It is one year since the blockade of Qatar began when four Arab nations (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates) cut ties and imposed a land, air, and sea embargo aimed at bringing Doha to its knees. The GCC crisis began to unfold when Qatar News Agency was hacked.
On May 23 four statements attributing to the Emir of Qatar were posted on the news agency’s website and broadcast through Saudi and American media. The hacking came three days after US President Donald Trump met Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia and addressed the Riyadh Summit. On June 4, hacked e-mail accounts of the UAE’s Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al-Otaiba revealed his long running campaign to undermine Qatar. The next day, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut ties with Qatar and imposed an air, land, and sea blockade due to accusations of Qatar’s support of terrorism throughout the region, which Doha denies.
The blockading countries then placed fifty-nine individuals and twelve organizations from Qatar on what they call the terror list. The group then sent Qatar a list of thirteen demands which included shutting down Al Jazeera media network, and curbing relations with Iran. A year on, there is no end to the crisis.
As the GCC crisis continues, Qatar has managed to weather the blockade successfully in terms of its politics, economy, and media. Politically, Qatar has not only discussed its own security, but it also discussed the need for a new regional security in the Middle East. At this year’s Munich Conference, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani proposed the idea of a regional security agreement that would protect the independence and sovereignty of all countries in the region. The GCC crisis was a difficult moment for the region, and it still is.
Unfortunately, this senseless crisis should not have taken place to start with, but the GCC is heading into uncharted territory.
On a separate issue, reports from French news agencies like Le Figaro and Le Monde have indicated that Saudi Arabia could threaten Qatar with military action if it acquires the s400 system from Russia.
The likelihood is that more of this escalation will continue particularly if Qatar goes along with the sale. However, for the interests of the region, there needs to be a diplomatic process that leads to a settlement in trying to bring an end to the blockade. Doha has consistently stated that it has managed to contain the crisis, but the costs of the crisis, including the ongoing blockade have led to major financial damages that impacted not only Qatar, but the blockading countries as well. Despite the blockade, Qatar has still been a resource hub in the Middle East hosting some of the world’s largest gas and petroleum reserves and hosting the largest US military base in the region. These are American interests that cannot be ignored.
President Trump initially backed the blockading countries when the crisis began, but he has called on all sides to resolve the dispute. However, when the Emir of Qatar visited Trump in April, Trump praised Qatar’s role as a major US partner that defends US interests in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the domestic angle related to the Trump family played a major role that intertwined with US strategic interests which did not allow the United States to exert its leverage to resolve the Gulf crisis. As a result, there seems to be confusion within the administration on what the leadership role should be for the US to support mediation efforts. In addition, the Trump Administration has failed to exert its leverage because its major allies are continuing to bicker at each other and nobody is on the same page when it boils down to Gulf unity.
Even though the crisis continues to linger on, the United States is in the region to protect its own interests. By partnering with countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular, Trump has been able to extract wealth from the Gulf and invest it in the US as much as possible; for example, in jobs and lobbying organizations. Over the last year or so unemployment has dropped in the United States, exports have increased, and Gulf countries are racing to ratify contracts with the US that add up to billions of dollars in investments. Trump is pretty much playing to the interests of not only himself, but to his base at home, and the losers in all of this are the Gulf states.
In addition, President Trump is pursuing his objectives vis-à-vis Israel and the moving of the U.S Embassy to Jerusalem. The GCC crisis gave many analysts the impression that the best way to influence Trump is through Israel. As a result, a number of Arab countries including the blockading countries are cozying up relations with Israel in one way or the other, and of course, the ultimate price that was paid was the embassy move to Jerusalem.
The GCC crisis has been disastrous for all the parties involved. Yes, there has been a large, quite considerable financial cost for Qatar, but it is also true that this expenditure has helped Qatar consolidate itself on the internal front where the population has mobilized around the Emir. Qatar is also determined not to give up any aspects of their sovereignty, which is what the Saudis and the other blockading countries are requiring Qatar to do.
In addition, Qatar is in a much stronger position than before, and the erratic actions of Saudi Arabia have backfired on Gulf unity. However, looking into the future, Saudi Arabia probably faces more greater threats than Qatar in the coming few years. Inside Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman has a very ambitious reform program known as the Vision 2030, and this is something badly needed in the kingdom, but it has not been implemented in the most logical way possible.
One year on since the crisis began in June of last year, Qatar has been able to achieve a balance where you can have conservatism, but at the same time have liberal economics in terms of focusing on industry and diversifying the economy. The blockading countries will probably not come out of this crisis victorious, but there is the possibility of an upheaval in the region as a whole because of the tensions with Iran and the most logical reaction Saudi Arabia should take is to consolidate the Gulf front instead of dividing it.