Qatar faces regional isolation: West Asia’s odd man out is feeling the squeeze
The Persian Gulf’s odd man out is suddenly on warning. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have cut diplomatic ties and transport links with Qatar in order, they say, to protect themselves from “the dangers of terrorism and extremism”.
Qatar is a tiny peninsula floating on natural gas. It is a hugely rich country with a quarter-million citizens, the influential television station Al Jazeera, and a penchant for foreign policy adventurism. Over 90% of India’s natural gas imports come from Qatar.
The roughly 650,000 Indians who work in Qatar will be marginally inconvenienced in not being able to travel to the neighbouring Gulf countries, but New Delhi’s greater interest will be the geopolitical signals that the Saudi-led move is sending. Among other things, it indicates the Saudis and Iranians are preparing for another round of regional jousting with potentially dangerous consequences.
Though both are Wahhabi kingdoms, Qatar has a testy relationship thanks to early attempts by Saudi Arabia to overthrow the ruling Al Thani family. Qatar’s response has been to use its wealth to, in the words of Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel, “create an image of itself as an indispensable player on the scene and therefore a regime worth preserving and protecting.”
It allows a United States airbase on its soil but, Iraqi officials say, allows its citizens to privately fund the Islamic State (ISIS). It flirts with Israel but is a big supporter of Hamas. It is Sunni and Arab, but retains strong ties with Shia Iran. It is a monarchy but was the prime backer of the republican Muslim Brotherhood.
The past several years of West Asian turmoil have given Qatar room to play geopolitical games as far afield as Libya. It joined Turkey in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover of Egypt and revolt against the Syrian government. Supporting the Brotherhood led to an earlier, abortive Saudi Arabia in 2014 which had limited impact. By then anyway, Qatar was being accused of switching its money towards the ISIS and Sunni extremists in Libya and Syria.
While Qatar came to be seen as a major source of regional instability, it nonetheless was able to punch well above its weight in regional politics. At one point, US-Taliban negotiations were taking place in Doha, and Qatar was an intermediary between the Hamas and Israel.
But Qatar’s policy of “influence by nuisance” may now be running out of road. The ISIS is on its last legs. The Brotherhood is back in the political wilderness as are the Syrian and Libyan rebel factions backed by Qatar. The UAE is close to brokering a deal which could defang the Shia rebellion in Yemen, another country Qatar has helped keep on the boil.
Saudi Arabia has now stitched together an anti-Iranian coalition of Sunni Arab states now seen as credible after it received the blessing of US President Donald Trump during his recent trip to the desert kingdom.
Qatar, in the meantime, had started to sidle up to Iran seeing it as the Next Big Thing in the Persian Gulf. Doha denounced Trump’s statements and hailed Iran as an “Islamic power”.
Those statements were subsequently disavowed indicating the Al Thanis had second thoughts. Tiny Qatar runs the risk of being a proxy for anti-Iranian policies but without any clarity as to whether Tehran or even Iran’s new found ally Moscow will necessarily provide it any protection.
Qatar may have been unnerved by news of combined Israeli-Saudi moves to try and shutdown the US airbase in Qatar – a key insurance policy for the Al Thanis. Some US congressmen plan to table a bill to sanction Qatar. US secretary of state Rex W Tillerson’s recent commits about removing “irritants” from the Gulf region almost certainly refers to Qatar. Doha’s sudden expulsion of Hamas activists based in Doha, writes James Dorsey, West Asian expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, is “reminiscent of previous Qatari attempts to placate Saudi and UAE criticism.”
This time, however, Saudi Arabia may no longer be willing to be fobbed up with such gestures. Riyadh sees a great chance to silence and isolate its pesky Wahhabi neighbour once and for all. The present sanctions were preceded with an abusive media and internet campaign against Doha. Qatar is hardly down and out, but its non-Saudi Arabia options are narrowing. If Washington begins to act on its rhetorical talk on whittling down Iran’s geopolitical successes, Qatar may have to give up its foreign policy of serial monogamy.