TWO weeks after Arab-Islamic-America summit, the first setback to Gulf unity came in the form of severance of diplomatic relations by Gulf countries Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt and Yemen with Qatar. Riyadh closed its borders severing land, sea and air contact with the peninsular state. The Gulf countries accused Qatar of collaborating with extremist groups and supporting the agenda of Iran.
Saudi Arabia and UAE have been critical to Qatar’s alleged support for Islamist movements such as Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinian group, Hamas that rules the Gaza strip. This is the worst diplomatic crisis that hit the Arab world in years. Though, this is not the first time that diplomatic relations are broken off but in 2014, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain temporarily withdrew their ambassadors due to Qatar’s support for Morsi (Brotherhood) government while Saudi Arabia and UAE were backing the military’s take over. Moreover, Qatar tries to pursue an independent policy such as hosting Hamas’ exiled leadership as well as it also has Afghan Taliban’s office in Doha that gives it leverage in facilitating important conflict resolution process.
It is ironical that US President Trump has backed the efforts of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries after they cut off diplomatic relations. President’s move came as a surprise as Qatar hosts the largest American airbase in the Middle East, Al Udeid airbase is home to US Central Command that hosts around 10,000 US troops. Qatar has been a key ally of US and has been providing logistic facilities to US to launch attacks against IS in Iraq and Syria.
Qatar is vulnerable to blockade as it is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia for import of food. Kuwait has not follow the suit and it along with Turkey has offered mediation to resolve the issue and Qatar has shown its willingness to work with mediators to end the dispute. Kuwait also mediated the earlier conflict erupted between Qatar and Gulf states in 2014.
UAE Foreign Minister has made the restoration of diplomatic relations conditional to Qatar’s revision of foreign policy. The Gulf states are bent upon to drive a hard bargain including Qatar’s comparatively less hard stance against Iran, closure of some media channels as well as extradition of some figures belong to Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood from Doha. The move came just after two weeks of the conclusion of Arab-Islamic-America Summit held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Riyadh declaration expressed the desire of Arab-Islamic leaders to work in collaboration with US to confront terrorism and extremism, as well as achieving peace, stability and development at regional and global level
All these steps mentioned in the communiqué have political connotation. Terrorism and extremism are very difficult to define. There is a consensus to fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamic State but countering extremism is much difficult task because every state and society has different structure that gives rise to extremist thought and ideology and requires different strategies to deal with it.
The Gulf states embolden by President Trump’s visit have taken action against Qatar. The main reason for such punitive action seems Qatar’s close ties with Tehran. Qatar is not the only state but Oman also desires to pursue a neutral foreign policy based on the principles of non-interference in domestic affairs of states. There should be some avenues available to initiate a dialogue process on issues of Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Creating intra-Arab rivalries, taking extreme measures such as land, air and sea blockade is not going to help in reducing conflict and tensions in Middle East rather it is going to heighten tensions in an already volatile and turbulent region. Palestine, the main conflict in Middle East seems forgotten and there is talk of Syria, Iraq and Yemen and now intra-Gulf issue is talk of the day. The Arab world is creating more problems for itself rather than resolving the prevailing issues and the main beneficiary of all these developments seems the State of Israel which has responded to Qatar issue by expressing hope for future cooperation in fighting terrorism.
— The writer is a Researcher at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, a think-tank based in Islamabad.