The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf is damaging to all parties in the region and beyond, Gus Olwan writes.
The ongoing diplomatic crisis between Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is considered the worst since its founding in 1981.
On 5 June 2017, a Quartet of countries composed of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) severed diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar. The Quartet accused the Qatari Government of inciting terrorism and funding Islamist extremists in the region – accusations that have been refuted by Qatar. Additionally, the Quartet is unhappy with broadcasting by Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera media network.
The current political saga in the Arab world emerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the rise to political prominence of Islamist organisations in the region. These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, Hamas in Gaza, the Renaissance Party or Ennahda in Tunisia, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, Islamist insurgents in Syria and Iraq, and many more.
The mass support for Islamists became a threat to the governments of other countries in the region, which came to believe that this wave could put them at risk of confrontation with Islamists at a later stage. Regional countries adopted two different strategic approaches for dealing with Islamists: confrontation or absorption. The Quartet countries chose to confront the Islamists, as they saw them as movements interested only in the takeover of government to be replaced with an Iranian model of religious Sunni supremacy.
Qatar, on the other hand, used the absorption method. It believed the Islamists would come to dominate the region within a few years, and saw this as an opportunity to harness them as an ally and expand its own influence. The differences between these two sides collided when Qatar publically declared support for the groups the Quartet is fighting.
There is little to suggest that the political standoff between Qatar and the Quartet will end anytime soon. But both sides in the dispute can take steps to make reconciliation more possible.
First, the Qatari Government and other governments in the region could adopt policies to help put an end to the financing of terrorism. The sponsoring of terrorist organisations can be a complicated process, particularly when individuals use schools, mosques and associations as a basis for the collection and transfer of money. However, one option would be to prohibit money collections at all levels unless the destination of the money has been clearly identified.
Banks also have some responsibility to provide safe transfer when it comes to countries, organisations or individuals that are listed as a high risk of being involved with terrorist activities. A central command could be established by the GCC countries to monitor and oversee these activities to ensure the safe passage of money.
Second, Qatar and the Quartet could try to remove some of the heat out of the dispute over Al Jazeera, the most popular news channel in the Arab world. Since its foundation in 1996, opinion on Al Jazeera has been divided between those who regard it as an outpost of free expression in the region – the one exception being reporting on Qatar itself – and those who call it a mouthpiece of the Qatari Government and the forces of radical Islam in the Middle East and beyond.
The Quartet accuses Qatar of using Al Jazeera as a platform to incite hatred and terrorism in the region, and this will remain a controversial issue. However, if the two sides are to resolve their differences, then they need to open a transparent discussion of criticisms they have harboured for many years in matters like corruption, governance and freedom of speech. A platform of new media governance in the region could be a starting point, where freedom of speech cannot be selective or used against political foes.
Failure to resolve the Qatar crisis will have substantial economic, social and political implications for the GCC countries, as well as the wider Middle East region. At the economic level, Qatar has used US $38.5 billion – equivalent to 23 per cent of its GDP – to support its economy during just the first two months of the dispute with the Quartet. The current crisis has also disrupted supply chains, affected the flow of goods and services and, more importantly, wreaked havoc among companies in the region.
At the social level, a number of tribes are spread across the borders of the GCC countries. Families who have built transactional ties with citizens of other countries across the region have suffered from the splitting of family units. Many people have married outside their country of birth believing in continuing GCC integration and the growing sense of a common Gulf identity – ‘Khaleeji’.
A crisis of this nature, and at this scale, will not only destabilise regional countries, but will also undermine the Palestinian cause and deliver a diplomatic blow to Hamas in Gaza. The crisis will also benefit countries such as Iran, which will further their influence in the region by adding Qatar to their list of friends and allies. Turkey, on the other hand, is expanding its sphere of political-military influence over Qatar through the stationing of a brigade-level force in the country. This forwarding military base will boost its influence in the broader Middle East and ensure the security of the regime of Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
In order to defuse the crisis, both Qatar and the Quartet need to take productive steps. A good place to start would be for all parties to stop the use of provocative rhetoric, including personally humiliating attacks on their leaders, as a precondition of any talks. The European Union and the US should make themselves available to mediate and put more pressure on all parties to resolve this damaging state of affairs.
Reconciliation between Qatar and its neighbours might take years, but that shouldn’t stop both sides making steps towards it now.