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Qatar in the eye of the storm
The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah left for Saudi Arabia for talks aimed at resolving a diplomatic crisis between Qatar and other Arab nations. On June 5, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council GCC, starting with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, cut diplomatic ties with Doha, saying it was “meddling in the internal affairs” of Bahrain.
The spat erupted into a full blown crisis when GCC members expelled Qatari citizens, while Riyadh cancelled the license for Qatar Air, Doha’s national flag carrier as well as stopping the export of basic products.
The reasons for the crisis are largely the same as in 2014 - GCC states accuse Qatar of what they say is “meddling in internal affairs,” supporting terrorism, and being too close to Iran.
But from a Qatari perspective, choosing sides between regional adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia is impossible.
“If you are neighboring Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is what Qatar is, in the Gulf, Qatar is in the middle of these two.” says Ahmed Ibrahim, of Qatar University. “There is no way Qatar can ask for a policy that sides with one against the other.
The policy that Qatar has pursued for years is one of a soft-power approach in the crisis between “the great powers in the region,” Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“And in that case, Qatar is open to do business with both,” says Ibrahim.
“That may be not altogether acceptable to the Saudis or to the Americans, because they have this mindset that Iran is the troublemaker and there ought to be a way to confront Iran. But it doesn’t work this way in the neighborhood.”
Underlying reasons for the crisis have existed for years. In 2014, GCC countries severed ties with Qatar for several months, also accusing Doha of ‘meddling in their internal affairs,” while the UAE accused Doha of supporting Emirati opposition figures and criticizing the Qatari-backed TV-station Al Jazeera about its reporting on the Arab Spring.
“Clearly the patience of Saudi Arabia and the UAE vis-a-vis Qatar ran out,” says Riad Kahwaji, the founder of the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis [INEGMA], a Dubai-based think tank,
He points to the “contradictory position of Qatar that on the one side is part of the Saudi alliance in Yemen, but at the same time keeping a very strong relations with Iran and want to push Iran’s role in the region.”
In fact, Iran and Qatar signed a defense cooperation agreement in February 2010 when Iranian Defense minister Ahmad Vahidi visited Doha.
Details of the agreement were never published, but the cooperation didn’t go down well with other GCC members.
“When you are in a Saudi-lead alliance, which is openly against the Iranian expansion in the region, and at the same time you open military ties with Iran, this is not acceptable and raises big question marks,” says Kahwaji.
But geographical closeness to Iran doesn’t give Qatar a choice. The two countries share one of the biggest natural gas fields.
In 1969, during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran and Qatar signed a demarcation agreement on a 9,700 km2 gas field dividing it in South Pars (3,700 km2 for Iran) and North Dome (6,000 km2 for Qatar) in the Persian Gulf.
As a result of the sanctions against Iran, and US backing of Qatar, the latter was able to develop its part of the field and become the richest country in the world in terms of per capita GDP. But due to the sanctions and economic malaise, Iran lags 67 places behind.
Since the gradual lifting of sanctions in 2015, Qatari gas specialists feel closer cooperation with Iran may be a necessity to help Tehran exploiting its part of the gas field to help it getting wealthier.
Qatar was also criticized for its support to groups that other GCC members see as terrorist entities.
Not only does Doha have friendly ties with the Muslim Brotherhood – banned in Egypt and other Arab countries – and gives shelter to Hamas leaders, it is also accused of actively funding extremist groups operating in Syria and Iraq.
One incident that particularly angered the Saudi-lead GCC alliance was Qatar’s handling of a hostage crisis involving 24 members of its elite.
In 2015 a Qatari falcon hunting party consisting of 24 emirs, some of them members of the Qatari Al-Thani royal family, were kidnapped in Iraq’s southern Muthanna province by Shia tribes including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and an Iranian-supported movement known as Ketaeb Hezbollah.
Only in April this year, the hostages were released, but allegedly after the Qatari government paid a ransom of hundreds of millions of Euros.
Qatar’s critics say this was only an excuse to “fund terrorists”.
“You are sending hundreds of millions of dollars to groups that are fighting you,” says Kahwadji. “You pay your enemy money that will help him fight you. This will definitely not be acceptable to any party.”
Qatar denies the allegations.
But the reason why the crisis is at this point in time may not be a coincidence. Not only does Saudi Arabia have a more aggressive leader – deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who started military operations in Yemen - but the US stance on the Middle East has also changed with the new administration.
“One precipitating cause was the visit of President Trump to Riyadh [in May] when he gave full backing to Saudi Arabia,” says author and Middle East specialist Patrick Cockburn, “when he denounced Iran as the cause of all global terrorism.
This seems to have been taken by the Saudi rulers as a license to do what they wanted in the Gulf on the assumption that they have full support from Trump and the US,” he says.
Meanwhile, Iran itself has taken a wait-and-see attitude.
“Iran’s foreign policy, especially during the Rouhani administration, is aimed at reducing tension,” says Foad Izadi of the University of Tehran.
“Iran wants to have good relations even with the Saudi government. Iran does not consider its neighbors to be its enemies. The problem has been on the other side. The Saudis are not interested in any type of rapprochement.”
The Qataris now hope that the Emir of Kuwait can break the ice.
“The official Qatari position is that the crisis can be solved through dialogue,” says Ibrahim, echoing the words of Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman.
“Doha has been reaching out to Kuwait [also a GCC member], who have been playing a vital role in sponsoring negotiation settlements before.
“So right now Qatar is basically depending in part on the goodwill of the Kuwaiti Emir in order to find a way out of this crisis,” he says.