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Bitter feuds and new alliances: the aftermath of the Qatar diplomatic crisis

Image credit: Francisco Anzola (Flickr: Creative Commons)

​Over the past few weeks, the Qatar diplomatic crisis has rapidly unfurled. A myriad of events appears to have contributed to a diplomatic divorce between Qatar, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and other states, sparking a period of tension and instability. The recent enmity is attributed to Qatar’s purported sponsorship of terrorist groups, ties with Iran and a wave of alleged cyber-attacks that leaked compromising information about Qatar’s foreign relations. Whilst the impact of the crisis on the region in the long-term appears unclear, in the immediate aftermath of the divorce, it’s evident that traditional ties have been replaced with emerging alliances and a shift in political dynamics in the region.

From 5 June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen commenced severing diplomatic ties with Qatar. Other governments in the Maldives, the Comoros, Mauritania and East Libya then followed. The Saudi-led front claims Qatar supports groups such as the purported terrorist groups of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Al Nusra Front, whilst also improving relations with the ever-polarising Iran. Qatar has, however, historically pursued a relatively independent and unique foreign policy in the region. Qatar believes that Hamas is a legitimate resistance group, but does not claim to support the Palestinian movement. It has also hosted leaders from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, both Islamic organisations that many states deem as terrorist entities. Tensions have thus been ongoing between Qatar and Egypt owing to Doha’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is vehemently opposed to the Brotherhood and has been staunchly against its presence and activities in his country. Despite such ties to these deemed terrorist organisations, Qatar has strongly denied that it supports or funds terrorist organisations.

Another instigating factor in the dispute is the purportedly false news article that was published by Qatar’s national media network, Al Jazeera. The network published in May an article claiming that Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Emir Sheikh Mohammed bin Abulrahman Al Thani, expressed support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and questioned Trump’s leadership. Al Jazeera claimed that this was a false article fabricated by online hackers, feeding into the narrative that the diplomatic divorce is a result of cyber-attacks against the Gulf state. After the article was published, Saudi Arabia closed Al Jazeera’s Saudi office.

Some critics also argue that Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia last month flared up tensions in the region. During Trump’s visit, a landmark US$150 billion deal was signed between the US and Saudi Arabia, which some analysts claim emboldened the oil rich state.

The crisis is consequently placing immense pressure on Qatar domestically. The severing of diplomatic and economic relations has instigated a food security scare, with sources citing panic as supermarkets were immediately stripped of products. Saudi Arabia has closed the land border it shares with Qatar, cutting 40% of the latter’s supply of food imports. The crisis has also significantly disrupted air traffic. Flights to Doha have been suspended, and the nation’s airline, Qatar Airways, has been denied access to airspace in some hostile nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The reverberations of the row are also having a significant impact on Qatari nationals residing abroad, who risk expulsion from hostile states.

The implications of the dispute at the international level are also multifaceted. Such a degree of turbulence amongst states of the GCC places the future of the Council in jeopardy. However, whilst the Saudi-Qatar axis appears temporarily dismantled, it has proven itself capable of repair in the past. For example, in 2014 after Qatar’s support For Egypt’s Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties and withdrew their ambassadors. Relations had since resumed.

The role of the United States in the region has also been placed into question. Whilst the recent Saudi deal reflected its gravitation towards the Saudi axis, Trump recently announced on 14 June a US$12 billion deal with Qatar. The deal involves the US supplying F-15 fighter jets to Qatar, despite previous comments from the Trump administration that Qatar has terrorist links. Trump’s repositioning indicates that the United States seeks to play both sides in the dispute, which serves only to confuse its foreign policy stance and exacerbate tensions.

Other foreign powers have also become somewhat embroiled in the dispute by attempting to defuse the crisis. Notably, Russia and Turkey have taken an active role in calling for diplomatic dialogue between the parties involved. Iran has taken a different approach, however, sending in planes carrying food amidst the food security crisis in Qatar and sending warships to Oman. Additionally, Turkey has pledged that it will place 3,000 troops on the ground in Qatar. It’s important to note that this is not an entirely new development. A deal was negotiated in 2016 for Turkey to establish its first Arabian Peninsula military base in Qatar, and this has been fast-tracked considering recent developments.

Ultimately, the debris of the crisis is yet to settle and the factors triggering and fuelling it remain inconclusive. Nonetheless, a breakdown of traditional alliances is providing opportunity to furnish new bonds and strengthen other ties in the region. Amin Saikal, Director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, stated that the recent events ‘can accelerate [Qatar’s] relationship with Turkey and Iran’. However, it’s evident that the states involved must engage in constructive dialogue to mitigate the crisis and salvage the weakened GCC, whose future now remains in doubt. Thus, due to the geostrategic and fragile nature of the region, it’s critical to avoid dissipating longstanding allegiances, and irrevocably realign political and diplomatic dynamics in the region.

Sarah Barrie is the Middle East & North Africa Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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