On June 5, 2017, a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, cut diplomatic ties and imposed an economic blockade on Qatar. They ordered their citizens living in Qatar to leave the country (except for Egypt, which has 250,000 citizens in Qatar). Moreover, Saudi Arabia also closed its land border with Qatar, and gave Qatari citizens living in Saudi Arabia 48 hours to go back. As reported by Al Jazeera (a major media corporation based in Qatar whose closure is demanded by Saudi Arabia), despite the fact that relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia had been sour for some time, the unexpected turn of events took everyone in the region by surprise.
The Doha government is accused by the blockading nations of supporting extreme Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts. According to Saudi Arabia, the groups Qatar would be supporting (which include opposition groups in Saudi Arabia) create instability and disruption in the region. Moreover, Qatar is on good terms with Iran, while other Arab nations (primarily Sunni) hold enmity toward the Iranian Shia regime.
Qatar’s foreign ministry responded to these accusations by claiming that the actions undertaken by the Saudi-led coalition aim to violate their sovereignty. Qatari policy expert Abdulaziz Alhorr, interviewed by Al Jazeera, stated that Qatar is a key partner against terrorism, something that is backed by statements from U.S. officials (including President Donald Trump). It has been suggested (and seems likely the case) that during President Trump’s visit to Riyadh last May, Saudi Arabia sought backing from the U.S. in its diplomatic struggle with Qatar. President Trump, backed the Saudis in their adventures, embracing them as a key ally of the U.S. in the Persian Gulf (and ostensibly in the fight against terrorism and Iran). Other influential actors in the region, such as Turkey and Iran, have also urged both sides to hold talks and resolve the issue peacefully, to avoid more instability in an already volatile region. Kuwait positioned itself as a mediator in the wake of the crisis.
As a prerequisite to lifting the embargo, Saudi Arabia issued Qatar a list of thirteen demands, which included closing down Al Jazeera and severing ties with Iran. The full list can be viewed in this report by The Guardian. The deadline passed, however, without Qatar complying with the Saudi demands. As of December 8, 2017, it has not yet done so, nor does it appear it intends to do so. Qatar defends itself by stating that it has never supported any terrorist groups, especially ISIS, and that it has always respected international law.
As Reuters reported, Iran, through President Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff, Hamid Aboutalebi, blamed President Trump’s ill-informed and misguided actions during his visit to Riyadh. Still, as Al Jazeera reports, the U.S. has insisted that the Gulf nations be unified in the fight against terrorism, especially within the framework of the GCC. However, after a meeting with the Saudi crown prince Bin Salman, the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed that both parties were not “ready to talk yet”. Moreover, the GCC summit in December, which was hoped would help find a solution, was considered underwhelming, as the blockading nations refused to send top government officials. The GCC’s future was said to be “in doubt,” with the summit ending a day earlier than scheduled.
Some European countries, including the UK and France, have expressed their support for Qatar in recent days. The United Kingdom, as reported by The Peninsula, has agreed to fund investment projects worth £4.5bn in the country, signaling British confidence in the Qatari economy. France sold Qatar military contracts valued at €12bn, including the purchase of fighter jets and armored vehicles. According to the Financial Times, French President Emmanuel Macron said the deal “underlines the closeness of [France and Qatar’s] relations”.
As of now, this crisis seems very far from a solution. Qatar insists that it has always respected international law, and accuses the Saudi-led coalition of attacking its sovereignty. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, sees Qatar’s friendly ties to Iran and opposition forces in the Middle East as a threat to its dominant position in the region.
The Middle East is strategically important, and at the same time its politics are extremely complex. While a peaceful solution to this crisis would seem to be the most desirable outcome for all involved (including the U.S.), it will take long negotiations, and both sides will have to make concessions in order to restore peaceful cooperation.
As it stands now, this remains very unlikely.
Victor Jimenez Rivera (Spain)