of Morsi’s fate and a Riyadh-based Aljazeera daily accused Qatar of stabbing its neighbor with Iran’s dagger. On its part, Qatar alleged that it was a part of conspiracy by the UAE whose ambassador in Washington in a leaked email message had asked a pro-Israeli think tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to handle Qatar for its support to the Islamists.
To put the things further in perspective, the move is a reflection of the GCC-centric policy of big brother Saudi Arabia after losing its hope in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Qatar has long been accused of sabotaging the GCC design in the region and drifting away from the unified goal of Sunni ruling families to counter Iran’s hegemonic and sectarian posture in the Arab world. Qatar has also been accused of supporting anti-Saudi forces and destabilizing the region in the aftermath of the Arab uprising. It has been punished in the past also for harboring empathy for the Islamists, along with Iran, and promoting and sympathizing with factions like MBH, Hamas and, Hezbollah which for nations like UAE and Saudi Arabia amount to abetting terrorism in the region. The ideologies of these groups are perceived to be a threat to the political survival of the Gulf monarchies.
Qatar has always shown its reluctance to fall in line with Saudi Arabia, which is too galling for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to tolerate. In Syria, Libya, and Yemen, Qatar has never been a full-hearted ally of Saudi Arabia. Despite being a part of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, its relation with the Saudi regime can be best described as a jumble of solidarity, anger, annoyance, maneuvering, antagonism, and sometime recalcitrance, too. Iran has been the best bet for Qatar to annoy Saudi Arabia and the UAE and leave them guessing about the Iran-Qatar ties. The present fiasco in the ties between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is not an overnight occurrence but an outcome of seeping estrangement after the father of the current ruler dethroned his father Sheikh Khalifa in 1995, a close protégé of Saudi Arabia. Since then the terrain of bilateral relationship has never been smooth between the two.
Qatar has never been an easy partner for Saudi Arabia and UAE in the GCC because it has its own ambition, driven by its economic status of the highest per capita income in the world and being the biggest gas reservoir. The discovery of gas in Qatar in the 1990s and sharing of Northern Land of gas with Iran also does not allow Qatar to maintain an alienated or recalcitrant relationship with Iran like other members of the GCC. Qatar claims its proximity to the western world, which is largely true. One can see the sprawling educational campuses of all prominent western universities there and one cannot overlook the fact that it is the host to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Its ruling family, despite being a descendent of the 18th century Wahabi family, does neither follow nor promote the puritanical Islam of Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, it enjoys the distinction of hosting 100,000 US troops and forwards US Central Command – US military central command in the Middle East – which accords it a different place among the GCC nations. There are reports that the UAE and others in the GCC are keen to see the US air base moving out of Qatar but the US officials have given no such sign so far. It was only during the Summit in Riyadh that the US officials had said that relations with Doha will get better. It would be interesting to see in near future how the US balances between two hostile camps of the GCC, where the US has its own economic and strategic stakes.
No doubt the choice of Saudi Arabia as the first foreign destination by the new US President, Donald Trump, has emboldened the GCC members and injected a new vigor and valor in their attempt to confront Iran which for Trump’s predecessor had become a non-issue – a source of great anxiety for the Gulf rulers. During the Arab-Islamic-US summit, Mr. Trump declared that Iran was the biggest source of terrorism in the region, which perhaps prompted Saudi Arabia and the UAE to take hasty and tough steps against Qatar, which for the GCC is an Iranian arm. The visit of Trump has created a rift in Saudi-created Islamic Military Alliance (Sunni NATO) itself and Pakistan, whose former army chief, Rahil Sharif, is heading the alliance, has made it clear that it would not be the part of any coalition intended against Iran.
President Trump’s new doctrine for the region is primarily centered against Iran and the current isolation of Qatar is the inauguration of this doctrine. This is a clear and stern message that the GCC rulers would have no business with those who harbor an iota of sympathy for Iran or any plan of accommodating the Shiite nation in post-Obama security architecture, which is seemingly a joint US-GCC-Israel exercise to isolate Iran globally and regionally. It is also an indication that the GCC-US ties would be the defining feature of both regional security and politics in the coming months and years. The earlier idea of US disengagement from the region has no wisdom. Given the belligerent mood within the GCC, it seems that the Gulf Monarchs can desert their own allies and compatriots to punish Iran and, hence, a great danger is looming over the unity of the GCC and the stability of the region as a whole.
Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), a Delhi-based foreign policy think tank. His area of research is political Islam and socio-political development in the Arab world. Recently he has published a book, Political Islam and the Arab Uprising: Islamist Politics in Changing Time (Sage: 2017). He has also authored “The Concept of Islamic State: From the Time of Caliphate to Twentieth Century: Pre-Ikhwan and Post-Ikhwan Phase” (Lebanon). He writes regularly on political and regional issues in the Arab world.
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