The recent news of Saudi-led bloc’s diplomatic isolation of Qatar came as a surprise to many, including the United States. However, such a move has been in an offing for quite some time, and it is imperative to dissect the issue on factual lines rather than falling prey to populist understanding of the turmoil in the Middle East.
First, the diplomatic side. Qatar shares borders with the very countries that have cut of diplomatic ties with it. It is dependent on Saudi Arabia for food trade and associative elements. Many are seeing this as a move that was initiated by Trump’s visit to the Middle East. However, a more introspective analysis would reveal that Qatar has forced Saudi’s hand. What happens in the Middle East cannot be viewed in traditional sense but through the prism which focuses on the Arab nationalism and issues of local identity. The Saudi move will also test how firm the recent Trump’s support towards the alliance was. This is because Qatar enjoys good diplomatic ties with the US, with more than 10,000 troops stationed in the country at the Al Udeid air base. There is also a need to view the diplomatic approaches of major stakeholders including Iran, Russia, Turkey and significant others. In recent news, Turkey has come out in the support of Qatar, voicing support for a diplomatic solution to the problem.
Secondly, the ideological divergence of the Middle Eastern countries which is manifested in the assertion that Qatar is responsible for sponsoring terrorism. This has its basis in the Qatari support for the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) that has a major impact on the power play in the Middle East. The Ikhwan in terms of their proxy power, have been allied against the Saudis, so there is the Salafi vs. Ikhwan argument. The Ikhwan have enjoyed funding from Qatar, and have exerted their influence in various places, which has led to extreme sectarian confrontation. Their anti-Saudi posture makes them natural Iranian allies. Qatar has also been at the epicentre of funding militants fighting the Assad regime in Syria, and has meddled in affairs of other regional countries through the support of the Ikhwan. Latent support for the Hamas and Hezbollah by Qatar isn’t acknowledged favourably by the other Middle Eastern players.
Al Jazeera factor is third in line. The Qatar based news channel coverage has been a bone of contention among Gulf states for quite some time now. This ranges from strong critiques of domestic matters in states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain etc. An example of this can be seen in the year 2002 when the ambassador to Qatar was called back by the Saudi Arabia over the news channel coverage of the Saudi peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then in 2014, Qatar made assurance of non-interference when another diplomatic spat resulted in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain withdrawing their ambassadors.
Additionally, an argument must be made for Arab Nationalism as well. A concept that has undergone transformation during the last century, still is the bedrock for Middle Eastern identity. Saudi led bloc views Qatar as a proxy being used by Iran to divide the Gulf states. There is concern regarding Iran’s belief of being the force of stability in the Middle Eastern region. The parliament attack in Iran is an indicator that in the war of proxies, chicken can come home to roost.
It is an opportune moment to gauge the Russian response to the ongoing conflict. Right now, the major power players including Russia are involved in finding a way out in Syria while protecting the interest of the Assad regime. US investigators have claimed that Russia might be behind hacking of Qatar News Agency, which is said to have trigged the diplomatic crisis. Whether true or not, the political differences have existed irrespective of cyber intrusion. Then there was the endorsement from Trump on Twitter, which further complicates the issue. Yet another argument which is being made is that Qatar is paying the price for questioning the established orthodoxy within the region. While there is rampant proxy play in the Middle East, Qatar’s tilt towards Iran is problematic for other GCC states.
The solution to the acrimonious spat lies in how the counter terrorism efforts against the IS and Al-Qaeda are carried out in the region. To establish a politically stable order, more geopolitical manoeuvring is needed in which Israel shouldn’t be seen as a binary. Strong Arab front can prove to be more feasible for the resolution of Palestine issue in lieu of actions undertaken by the Hamas and Hezbollah.