If we lose a dollar they will lose a dollar, intoned superciliously the Qatar finance minister after a slew of sanctions imposed by the fellow Gulf brethren. The upbeat mien of the Qatari minister Ahmed bin Jassim while saying that the food stocks in Qatar would last a year without any trouble however betrayed a nervousness that was so natural for a country so heavily integrated with its Arab cousins both financially and logistically. With a population of just 2.7 million and 80 percent dependency on expatriates, Qatar is compelled to foster cordial relations between its GCC as well as non GCC allies.
Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen have cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar while Kuwait is trying to mediate between the estranged ex-allies. Russia, Kuwait, Turkey, and Pakistan have all pitched for mediation but the thousand pound gorilla in the room ie USA has not been encouraging a rapprochement. Donald Trump’s favourite mode of communication (tweets) have validated Qatar’s economic blockade. His latest tweet where he says “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism” betokens hauteur that eggs on the anti-Qatar coalition in the Gulf. The first act of the Qatar-Saudi conflict drama was played out in the political tumult of the Arab Spring in 2011 when Qatar and Saudi alliance went in the opposite camps supporting the rival regimes. The present denouement is the final act of the simmering rage that had resulted in a similar spat between Qatar and other three Gulf States ie Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain in 2014.
An increased Russian involvement in Syrian crisis, USA’s cozying up to Saudi Arabia, and Qatar’s estrangement with Egypt and Israel has accelerated her diplomatic isolation in the region. Saudi Arabia was unhappy with Qatar for pursuing an independent foreign policy that set great store by a cordial relationship with Iran and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Qatar’s liberal news channel Aljazeera was also an anathema to the Saudi political sensibilities as it openly propagated a message of liberalism, pluralism, and sectarian harmony that lay athwart Saudi politico-religious ideology.
A Saudi proposal to recognise Israel in 2002 based on pre 1967 borders and in line with ‘two state solution’ was repeated in 2007 but spurned by Israel citing Oslo accord compulsions. The Israeli lobby in Washington that lay a little dormant during Obama’s tenure has reasserted itself due to Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric. Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia was a clear message of support to a beleaguered Saudi Arabia that during Obama’s tenure had started feeling insecure especially after US-Iran landmark nuclear deal.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has recently praised efforts to isolate Qatar. Saudi Arabia had for some time been demanding cessation of support for Hamas and had urged Qatar to deport Hamas leader Salah al Arouri while Qatar was supporting Hamas in its rebuilding efforts in Gaza after Israel induced destruction in 2014.
The Israeli lobby in Washington that lay a little dormant during Obama’s tenure has reasserted itself due to Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric
Jason Greenblatt the current White House top envoy for Middle East and Trump’s son in law Jared Kushner have had differing visions for Israel-Palestinian rapprochement but Jared Kushner’s version has ultimately prevailed. He has introduced an ‘outside in’ approach according to which the Gulf States will establish friendly ties with Israel as a precondition to a peace agreement.
The destabilising standoff between two opposing camps is going to exact economic as well as political costs at the cost of Arab unity. After Russian support to Bashar al Assad, the Turkish-Qatar strategy of supporting ISIS and Al Nusra front lay in tatters while the Saudi reversal in Yemen coupled with economic woes made it vulnerable to Israeli political agenda.
The current blockade affects food imports and transportation but leaves gas exports unaffected including those routed towards UAE. Most of the food imports are being routed through Oman as the UAE’s Fujairah port an erstwhile mainstay of Qatar has been blockaded.
Turkey has been quick to deploy 3000 troops while Iran and Turkey have both provided emergency food exports to Qatar. The present standoff portends a destabilising rivalry at the cost of Arab unity and regional stability. $2 billion worth of Saudi-Qatar annual trade and $7billion of Qatar-UAE trade is at stake while a $30 billion Saudi banking exposure to Qatar sends shivers down the bankers’ spine. The severance of air ties that ban 70 daily flights from Qatar to Saudi Arabia will have economic costs for Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar. Pakistan must keep emphasising through its diplomatic savoir faire the debilitating costs of the conflict especially to the Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain that might suffer more than Qatar in the long run on account of lost business opportunities, reduced tourism, and a negative perception as nations that prefer politics over business.
The writer is a PhD scholar at NUST; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Daily Times, June 20th, 2017.