Saudi Arabia’s dispute with Qatar


Shahid M Amin

THE Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been a shining example of regional cooperation since its founding in 1981. It consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These countries share much in common in terms of religion, culture, language and history. They have tribal origin and monarchical rule. Though they are affluent due to oil and gas wealth, these countries have small populations and rely heavily on foreign workers. While they possess the latest military hardware, they are militarily vulnerable. They have followed moderate, pro-West foreign policies, because their economic interests are largely in the West.
A crisis has developed in the last one year in which Saudi Arabia and UAE are pitted against Qatar. Bahrain is siding with Saudi Arabia, whereas Kuwait and Oman are neutral. Egypt and some other countries also support the Saudi view. The Saudi quarrel with Qatar has its origin in old dynastic rivalries and territorial claims. Qatar is small in area and population but enjoys the highest per capita income in the world. It used to be the most pro-Saudi among the GCC states, but difficulties began when there was a palace coup in 1995 in which Emir Sheikh Khalifa was overthrown by his son Sheikh Hamad. An attempted counter-coup in 1996, with Saudi support, to restore the former Emir first strained relations between the two countries. As ruler, Sheikh Hamad maintained a relatively independent stance. He set up Aljazeera TV in 1996. Its relatively independent stance created resentment in GCC countries, where criticism of official policies is taboo. They did not like Qatar’s stance on several regional issues e.g. its support for Islamist parties like Ikhwan in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Taliban in Afghanistan. Qatar also tried to cultivate relations with Iran, which was seen as a provocation by the Saudis.
Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Hamad abdicated in 2014 and handed over power to Sheikh Tamim, his 33-years old son, who has maintained the independent stance of his father. In the same period, power in Saudi Arabia and UAE came in the hands of a new generation of leaders, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia and his close ally Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. MBS has ushered in a hawkish Saudi foreign policy, particularly toward Iran, which Saudi Arabia views as a rival for regional power and with whom there are sectarian differences as well. In June 2017, a major crisis began when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a “land, sea and air blockade” on it. They cited Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism as the main reason for their action. Saudi Arabia criticized Qatar’s relations with Iran. One cause for anger against Qatar was its payment of one billion dollars to some terrorist groups in Iraq who had kidnapped 26 Qatari royals on a hunting trip. Qatar has rejected the allegation that it supports terrorism and pointed out its ongoing military operations against Da’esh. Behind all the rhetoric, the objective of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is to cut Doha down to its size. They dislike Qatar’s unwillingness to take a backseat to them, its ambitious foreign policy including ties with Iran, its support for Ikhwan and strategic use of Al Jazeera TV for propaganda.
Perhaps, Saudi Arabia was emboldened by US President Trump’s strong backing after attending the Riyadh Summit held in May 2017. This sent a message to other Sunni States in the region to fall in line or else face isolation like Qatar. On 23 June 2017, the group issued a 13-point set of demands to Qatar with a 10-day ultimatum. The demands included closure of Al Jazeera, drastic curtailing of cooperation with Iran, removal of Turkish troops from Qatar, ending of contacts with Ikhwan and monthly compliance with these demands. The stipulated date passed but Qatar stood its ground. With its immense wealth, Qatar has been able to survive the blockade. It secured supplies from Iran and Turkey to make up for shortages caused by blockade. In Aug 2017, Qatar restored full diplomatic relations with Iran.
The boycott of Qatar has placed Pakistan in a difficult position. Though Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was seen by the Saudis as their own man, he sought to maintain the posture of neutrality on Qatar as was done in the case of Saudi dispute with Yemen. Pakistan wants to promote good relations with all Muslim countries and keep out of their bilateral disputes. There are some additional reasons that influenced Pakistan. Cooperation in the energy sector is an important dimension of Pakistan’s relations with Qatar. Its exports of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) are needed for removing Pakistan’s perennial energy shortages. There was also a personal factor. Nawaz Sharif had a close relationship with Qatar’s royal family. Sharif’s late father had entered into joint projects with some Qatari royals. When Nawaz Sharif got entangled in a long-running legal case involving properties in London, a former Qatari PM came to his rescue by claiming that properties were a gift from him.
It is notable that Turkey has supported Qatar in its current dispute with Saudi Arabia. Turkey has contracts worth billions of dollars with Qatar, where the next Football World Cup will be held in 2022. Turkey also has a military base in Qatar. Turkey rushed to supply food items to Qatar after the blockade was imposed. Iran has also stepped up its supplies. President Trump had first supported Saudi Arabia, but has since backtracked because the US’s largest military base in the Middle East is in Qatar. Saudi Arabia needs to reconsider its harsh stance towards Qatar. Feuding among Muslim nations only helps the many enemies of the Islamic world. At the heart of the Saudi quarrel with Qatar is the cold war between Riyadh and Tehran which is causing serious fissures in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia is seen as the heart of the Muslim world and should rise above parochial considerations in the interest of Muslim solidarity. The Emir of Kuwait has sought to mediate in the current crisis and needs full backing for the success of his endeavours.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.

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