Seismic shifts in the Gulf in Qatar stand-off
The most prosperous country in the world is under siege as fellow states look on, some in awe, others in fear, and many with glee. Qatar, host of Al Jazeera Network, one of the most sophisticated and successful media broadcasters, was somehow suprised by what appears to be a malicious and calculated media demonisation campaign orchestrated by countries whom many thought were its key allies.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain led the charge against the tiny Gulf state a week ago, beginning with the withdrawal of their ambassadors and followed by a complete blockade, lobbying several other client states to follow suit. The outrageous demands made by the blockaders encroach on the sovereignty of the state of Qatar by calling for a complete overhaul of its independent foreign policy and expecting conformity with the dictates of the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC). The heightened tensions are indicative of the seismic shifts spreading in the Gulf region since the Arab Spring sent mere shivers down the spines of the monarchies.
Qatar, having had a rebellious, youthful spirit, developed a defiant and extraordinary foreign policy steeped in a pragmatic, survival-based notion that the more friends we have the smaller the possibility of an invasion by a powerful neighbour (as Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990). A bloodless coup by the current emir’s father in 1995 laid the foundations of Qatar’s rapid growth based on its immense gas reserves that not only brought economic growth and development to the Gulf state but also empowered Doha’s international profile.
Hosting the military might of the world’s superpower (US CentCom) just a few dunes away from the regional big brother emboldened Qatar to embark on its ambitious plans for development, much to the distaste of the Saudis, who had seen the small islet as an irritant that should be dispensable because of its diminutive size.
The second major development was the founding of the Al Jazeera News Network, and the third was Qatar’s embarking on fervent economic investments through its sovereign wealth fund, aimed at diversifying its gas-based economy. This allowed Qatar to buy itself a seat at the table of most critical international political dialogues, thereby exerting unprecedented influence in almost every aspect of international relations.
The world marveled as Qatar became the first Arab country to encourage public debate and dialogue on previously taboo topics by hosting the Doha Debates and in the unbridled approach of Al Jazeera to pertinent issues facing the Muslim and Arab world. The careful balance that Doha managed to maintain between its Western partnerships and its Islamist leanings set it apart from other States and it soon became a model for a convergence of civilizations rather than a clash. Increasingly this became a problem for the GCC monarchs, particularly Saudi Arabia, as their controlled press and repressive regimes had never entertained the notion of treating their people as citizens but rather as subjects.
The Arab Spring marked the most significant turning point for the GCC States in their tolerance of Qatar’s defiance. The polarisation of the Arab World became glaringly apparent and Qatar found itself isolated within the GCC. Qatar supported the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where the revolutions were organic. In both countries, parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power on the back of popular votes, much to the dismay of the Arab dictators.
Qatar’s role at that stage was minimal, but for the extensive coverage on Al Jazeera, which became the people’s channel, broadcasting their revolution live from Tahrir Square to the world. Once the governments were democratically elected, Qatar showed keen support both financially and politically, whereas other Arab powers sought to empower counter-revolutionaries and effect coups. The Gulf monarchies feared that their oil-fuelled reigns would be cut short by the domestic popular revival of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology that democratic principles and Islam are not diametrically opposed.
The immediate response, particularly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was to quash dissent and ban groups bearing any similarity to the Brotherhood. Mass cash bonuses were paid to buy loyalty and promises of huge investments were inked to dissuade other countries from leaning towards reform. These measures, however, failed to address the long-term stability of the region.
With the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are poised to reconfigure the US agenda in the Middle East, redesigning the balance of power to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s hegemony along what appears to be pre-Gulf War lines. The renewed courtship with the US is led by the Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who has been at the forefront of decision-making since his aged father, King Salman, ascended the throne. His ambitious vision for Saudi Arabia and an aggressive, impulsive stance on military action against perceived rivals, particularly Iran, appears to be setting the tone for regional upheaval.
Qatar has persistently maintained that hostility towards Iran would be disastrous for the region and it may well be that this position blocks the prince’s towards the crown. His impulsive decision-making has already led the GCC into a protracted war in Yemen that has had a negative impact on oil revenues and sullied the economy.
The move on Qatar had not resulted in the immediate submission of the emir, whatsoever.
Though the Saudi-led bloc are projecting themselves as the axis of stability in an expanse of extremism, the reality is far less binary and they have found themselves deep in a political quagmire. It could lead to a protracted stalemate, or a pride-induced move towards achieving their goals at any cost – including regime change or military action against Doha.
The continued stand-off has already perturbed the Saudis and the Emiratis. Their own nationals have begun to express sympathy with Qatar, to be met immediately with the blocking of Qatari news channels and websites, as well as the criminalisation of expressions of support for Qatar or its people. These repressive and divisive tactics are tearing families apart and affecting tribal affiliations, because tribes that span across the Arabian Peninsula have begun to pledge allegiance to Qatar’s leader, further inflaming the Saudis.
The absence of trust between member states of the GCC, tied with the lack of transparency, accountability and an archaic notion that the public must remain submissive to a ruling elite, do not augur well for the future of the GCC and may even lead to renewed popular mobilisation for democratic change in the Gulf. With Qatar unwilling to concede and the anti-Qatar alliance reluctant to back down, the dissolution of the GCC in its current formation is a likely outcome.
Zeenat Adam is an independent international relations strategist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is a former diplomat who served as South Africa’s deputy ambassador to Qatar from 2005 to 2009.