Stalemate In The Gulf
Qatar, a tiny spot of desertland beneath which rest vast reservoirs of oil, is in crisis since several weeks because of sanctions clamped on it by its Arab neighbours. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE announced the sanctions against Qatar, asking it to fulfil a list of their demands in exchange for lifting of the sanctions aimed at crippling Qatar’s economy and isolating it from the international community.
Led by the Saudis, the quartet as well as Yemen and the exclusively Sunni island chain of the Maldives are in alliance in the campaign against Qatar whose growing international presence seems to have rattled the larger military muscle in the West Asian region. Among the charges against Qatar include financing of terror groups and misusing the increasingly popular Al Jazeera television network, in both Arabic and English. One of the demands calls for scrapping Turkish military base in Qatar.
The gulf between the two sides of the conflict is striking. Just as firmly the sanctions-imposing nations issued their demands, Qatar, too, as strongly rejected the demands as an attempt at compromising its sovereign right as an independent state. The stiff stance from both the sides made the United States call for diplomacy to end the stalemate. Behind the curtains talks resulted in the Saudis-led quartet to reducing to less than half the demands mentioned originally. Qataris demonstrated solid solidarity with their government and they consider the demands made on their state as a design “to humiliate Qatar rather than to serve as the basis for negotiations”.
Qatar has been quick to point out that it has contributed to fighting against terror in West Asia. In an article “Qatar takes on the bullies” carried by The New York Times, Qatar’s ambassador to Russia, Fahad bin Mohammed al-Attiya wrote: “Until this blockade started, my country participated in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and lost soldiers fighting the Houthi rebels.”
Drawing a parallel to how the Austro-Hungarian government in 1914 came up with a list of “impossible and unjustifiable demands as a pretext to attack Serbia”, Ambassador al-Attiya lambasted Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain for giving “my country a demeaning and insulting list of conditions to be met and to get this unwarranted siege lifted”. He also pointed out to the presence of 10,000 American service personnel in Qatar from whose Al Udeid Air Base the United States Air Force aircraft take off to launch daily strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and also against terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
The effects of the sanctions can be gauged from the fact that on Qatar depends on Saudi Arabia for its only land border. Qatar’s relationships with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas has since long angered the sanctions-inflicting nations. Its preparations for hosting the globally prestigious 2022 World Cup spectacle and the international attention it has attracted as a result are factors of intense envy in Riyadh and Cairo who are way behind any credible hopes of matching the feat in any foreseeable future.
Interestingly, 25,000 Egyptians work in Qatar, which is why, unlike others, Cairo did not ask its nationals to leave Qatar. Egypt might have the military muscle, also aided significantly by the $1.5 billion support annually from the United States. But when it comes to actual cash and larger ambitions, Qatar charts out a course that enables it to demonstrate financial muscle. Its economy expanded from $ 1.8 billion in 1995 to a staggering $210 billion in 2014. As a result, its diplomatic status far outstrips the clout other small nations do not generate.
In their bid to isolate the tiny state, the quartet of four Arab states wants Al Jazeera TV channel to be closed down. Al Jazeera’s influence is increasing throughout the Arab world by cultivating the image of a voice of the Arab world. It allows citizens in West Asia, excepting Qatar itself, to question their rulers. Its English service has emerged as an effective alternative international channel.
Set up in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has since long renounced violence but this has fallen on deaf ears on autocracies that see in the group a populist threat to their rule since people could be encouraged to question the hitherto unquestioned doings of rulers. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in 2013 in a military coup against the country’s first democratically elected Mohamed Morsi and banning the ousted leader’s Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sisi subsequently got elected but only after his strongest rivals were placed behind bars or chased into exile.
Saudi Arabia remains accused of underwriting extremists. Bahrain does Riyadh’s bidding, especially after the latter sent troops into Bahrain at its ruler’s request to put down the reforms fever that had gripped Bahrainis in the wake of the Arab Spring that was supposed to have started in Tunisia. The Saudis feared that this could prove infectious, and hence the crushing of the reforms movement in Bahrain.
In contrast, Qatar’s ruler since 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani steadily distanced his state from Saudi Arabia’s domination. In 1988, his father incurred the Riyadh’s displeasure after establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union with whom the Saudis did not see eye to eye on many important issues.
As the US secretary of state during Barack Obama’s first term (2009-2013), Hillary Clinton came to the conclusion that Saudi Arabia was a major source of funding “terrorist” groups in different countries. The royal regime was said to have supported the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Earlier this fortnight, shortly after four Arab nations issued to Qatar a fresh list of demands to curb terror financing, the US State Department released its periodic report on terrorism. It pointed out the need for the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to check terror financing from individuals. UAE is described as “a hub” for such activity. The report could not have come at a more inconvenient time for especially the quartet that made such loud charges against Qatar.
The ongoing stalemate once again sends a message of its own for especially small nations with poor industrial base and extensive strategic positions. Most nations remain mere bystanders when stronger neighbours make outrageous demands. This is the hard reality in a world where the rich and the mighty set agendas for the rest to follow. The situation stresses that each is on its own to fend for itself. Those with little or dismal clout would be compelled to go for alliance, compliance or pliancy, hence the pressing need for a new world order.