Riyadh, along with a number of GCC and allied capitals, has cut diplomatic relations with Doha on Monday. This followed an alleged statement by the emir of Qatar on regional politics, which triggered a backlash from Saudi and Emirati media outlets. The Qatari government denied the statement, claiming their national news agency was hacked. Shortly thereafter, the Saudi government accused Doha of several charges, ranging from supporting terrorism in the region to cozying up to Iran.
While the two countries were able to contain their policy differences through diplomatic means for the better part of the four decades since the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC), there have been previous precedents to the current Riyadh-Doha rift. In 1992, for example, the two neighbors had a border skirmish. More recently, Saudi Arabia, along with United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, withdrew its ambassador from Doha back in 2014.
However, the recent rift marks two unparalleled developments. First, we are witnessing the most coordinated effort, led by Saudi Arabia and fully supported by the UAE, against Qatar. Recently leaked emails show that the UAE ambassador in Washington is playing a key role in this campaign.
The second development has even more noteworthy consequences. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt closed land, air, and sea traffic routes to Qatar. While Doha will be able to overcome the financial burden in the foreseeable future, this will likely put significant economic as well as psychological pressure on Qatar. The question remains: why the Saudis are stepping up their actions against Qatar? And why now?
The Saudi camp seems to be running out of patience for the same Doha policies that triggered the 2014 diplomatic crises. In my view, the Saudis have three main demands: Ejecting Muslim Brotherhood leadership as well as other prominent figures from Doha, neutralising the Qatari media, especially Al Jazeera, towards the Gulf States and Egypt and moulding Qatar’s regional policies so they do not collide with Saudi/Emirati interests. While Qatar is expected to offer concessions, it will deem some of these demands as a violation of its sovereignty.
This rift can be an opportunity for all members to bring their differences to the surface. An effective internal discussion, followed by concrete trust-building measures could lead to a stronger GCC.
The US factor
The timing of the campaign is also interesting, as it followed the Arab-Islamic-American summit in Riyadh. It is possible to argue that the Saudi camp sought to use its renewed partnership with the US to modify Qatar’s policies once and for all.
But it is also necessary to evaluate the US’ position in the region. Qatar, after all, is the home of the largest US military base in the region. I think the Trump administration is implicitly pleased to see the Qataris sweat this crisis out. From Washington’s point of view, this crisis may help Doha to fully understand the importance of the American presence, and to modify some of its regional policies that are not aligned with US interests.
In the American capital, some view Doha’s support for political Islam to be at odds with its relations with the United States. Only hours after Riyadh and UAE’s announcement about severing ties with Doha, US Secretary of State Tillerson stated that he “encourage[s] the parties to sit down together and address these differences … it is important that the GCC remain unified”. It would be safe to say that a military activity on the Qatari-Saudi border is highly unlikely, and it would constitute a red line for the Pentagon. Also, the US government will not allow Doha to fall out of the American sphere of influence.
When it comes to the GCC, it is clear that the current crisis a symptom of the long-term problems between Qatar, Saudi, UAE and Bahrain and does not effect the entirety of the cooperation. Kuwait and Oman did not – and are less likely to – cut relations with Doha. Both Kuwait and Oman are the only two members who never severed diplomatic ties with any other GCC states. In fact, the Kuwaiti leadership undertook shuttle diplomacy between Doha and Riyadh to end the 2014 diplomatic crisis.
Since the establishment of the GCC, Kuwait has always sought to keep the cooperation unified, and it was never hesitant to use its diplomatic capital to defuse tensions between other member states. This legacy allows Kuwait to be perceived as a credible mediator by other GCC countries. There is no doubt that Kuwait, led by Emir Sabah Al Ahmad, will intervene to de-escalate the current GCC rift.
Recently, the Kuwaiti emir called upon the emir of Qatar, Tamim Al Thani, to “refrain from escalating the worst diplomatic rift among Gulf Arab states”. He is also currently conducting diplomatic shuttles between Saudi Arabia and Qatar to reach a compromise between the two parties. But I think Kuwait’s diplomatic success will mainly depend on the Qatari response to Saudi concerns.
Doha faces tough choices. If it does not address the concerns of the Saudi camp, it will be geographically isolated. Saudi Arabia could also push to freeze Qatar’s membership in the GCC. Over time, this will place an unprecedented geopolitical pressure on the Qatari policymakers. At worst, this could slide Qatar towards Iran. This would be an unintended consequence that neither Riyadh nor Doha aspire towards. If Doha gives in to all of the demands at once, the Qatari government might not be able to survive the humiliation at home. Giving in to all Saudi demands and handing sovereignty to Riyadh would be viewed as political suicide by many in Qatar.
But it is possible to find a middle ground. I think the Qatari government will be flexible and willing to negotiate on a broad range of topics, except shutting Al Jazeera down. To Doha, Al Jazeera is an asset to safeguard its interests. It is an instrument that makes Qatar’s voice heard effectively all over the Arab world. This, however, should not hinder the parties of the conflict from embarking on a constructive dialogue to address their differences and anxieties.
If and when they reach an actual compromise, they can implement the necessary changes over a period of 12 months. This will allow both parties to phase out the process, de-escalate tensions and make the necessary compromises more swallowable for everyone. It is critical for both Riyadh and Doha to seize the Kuwaiti conciliation efforts if they want to put an end to this crisis.
Today, the GCC faces its hardest challenge since its foundation. This rift can be an opportunity for all members to bring their differences to the surface. An effective internal discussion, followed by concrete trust-building measures could lead to a stronger GCC. Until that happens, the future of the GCC is gloomy.
By Hamad Althunayyan
PhD Researcher in Political Science at University of Maryland – College Park. He earned his BA in Political Science from Virginia Commonwealth University and MA in International Relations from American University – Washington, DC. He wrote several articles on Gulf security, Iran, and U.S. role in the region.