Act Thirty Nine – The Middle East Conundrum: Qatar crisis exposes muddled fault lines

Joint GCC exercises

The political fault lines in the Middle East were sensationally exposed last month as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain snapped their diplomatic ties with Qatar. The quartet led by Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of “supporting extremist groups”, colluding with Iran and creating instability in the Gulf region. These countries imposed an economic blockade on Doha, sealed their borders and banned Qatari flights from entering their airspace – an unprecedented move against a fellow GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) country.

But Qatar is not alone. Iran has offered Doha the services of 3 of its ports for it to import supplies that are crucial to its economic sustenance. On June 8, the Turkish Parliament authorised the deployment of troops to its military base in the tiny Gulf country – an action which is seen as a not-so-covert backing for the Qatari leadership.

Meanwhile, Kuwait is acting as the mediator in the dispute between Qatar and the Saudi-led grouping.

Elsewhere, while Germany expressed its open support for the Qatari regime, American President Donald Trump chose to instead side with the Saudis. It is seen as a surprising move by the US President considering that Qatar houses the largest American military base in the Middle East.

Israel, on the other hand, is backing Saudi Arabia and its allies in this standoff. This does not come as a surprise as Qatar and Iran are the 2 major funders of Hamas in the Gaza region.

A bit confusing isn’t it? This article attempts to peel away the layers and analyse the position of every major country in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region vis-a-vis the Qatar crisis.

Let’s start with the protagonists.

Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Qatar continues to deny all allegations levelled against it by the Saudi-led bloc. Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told CNN in June that Qatar is a “progressive and modern country” which had taken up the role of “protecting the world from potential terrorists”.

Although Qatar is part of the closely-knit GCC grouping of nations, it has slowly been drifting away from Saudi Arabia. It is no secret that Qatar has been providing monetary support to the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated networks in the Gulf region for quite some time now. It also provides funding to a largely belligerent Hamas outfit in the Gaza region.

 

 

This has greatly irked the Egyptians and the Saudis who see Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their autocratic/monarchical system of governance. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-time dictator, was removed from power as a byproduct of the “Arab Spring” movement that swept across the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region in 2011.

In the elections that followed, the Muslim Brotherhood formed the government at the centre with Mohamed Morsi as the country’s next President. However, after the Egyptians again took to the streets in protests a year later, Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took it upon himself to remove Morsi from office by launching a coup d’état.

So it easy to understand why El-Sisi is vehemently opposed to Qatar’s covert support for the Brotherhood.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, considers Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to the Kingdom’s “social fabric”. However, King Salman’s primary reason for isolating and punishing Qatar is more to do with Doha’s recent overtures towards Saudi Arabia’s existential foe – Iran.

This leads us nicely into our next regional player.

 

Iran

So what exactly is at stake for Iran in this conflict? Well, pretty much everything.

The fracturing of the GCC, which has long been allied in opposition to Iran, is music to the ears of its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Saudi Arabia and Iran are age-old foes who have been battling each other for decades to establish their strategic dominance in the Middle East region.

Saudi Arabia has accused Qatar of supporting Shi’ite insurgent groups in the restive Eastern province of the country as well lending support to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Since this crisis has erupted, Iran has stepped in to lend a helping hand to Doha.

Since this crisis has erupted, Iran has stepped in to lend a helping hand to Doha. Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted the following on June 5.

 

3 weeks ago, Iran flew in 90 tonnes of essential food supplies to Qatar in order to negate Saudi Arabia’s self-imposed blockade on its land neighbour. Iran seems to be the major beneficiary of the current impasse at this point in time and Khamanei will be hoping that the regional balance scales of power shift in his favour once the crisis is over.

 

Bahrain, UAE & Kuwait

Bahrain is a Shia-majority state ruled by the Saudi-backed Sunni King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Bahrain has for long been considered as Saudi Arabia’s umbrella state. Back in 2011, a Shia-uprising in the country (part of the Arab Spring movement that swept across the Arab world) was brutally quelled by the Saudi Arabian military forces. Saudi tanks marched into Bahrain’s capital Manama in March 2011 to suppress the local revolt and aid the Bahraini regime. Hence, it is no surprise that Bahrain was one of the first countries to lend its support to Saudi Arabia.

 

 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar have a chequered past. In 1995, Qatar’s former ruler Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani was deposed by his own son and current King Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. In an unprecedented move, UAE granted asylum to the deposed king and hence manufactured a diplomatic flashpoint between the two oil-rich Gulf states. In 2014, UAE recalled its Ambassador from Doha after accusing Qatar of interfering in the internal politics of the Emiratis.

Like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the UAE has expressed concerns about Qatar’s covert backing for the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE has often accused the Qatar-funded Brotherhood of sowing seeds of instability in the country. After Al-Jazeera published the leaked e-mails of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the current UAE Ambassador to the United States, Abu Dhabi decided to hop on to the anti-Qatar bandwagon. Otaiba’s leaked e-mails appeared to criticise the current President of the United States Donald Trump.

Kuwait has largely as the mediator between the two factions. Since the eruption of the crisis, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah has made several trips to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in an attempt to defuse the powder keg. Earlier in the week, the Saudi-led bloc issued a 13-point ultimatum to Qatar via the Kuwaiti mediators.

The ultimatum has been firmly rejected by Qatar.

The battle lines in the Middle East have been well and truly drawn.

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