By Kabir Taneja
In an unprecedented and unexpected move that has sent ripples across the already fraught political landscape of the Middle East, majority members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and other regional states have diplomatically isolated the rich but small nation of Qatar. Regional home of Sunni power, Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt followed by others such as Yemen, Libya and even Maldives joined together to tighten the diplomatic noose around Doha.
The reasons behind the latest crisis in the region are not black and white, but a mix of immediate concerns between Doha and Riyadh, and more long-term demands off the Qatari state by the wider GCC. In simpler terms, a want for Doha to fall in line with the GCC’s visions, aims and objectives, instead of pursuing more independent, domestic and more importantly, foreign policies. However, the immediate provocation, as per reports, seems to be the payment of huge ransom to secure the release of Qatari royal falconers kidnapped in Iraq more than a month ago. Qatar reportedly paid in-tune to $1 billion to Al Qaeda affiliated Syrian group Tahrir-al-Sham and Iranian Shiite-militias Kata’eb Hezbollah.
The case of Qatar as a state in itself is worthy of a deep study for its success, which also explains its different approach to complicated regional politics. The tiny emirate, spanning just 11,500 square km, with just over 3,10,000 Qataris inhabiting the island (and more than 2.3 million expatriates, over 6,50,000 of them being Indian), has over the past few years built itself as one of the biggest brands in the region, projecting as a major player in regional politics and global economics, powered by the third largest proven natural gas reserves in the world. This effort made sure that Qatar is not just another obscure state in the Middle East. Doha is hosting the football world cup in 2022 while Qatar Airways flies to every major corner of the planet and sponsors the world’s biggest sporting teams in Europe. Besides all these, the state’s media outlet Al Jazeera, which regularly takes a stand against Saudi Arabia’s interventions in conflict zones such as Syria, has built up vast reach across the globe. These ‘soft-power’ measures by Qatar and its ruling Al-Thani family over the years made sure that any unwarranted heavy-handedness or military threats against it will be highlighted at the highest stages of the world. To put it more bluntly, Qatar via its soft-power initiatives avoids the fate similar to that of the on going yet forgotten insurgency in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran funded groups are entangled in a seemingly never-ending proxy war.
While most GCC nations have had long-standing issues with Qatar, the trigger for this diplomatic tiff comes from Doha’s constant attempts to punch above its weight in regional politics, which included shying away from outright condemnation of the threat perception that others in the GCC thought were critical to their combined interests. This included Iran. The other issue was Qatar’s refusal to depose members of Muslim Brotherhood, which is a long-standing tiff between Doha, Dubai and Cairo. The protesting GCC members believe that the Qataris have repeatedly failed to fulfill their part of the bargains, and have continued to interfere in political spaces in confliction with interests of the GCC.
The Qatar blockade will also have interesting geo-political ramifications that we may witness in the weeks ahead. The fact that the sea-routes and borders from Saudi to Qatar are closed means much of food supplies to the country will be blocked. While Iran has said that the GCC should solve this matter via dialogue, it has also not missed taking the opportunity to court Doha into its sphere. Iran has offered to ship food supplies to Qatar, saying the first such consignment can reach the isolated country within 12 hours if need be. Acceptance of such an offer will, of course, make the unfolding diplomatic situation even worse.
Amidst this chaos, the US also finds itself at an interesting juncture. It currently remains unclear whether the administration of President Donald Trump was given a heads-up before this event, with the US Central Command (CENTCOM) and the main air-command conducting air strikes against the Islamic State (Al Udeid air base) being based in Qatar while the US Fifth Fleet being based in Bahrain. The American play in Qatar even goes beyond this, with energy giant ExxonMobil being the largest foreign partner in the country’s rich natural gas arena. When the deal between ExxonMobil and Qatar’s RasGas was formulated in 2001, Rex Tillerson, the current US Secretary of State, was the Executive Vice President of ExxonMobil. It is easy to predict that Tillerson knows the political landscape of Qatar well, and it is almost unfathomable that he was caught completely off-guard over the overtures of the GCC against Qatar, specifically just two weeks after Trump’s Riyadh ‘orb’ diplomacy rallied Arab nations towards a united stand against Iran. Tillerson’s statement that a break with Qatar will not affect counter-terrorism operations highlights some sort of existing understanding by the US over the situation.
Instability in Qatar could also have adverse effects for India. New Delhi is the second largest buyer of Qatari liquefied natural gas (LNG), after Japan. India’s Petronet LNG, as part of a long-term deal, imports 8.5 million tones of LNG from Doha every year. One consignment worth Rs 150 crore arrives on Indian shores every 72 hours. Besides this, more than 650,000 Indians live and work in the country, and any major deterioration in the situation could put India into difficulties, though Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj downplayed the unfolding events, saying India’s bilateral relations with all the states concerned will remain unaffected.
While Saudi Arabia and partners have escalated matters with Qatar significantly, de-escalation may take time, and is harder to orchestrate as is in most such cases. Both Qatar and the Saudi-led GCC members will need to find a common ground for their grievances, but a long-drawn diplomatic rift of such nature has more adverse affects for Qatar than the others.