The five-week-old Gulf crisis raises questions about the fundaments of international relations, the definition of national security, and the ability of small states to chart an independent course that are likely to be debated long after Gulf states have buried their hatchets.
The crisis that pits a Saudi-UAE-led alliance against Qatar entered a new phase this week with the arrival of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the region in a bid to resolve the dispute among states that are US allies, many of which host key US military facilities. The United States is widely seen as the only power capable of brokering a resolution.
Mr. Tillerson arrived in the region as the lay of the land shifted with the leaking to CNN of secret agreements concluded in 2014 between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait.
The Saudi-UAE-led alliance declared last month a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar because it had failed to implement the 2014 agreement that put an end to an earlier diplomatic embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
The leaked documents leave little doubt that Qatar has violated those agreements. Qatari actions at the time of the signing of the agreements, however, made clear even before the ink was dry that the Gulf state had no intention of being bullied into accepting a policy dictate and would at best take minimal steps to implement the accord.
Last month’s boycott of Qatar was designed to force the Gulf state to fully comply with the agreement under which Qatar would halt its support for Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as well as jihadist organizations, refrain from interfering in the domestic affairs of other Gulf states as well as Yemen, and temper free-wheeling reporting and debate on the controversial Al Jazeera network that operates in a regional media landscape that is dominated by state-controlled outlets. Some of the Saudi-UAE demands went beyond the original agreement.
The Saudi-UAE-led boycott, despite the legal weakness of Qatar’s position based on the 2014 agreement, goes however to much broader issues that are likely to shape future international relations and spark debate on what the distinction is between national interest and the interest of rulers to ensure their survival at whatever cost. The crisis has already prompted debate in small states elsewhere on the degree to which size limits their ability to chart their own course.
At the bottom line, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are seeking to force Qatar, ironically an autocratic state in its own right, to accept a Middle East that is dominated by the Gulf behemoths and designed to ensure the survival of autocratic and repressive rule irrespective of what is legal under international law. The Saudi-UAE demands ignore the fact that some of Qatari attitudes towards political Islam as well as more militant groups were approaches adopted for decades by Saudi Arabia and its other detractors.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE long supported the Brotherhood dating back to the 1950s and 1960s when members of the group were forced into exile in the Gulf by a crackdown by then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s whose Arab nationalism was perceived as a threat to absolute monarchical rule in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia moreover has over the years supported militant groups in countries like Pakistan and Bosnia Herzegovina that served its geopolitical ambitions, and in Syria, together with Qatar.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE tinkered with their demands in the last five weeks to suit their geopolitical designs. Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that controls the Gaza Strip, was dropped off the two states’ list of terrorist organizations to accommodate the possible return to Palestine of a UAE-backed Palestinian politician and former security chief who aims to become Palestine’s next leader.
Ironically, Saudi Arabia was heavily criticized in 2002, less than a year after 9/11 for a tele-marathon on state-run television that raised millions of dollars for Palestinian groups, including Hamas. Saudi Arabia, together with one of Jordan’s main financial institutions, Arab Bank, stood at the time accused of funding terrorism. Saudi Arabia has since faced multiple allegations that its four-decade long, global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism fostered environments that enable militancy.
The Saudi-UAE demands, moreover, involve a measuring with two yardsticks on a far broader scale. Beyond the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is only proscribed in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt and not under international, US or European Union law, it also is a legally active organization in some of Qatar’s detractors like Bahrain and Jordan.
While there is little doubt that offshoots of the Brotherhood have employed political violence to achieve their goals, the group itself is perceived as a threat by Gulf autocrats because it advocates an alternative, republican form of Islamic government. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not attempted to prove that the Brotherhood advocates violence.
The targeting of the Brotherhood raises the question whether demands for greater pluralism; more transparent, competitive politics; and free public debate constitute a threat to national security defined as a threat to territorial integrity or issues such as economic, energy, environmental and military security.
A Qatari cave-in to the Saudi-UAE demands risks legitimizing a definition of terrorism that would go far beyond defining it as the use of violence by non-state actors to achieve a political goal. It would give credence to the definition employed by autocrats and authoritarian leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that includes all forms of political dissent or in the case of Saudi Arabia, atheists.
Similarly, the Saudi-UAE demand to shutter Al Jazeera goes to the heart of the struggle for freedom of expression and the media. There is little doubt that Al Jazeera Arabic’s programming is slanted towards political opposition groups in the Middle East and North Africa, among which first and foremost the Muslim Brotherhood.
The question is what the distinction is between Al Jazeera Arabic and Fox News, that popularized opinionated, politically biased reporting in US broadcasting, or Breitbart, the tendentious, right-wing, online news website that was long directed by Steve Bannon, one of President Donald J. Trump’s closest advisors.
In short, the resolution of the Gulf crisis is likely to determine the ability of autocrats and authoritarians to impose their will on smaller or financially weaker states, and rewrite definitions of what constitutes national sovereignty and independence with serious implications for the ability of small states to chart their own course. It could also cement the politically convenient conflagration of national security and political interest of a party in power, irrespective of whether it is democratically elected or not, and redefine what constitutes basic human rights.
As a result, how the Gulf crisis is resolved could well reshape legitimate norms of behaviour in international relations; concepts of sovereignty and independence; the ability to peacefully question government; and freedom of religious belief, including the right not to believe. All in all, the stakes in the Gulf crisis could not be higher.