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The imbroglio continues

  • Published at 11:05 am July 1st, 2017
  • Last updated at 12:54 pm July 1st, 2017
The imbroglio continues

The last few weeks, have cast a shadow on the Middle East. The dynamics started with the Iranian presidential election on May 19.

The next in the chain was US President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh. This was soon followed by the controversial news that Qatari Emir Tamim al-Thani had allegedly said that “there is no reason behind the Arabs’ hostility to Iran.”

This was immediately denied by the official Qatar News Agency.

However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in response adopted an alternative narrative treating the news story as true and responded quickly with a burst of outrage. Internet connectivity and access to Qatari media was blocked so that the official denial could not be read.

The seed of Gulf disunity was on the way.

After that on June 5, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar for its support for “terrorism.” Egypt, Maldives, Mauritania, Senegal, the Khalifi Hafter government of Libya and the Saudi supported government of Yemen joined their ranks.

Among these countries, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE closed all transport ties by air, land, and sea to Qatar.

While my Qatar gently weeps

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE also gave all Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave their territory, and banned their citizens from travelling to Qatar. The UAE and Egypt expelled Qatari diplomats, giving them 48 hours to leave. Saudi Arabia closed down a local office of Al Jazeera but said Qatari citizens would still be allowed to take part in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani responded by pointing out that the country would “still have access to the world through international sea lanes and international airspace.”

While the severing of ties was sudden, it appears to have been caused through tensions that have been building for years

Local economists drew attention to the fact that Qatar’s exports are dominated by oil and gas and they are mostly seaborne. In a matter of hours the situation became severely complex, more so, because the holy month of Ramadan had started in the Islamic world.

This added a different dimension to the scene.

Qatar, dependent on imported food, normally transported across the border from Saudi Arabia, now faced a crisis. There was also concern regarding the movement of construction materials -- needed for the energy industry and also for completing the preparations for the 2022 football world cup.

While the severing of ties was sudden, it appears to have been caused through tensions that have been building for years and particularly in recent weeks.

A wedge driven

Broadly, two key factors drove this decision: Qatar’s relationship with Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. Support for Hamas, in particular, places Qatar at odds with many states, such as the US, who view Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Other Gulf monarchies also prefer to deal with its secular rival Fatah as representatives of the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia has also claimed that Qatar is supporting “Iranian-backed terrorist groups” in the Saudi province of Qatif, and also helping the Iran-backed Houthi armed group in Yemen.

This accusation was made despite Qatar’s deployment of an estimated 1,000 troops to support the two-year Saudi-led campaign there.

Sudan, Iran, Turkey, France, and the US have all called on the countries concerned to resolve their differences. Kuwait has also offered to mediate. They have done so because there is a general belief that if there is no mediation from a third party we could see more escalation in this crisis.

Against a threat

Countries in the Gulf are key to the US-led coalition against IS. This is particularly true of Qatar which hosts the US military’s Al Udeid Air Base, the main regional centre for daily air missions and coordination of all air operations in that area.

There is also another factor -- Iran.

Analysts have consequently warned that the current divide within the GCC could undermine the US administration’s longer-term goal of challenging Iran’s alleged destabilising activities across the region.

This existing scenario assumed a complex with the newly elected Iranian leadership pointing out that regional tension is “not welcomed by Iran.” Iran has already offered food shipments to Qatar. So has Turkey. In fact, Turkey’s parliament has now allowed more of its troops to be deployed in the Turkish military base in Qatar as “an apparent show of support for Qatar.”

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir has called on Qatar to cut ties with Hamas and also with the Muslim Brotherhood, if it wants to end its isolation in the Gulf region.

This evolving scenario appears to have persuaded the US to adopt a more positive and constructive engagement, with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir meeting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington in June.

Incidentally, it was also announced that Washington and Doha had signed an agreement for the purchase of F-15 fighter jets with an initial cost of $12 billion. This apparently is how the current US administration is attempting to navigate the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Gulf.

This is indeed reassuring, particularly for Bangladesh and its more than 380,000 expatriate workers associated in different spheres of activity in Qatar. They have watched with dismay that neither the organisation of the Islamic Conference nor the Arab League has taken any steps to defuse the unfolding crisis within the Ummah.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]

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