By Abdel Bari Atwan
Next week, on 5 June to be precise, the Gulf crisis will have completed its first year and entered into its second, with no sign of it being resolved any time soon and every indication that it faces further escalation from both sides. Kuwaiti mediation, which was active at the outset of the crisis, has reached a dead and. The US’ attempt to broker a solution — which President Donald Trump hoped to achieve by inviting Gulf leaders to Washington over the past few months as a prelude to ‘reconciliation summit’ in Camp David in May – has also come to nothing. It was killed off by the sacking of its principal architect, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and by the unresponsiveness of the four Arab states (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Barhain) which triggered the crisis with their sudden boycott and blockade of Qatar.
Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin-Ahmed Al Khalifa, affirmed in an interview published in the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsatat the weekend that there was “no glimmer of hope” of the crisis ending soon. He pointed to the crux of the problem by explaining that at the outset of the row, the Emir of Qatar had been expected to come to Saudi Arabia to make amends, but this did not happen, and that he had also refused to accept the 13 demands made of Qatar by the four boycotting states. Chief among these was the closure of the Al-Jazeera channel and other Qatari-funded media outlets and the severing of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Qatari authorities – perhaps out of despair of reaching a solution — took a deliberately escalatory step on Saturday when they banned all imports from the four countries and ordered retailers to immediately remove from sale all products made in them. The message appeared to be: we don’t need you or your goods, and we’d rather buy alternatives from Turkey and Iran anyway.
The crisis has unofficially split the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which used to be held up as an example of a cohesive regional grouping, right down the middle, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on one side and Oman, Kuwait and Qatar on the other. There have been innumerable signs that the rift between the two sides has been growing month after month, on many different levels and fronts.
But the most serious aspect of this crisis is that is being turned into a new normality, especially by the four countries boycotting Qatar. They have clearly drawn up a long-term strategy to live with and prolong the crisis indefinitely, in the belief that it damages and hurts ‘besieged’ little Qatar the most. Even their media outlets, which used to regularly launch ferocious diatribes against Qatar and advocate for regime-change in the country, now tend to ignore the crisis and no longer refer to Qatar as frequently as before.
But this apparent lull is deceptive, in our opinion. It may prove to be the calm that precedes the storm, as the political weather-fronts build up in more than one location, threatening to make the forthcoming summer hotter than usual.
The Qatari government succeeded in breaking the blockade against it, or at least in most respects, by means of alternative trade and economic arrangements with Iran and Turkey. It also invited the latter to establish a substantial military base on its territory capable of hosting 30,000 fully-equipped troops – not far from the massive US airbase at al-Aideed — as a precautionary defensive measure against any invasion aimed at forcing regime-change in Doha, as happened in 1996.
But the threat next time may come not from Saudi Arabia but the US, either directly or indirectly.
In the next few weeks, the US can be expected to take a number of political and economic, and perhaps even military, actions against Iran following its withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Tehran. It has spelled out 12 demands (in the manner of the four states’ ultimatum to Qatar) which the Iranian leadership must accept in full if it is to avoid additional economic sanctions and the implementation of plans for regime-change in Tehran. Iran has announced it will not accept these demands– which have been enthusiastically supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain — and threatened to resume uranium enrichment.
This places the Qatari leadership in a dilemma and presents it with a question which it will eventually have to answer, however reluctantly: will it or will it not participate in the impending American siege of Iran? It knows full well that a policy of straddling the fence, which it has been skilled at pursuing in the past, will not be viable in this case. Nor will it be acceptable to a right-wing US administration that is even more hawkish that its Republican predecessor under George W. Bush. Supporting the blockade would mean severing trade relations with Iran and no longer using the Iranian ports and airspace which have been opened up to it. But opposing the siege and not cooperating with it would entail a confrontation the US, including the possible relocation of the al-Aideed base to Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
Another issue which can be expected to be raised in the near future is that of Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. If this has not attracted international media attention so far, that is due to the impending controversial tournament in Russia. But once that is out of the way, things can be expected to change.
Qatar’s detractors are highly cognisant of this issue. Their intransigence in rejecting any resolution of the Gulf crisis unless their demands are met is due to their awareness of the importance of the World Cup as a means of exerting pressure on Qatar. How, they will argue, can such an important sporting event be held in a country that is being boycotted and blockaded by its neighbours and at least half of its demographic/geographic hinterland?
Qatar shows no signs of submitting to such pressure. The hardline wing of its ruling family is driven by pride to be stubborn, but at the same time it does not oppose solutions that do no break is pride. Perhaps this explains the upcoming visit to Kuwait by Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin-Hamad Al Thani at the head of a big delegation including a number of his brothers and top officials. True, there is an annual tradition of making such visits to pay Ramadan compliments to Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, the doyen and wise-man of the Gulf family. But the current visit may also be part of a renewed search for a way out of the crisis and an end to the blockade. Protocol in the service of practicality, as it were.
The Bahraini foreign minister sent a clear message to the Qataris in his Asharq al-Awsat interview, namely that the solution lies in Sheikh Tamim going to Riyadh. Whether the young Qatari ruler will respond positively is hard to predict. All the signs so far indicate the opposite, unless the Kuwaitis manage to come up with a compromise acceptable to both sides.
Usually in an international crisis, it is when one or other party grows weary that it becomes willing to accept compromises to resolve it. It reaches a point of exhaustion and accordingly starts looking for ways out. Have the parties to the Gulf crisis reached that point? It seems highly doubtful. Much has been said and done since the crisis broke out, and the media, both traditional and electronic, have played a huge role in exacerbating it and widening the rift, perhaps to the extent of making it unbridgeable. Yet options are always kept open in the interests of self-preservation. Time will tell.