Since early June this year, Saudi Arabia has implemented a total land, air and sea blockade of the small oil-rich emirate of Qatar.
This embargo has been joined by the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as allies of Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Senegal, the Maldives, the Saudi-supported Yemeni government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, Mauritania and others have joined this blockade. The intention of the embargo is to force the Qatari emirate to fully comply with Saudi demands in joining an Arab anti-Iran alliance. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had diplomatic squabbles and problems in the past, the current imbroglio is of a greater and more severe magnitude.
The economic and political effects of the Saudi-imposed blockade were immediate, and are ongoing. Food supplies from Saudi Arabia, on which Qatar is heavily reliant, have been cut off. Qatar Airways can no longer use Saudi airspace, or the airspace of the neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE). Economic sanctions on the country have led to a collapse in Qatari stocks, and investment projects inside Qatar – bankrolled by GCC nations – have been suspended. Thousands of migrant workers in Qatar, already suffering under horrendous working conditions, have been left stranded.
Why this terrible rift between the two apparently similar allies? One of the positive effects of this situation – if we can find anything remotely welcoming in this crisis – is the renewed interest in the Gulf countries outside of a narrow field of academic specialists. Rather than dismiss the Gulf states with simplistic stereotypes about ‘’Arab sheikhs with money”, this Saudi-Qatari dispute compels us to examine the capitalist economies driven by petrodollars. The Gulf states, while acquiring huge sums of oil money and united in the GCC, have expanded their investments across the Arab and North African regions.
The Saudi regime accuses Qatar of sponsoring terrorism in the region. By this allegation, they mean that Qatar has provided support to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas movement, and backing the anti-Saudi Houthi militia group in Yemen. The Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has denied these claims. The Saudi monarchy is rankled by the fact that Qatar has maintained excellent diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, the latter regarded as the arch-enemy by the Saudi-led GCC.
Qatar and Iran have cultivated extensive economic and diplomatic connections, including joint projects to exploit the vast oil and natural gas fields in the Persian Gulf. While ties were briefly cut in the immediate aftermath of the Saudi-imposed blockade, Qatar has quickly moved to restore full diplomatic ties with their Iranian neighbour. These connections undermine the Saudi regime’s ability to form a solid Sunni Arab coalition – with a strong pro-Western orientation – against the Iranian government. No doubt, Qatar’s continued friendship with Iran will only deepen the Saudi-Qatari feud.
Back in May this year, US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia – his first foreign visit as president. After he finished his Saudi tour, he flew directly to Israel, which indicates the priorities of the Trump administration in foreign policy. Trump was warmly welcomed in Saudi Arabia, and he managed to sign off on a huge armaments deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Emboldened by his visit, the Saudi regime implemented the blockade of Qatar soon after the conclusion of Trump’s visit.
Did the “Trump effect” encourage the Saudi monarchy to carry out this embargo of Qatar? Trump himself thought so, and said as much when he returned to the United States. He was taking credit for an escalation of tensions in the region, and the beginning of a conflict that was qualitatively different to previous disputes between the two GCC members. It is difficult to state whether he fully grasped the harmful consequences of this Saudi escalation – the Al Udeid US air force base, the largest American military base in the Middle East, is hosted by Qatar.
Qatar has always been a crucial lynchpin for American wars in the Middle East. The tiny emirate provides a staging post for US air attacks into Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was left scrambling to minimise the damage caused by Trump’s inflammatory remarks, even though he, like Trump is committed to the goal of an Arab front lined up against Iran. For all the talk of an Arab NATO, the latter remains a mirage. As Antony Blinken explained in his article, an anti-Shia coalition of Arab partners is not only untenable, it will only serve to inflame sectarian tensions and produce more terrorism, not less.
The Israeli government welcomed the imposition of sanctions on Qatar, and has rationalised its support as a step in the ‘war on terror’. Israel has long viewed Iran as a regional competitor. Israel’s longstanding and secretive connections with a number of Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have come under scrutiny as a result of the Saudi-imposed embargo. The quiet and growing Saudi-Israel alliance is based on a convergence of interests, namely, to fight what they perceive as Iranian influence in the Arab countries. It is not altogether surprising that the two fortress-states in the Middle East have found increasing reasons for practical cooperation.
The Qatari emirate has thus far been able to circumvent the Saudi blockade – having powerful friends and neighbours certainly helps. Turkey has stepped in with food aid, and has sent troops to the beleaguered nation. Russia, while maintaining a neutral stance in this dispute, has refused to join the embargo. The Russians have also sent food supplies, and have offered to mediate in this conflict. Interestingly, Oman, sultanate and member state of the GCC, has also refused to impose sanctions on Qatar.
The GCC, while it has technically maintained a united front, cannot resolve the deep economic and political divisions between its constituent members. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while being individual members of the six-nation GCC, have formed the main pivotal axis of economic and political power. These two nations have provided the bulk of capital accumulation inside the Gulf monarchies, and have dominated all areas of business, such as real estate, finance and telecommunications. The Qatari emirate has never reconciled itself to remaining in ‘second-class status’ within the GCC. The junior partner has always coveted a senior role within the GCC hierarchy.
Qatar has increased its foreign direct investments in other Arab nations. It has financed projects in those countries, and has attempted to play a greater political role. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have cooperated closely in the past, their rivalries have never been fully resolved. The Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain, to crush the pro-democracy uprising in the latter nation back in 2011, was supported by Qatar. The Saudi war on Yemen obtained the practical backing of the Qatari emirate.
However, Qatar has played a mediating role in bringing political conflicts in the Lebanon, the Sudan and other countries to a resolution. Qatar has refused to join the Saudi-led anti-Iran alliance. Qatar hopes to maintain its regional influence by hosting the Al Jazeera media outlet, as a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. While common interests have been the glue that held the petro-monarchies together, internal rivalries sometimes break out into the open.
Let us be clear that there are no ‘good guys’ to support in this conflict. It is possible to recognise the injustice of the blockade without endorsing the Qatari regime. We would do well to remember that it is the migrant workers in Qatar who have been hardest hit by the Saudi embargo. Lowly paid and facing difficult conditions, it is the legion of migrant workers who face increasing difficulties in the wake of food and medical shortages. While Qatar is on track to host the 2022 World Cup Soccer games, it is the migrant workers that have taken on the bulk of the heavy and dangerous construction work. It is these people that we must never forget and continually support.