The Qatar spat: The crack in the GCC’s armour deepens

Six Arab countries cut diplomatic ties with Qatar on Monday, accusing the tiny natural gas-rich Gulf emirate of sponsoring terrorism and destabilising the region.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have closed their borders with Qatar, stopping flights into the country and giving Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave their countries. Kuwait and Oman are the only two Gulf states to have remained silent on the issue, which many see as the latest episode in the ongoing struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

qatar.jpgQatar is home to the largest American military facility in the region and is due to play host to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The recent spat has been brewing for a while. A similar – though less extreme – dispute took place in 2014, which saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recall their ambassadors from Qatar in protest of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which they regard as a terrorist organisation. Qatar’s state-funded news outlet, Al Jazeera has also come under fire for its sympathetic stance towards the brotherhood. But the event that sparked this most recent clash is mired in controversy, with many suggesting that it was in fact a setup facilitated by the US.

On 23rd May, a story appeared on the website of Qatar’s state-run news agency claiming to quote a speech given by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al-Hamad Al-Thani at a military graduation ceremony. According to the article, the Emir had hailed Iran as an “Islamic power” and criticised US President Trump’s stance towards Tehran. Furious reactions emerged from Saudi and Emirati media outlets, slamming Qatar for supporting terrorism and undermining regional stability. The Qatari government claimed the news site was hacked and the report fabricated – as did a number of the ceremony’s attendees, who claim Al Thani made no such speech.

Emir7.jpgQatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al-Hamad Al-Thani (image: Qatar Living)

Leaked emails between the UAE’s ambassador to the US and White House officials are adding fuel to the fire. In the emails, Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba writes to top members of the Obama administration of his disdain for Qatar and his desire for the US to publically criticise the country and move their military base elsewhere. The day before the supposed hack, al-Otaiba wrote again to a former director of the CIA, passing on the wishes of the Emirati Crown Prince to “give [the Qataris] hell”. The next day, a conservative think tank with strong Israeli connections held a closed, invitation-only conference in Washington to discuss how to increase political pressure on Qatar. Hours later, the story broke.

The dispute fits into the wider struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which shares a large natural gas field with Qatar. The implication that Qatar considers itself closer to Iran than to Saudi Arabia is inflammatory and was bound to stir a reaction from Riyadh and its staunch ally Abu Dhabi. But a reaction as extreme as cutting diplomatic ties has taken many by surprise.

saudi-iranTensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are central to the dispute with Qatar (image: BBC News)

One possibility is that President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Gulf, during which he reaffirmed his hostility towards Iran and signed a $100 billion arms deal with the Kingdom, has emboldened the Saudi monarchy to take more extreme action against signs of Iranian expansionism. This certainly appears evident in neighbouring Bahrain, where the government has recently cracked down on domestic opposition, which it has frequently labelled Iranian-sponsored and sectarian.

trump.jpgDonald Trump expressed his support for Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on a recent trip to Riyadh (image: Politico)

The implications of the dispute are complicated in a region that is already divided. In terms of economics the impact is mixed. There is little bilateral trade between Qatar and its Gulf allies, so from a trade perspective the impact is not severe. However, flights in and out of the Gulf – many of which route through Doha – will be significantly affected and gas traders will be on high alert, as Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Moreover, despite that Qatar is not a major oil producer, there is concern that the move could prompt the country to pull out of OPEC’s agreement to cut oil production. This might encourage other countries to follow suit, thus driving the global oil price down once more.

This latest dispute could also signal the emergence of a deeper split in the Gulf – and one from which Iran would surely benefit. Elements within the Saudi and Emirati hierarchies reportedly disagreed with the decision to cut ties, as did Oman and Kuwait, who have stayed quiet on the side-lines. Their silence could be perceived as a betrayal by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – particularly in the case of Oman.

The Sultan of Oman has previously come under fire from other GCC members over its cordial relationship with Teheran. President Donald Trump also cancelled a meeting with Oman’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in April at the last minute with no explanation, after meeting with every other GCC foreign minister. It is thought this is related to Oman’s role as mediator in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the US.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said walks with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani upon Rouhani's arrival in MuscatIranian President Hassan Rouhani with the Sultan of Oman on a visit to Muscat in 2014 (image: Al Monitor)

However, Oman’s well-practiced role as mediator in local conflicts could be just what the Gulf needs to end the dispute. Yet even if Qatar backs down under pressure and ties are restored, divisions within the GCC will remain. The relationship between Qatar and the other Gulf states would likely remain fraught, and Oman and Kuwait would be scrutinised and put under increased pressure to comply with their Gulf counterparts in the future.

The Saudis and their allies are playing with fire. Alienating Qatar risks triggering a self-fulfilling prophecy as Iran would likely see a rift in the GCC as an opportunity to expand its influence in the region. Only time will tell whether Qatar will call their bluff.


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