• Pradeek Krishna

THE RESOLUTION TO QATAR-GCC BATTLE: WHO EMERGED VICTORIOUSLY

In January 2021, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council signed an agreement putting an end to a three-and-a-half-year-long blockade between Qatar and the GCC nations. The historic town of Al-Ula witnessed the resolution of a blockade, which no one predicted would end anytime soon.[1] The Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani was welcomed with an embrace by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The Al Ula declaration and a final communique were signed at the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, putting an official end to the blockade.[2] The deal was negotiated by Kuwait, which remained neutral throughout the blockade and decided not to participate in the blockade, the United States, led by President Trump, who was looking for one last diplomatic victory before leaving office. What were the events which led to the blockade? Who benefitted from the blockade? Why did it come to an end? The following sections of this article will look to answer these questions.


BACKGROUND


Qatar was a poor and unreachable place when it got independence from the British Empire in 1971. Its fortune started changing rapidly due to its vast energy resources. It lived under the shadow of Saudi Arabia just like every other Sunni majority country in the Gulf region. The dynamics started to shift in 1995 when Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani took control of the country from his father.[3] Emir Hamad went on a liberalization drive and introduced several new reforms in the country. These reforms included notable reforms such as the launch of the Al Jazeera network and the drafting of a written constitution. The new Emir’s liberal position was seen as a threat by the other major conservative players in the region, such as Saudi and UAE. Qatar's Al Jazeera network gave voices to political Islam ideologies and organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which were vehemently opposed by Saudi, that saw itself as the ruler of the Islamic world.[4] Additionally, after 1995, Qatar started pursuing an independent foreign policy and forged new relations with regional and international partners. Most notably, Qatar hosts the Al Udeid Air Base, which is the largest US airbase in the region.[5] Qatar also pursued better trade relations with Iran and Israel, much to the anguish of the gulf countries who considered both Iran and Israel as their bête noire. Qatar’s deep economic relationship contributes towards the close ties between both countries. Iran and Qatar jointly control the world’s largest natural gas field in the Persian Gulf region.[6] One year into the new Emir’s reign, a failed coup took place in the country. Saudi, Egypt, UAE, and Bahrain were accused of plotting to overthrow Emir Hamad. Eventually, the GCC countries accepted the fact that Qatar was pursuing more independence.[7]

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The ties between Qatar and the Gulf countries, especially Saudi, started deteriorating following the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011. Arab Spring was a series of anti-monarch protests and demonstrations across the Middle East, which led to the ousting of several longstanding autocratic regimes. Qatar saw this as an opportunity to widen their sphere of influence in the region, while on the contrary, Saudi knew that the wave of anti-government protests put the regime in jeopardy. Saudi supported counter-revolutionary movements in several countries, while Qatar supported the revolutions in many forms. Qatar's Al Jazeera network was the center of attention and broadcasted these protests to a global audience. This widened the gap between Saudi and Qatar. But the incident which sharply caused a rift between both the countries was the protest in Egypt. The anti-government protests in Egypt resulted in the downfall of the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, and a democratic election resulted in the victory of Mohammed Morsi, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.[8] A year later, the military toppled the Morsi government, and this resulted in a violent clampdown, which was widely covered by the Al Jazeera network.[9] Qatar accepted the Muslim Brotherhood-backed leaders who fled from Egypt, and this drew criticism from the GCC nations. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar and cut off diplomatic ties.[10] The countries accused Qatar of supporting terrorist organizations and interfering in the internal matters of other nation-states. The Saudi-led bloc failed to gather support from the United States under the administration of President Barack Obama. Ties were restored shortly, but this incident served to only further widen the rift between Qatar and the GCC states. The rift eventually set the stage for the 2017 blockade. In 2017, after President Donald Trump took charge, he visited Saudi Arabia for the Riyadh Summit. There, he extended support to Saudi's efforts to fight states allied with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. In May 2017, remarks attributed to the Emir of Qatar were posted on the official Qatar News Agency website. The statement expressed support for Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Israel. Qatar claims that the website was hacked and that the remarks were false. Following this, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, Egypt, and Bahrain announced that they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar. Saudi and UAE closed all land, sea, and air borders with Qatar and even Qatari citizens living in the country were expelled.[11]


THE BLOCKADE


Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar, and borders with Qatar were closed. Trade to Qatar was banned, and Qatari citizens were kicked out of the countries. GCC members Kuwait and Oman remained neutral throughout the blockade. The blockading nations submitted a list of 13 highly unrealistic demands to Qatar, which were immediately rejected. The demands included the closure of the Al Jazeera Media Network, stop support to terrorist organizations, cutting off ties with Iran and imposing sanctions on them in compliance with the US sanctions, the closure of a Turkish military base, and the halting of military cooperation with Turkey.[12] The blockade was supported by the United States President Donald Trump despite Qatar being an important military partner.


THE TERMS OF THE AGREEMENT


Two agreements were signed by the GCC member states during the 41st GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia, The Al Ula Declaration and a Final Communique. In the agreement, the Gulf states agreed to restore full ties with Qatar, including the resumption of flights. Saudi and UAE have agreed to open their land, air, and water borders to Qatar. In return, Qatar has agreed to freeze all legal actions taken against the GCC member states in International Courts and Organizations.


WHO WON THE ROUND, QATAR, OR SAUDI ARABIA?


Qatar inevitably faced initial blows to its economy. The stock market crashed, and it was forced to inject $43 bn into its banks from its sovereign funds. Top Qatari companies admitted heavy losses.[13] However, it is interesting to note that Qatar managed to stabilize its economy contrary to what the blockade was intended to do. Qatar formed an independent economy, and the blockade could be termed as a blessing in disguise. Qatar developed self-sufficiency in many areas, including trade and international relations. It became the largest exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and exported around 104.8 cubic meters in 2018.[14] Qatar has invested heavily around the world and has also introduced reforms to promote a business environment in the country. Qatar forged better trade ties with Iran and Turkey and started using Iranian airspace instead of Saudi airspace. Qatar went on to establish full diplomatic relations with Iran. Qatar began increasing its defense expenditure, and prominently it increased defense deals with the US hence growing closer to the US. Qatar mediated the peace deal, which led to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Qatar even took a very balanced approached while fighting the blockade. It approached international courts and legally fought the blockading nations, instead of taking decisions it might come to regret later. Qatar also continued the supply of gas to UAE through the Dolphin Gas Project.[15]


Speaking about the Saudi-led bloc, the GCC countries did not achieve the result they expected from the blockade. Instead, Qatar emerged as a more independent nation. So, if you are looking for the nation which won this round, you don't have to think much; it was Qatar.

Qatar has healthy ties with the GCC, Iran, the US, and Turkey. Qatar could be more influential than ever. Qatar could play the role of a mediator between many players in the region who have locked horns against each other. Qatar has achieved independence and emerged ever stronger than it was before the blockade; the small country is only destined to grow even further.


THE UAE PROBLEM


While the main face of the blockade was undoubtedly the controversial Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the role of another leader cannot go unnoticed. The Crown Prince of UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), has forever been sceptical of the Muslim Brotherhood. MBZ has suspected Qatari links with the Muslim Brotherhood and has berated the Brotherhood on several occasions. UAE has been involved in a race to spread influence over the Middle East, and it has always remained behind Saudi. However, in the blockade on Qatar, UAE might have had a bigger role to play. UAE and Qatar have been engaged in a struggle for economic superiority, with both countries being the top economic centres of the middle east. In recent times, Qatar has trumped UAE and emerged as a larger economy. UAE has always been keen to act against Qatar, and the blockade seemed like the perfect way to do so. Even though the desired motive was not achieved, UAE was said to be against the resolution of the conflict and signed the Al Ula declaration reluctantly.

While UAE has resumed relations with Qatar, the hostilities will not disappear soon, and both countries will still be engaged in a battle to emerge out as the top economic hub in the region.


WHY DID IT END?


The one significant factor that eventually led to the resolution of the blockade was the outcome of the US Presidential elections of 2020. The Obama administration did not allow for a blockade, while the Trump administration. The new President Joe Biden has vociferously opposed human rights violations by the Saudi-led bloc. The Saudi bloc has looked for a resolution for the diplomatic crisis to prepare for the Biden Administration. The GCC, led by Saudi, now has a united lobby against Iran, and this could influence Biden’s Middle East policy. Further, the resolution came as a final diplomatic victory for Donald Trump, whose son-in-law Jared Kushner played a key role in the agreement.


For Saudi, the resolution of this crisis had become a necessity. Saudi can now remove other foes and form an opposition against its arch-nemesis, Iran. Further, this could be linked with Saudi's vision 2030, which aims at the diversification of the economy. Resolving unnecessary conflicts could mean that Saudi can cut down on defense expenditures and divert funds towards its ambitious diversification plans. Additionally, Saudi's global reputation has been tarnished following the controversial assassination of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A good reputation helps attract foreign investors, which are a vital part of the diversification plans.

For Qatar, the resolution could not have come at a better time. The whole world is going to be watching Qatar during the 2022 world cup, and Qatar is working to avoid any embarrassments. Furthermore, the opening up of the Saudi airspace would be a huge benefit for Qatar as it would help them accommodate the massive air traffic expected during the World Cup.


CONCLUSION


Saudi and Qatar have locked horns with each other in a struggle for domination in the Gulf region since 1995. The rivalry reached an apotheosis in 2017 when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar and closed borders with it. The spat was resolved three-and-a-half years later during the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council.

Qatar has emerged as an independent and stronger power in the region. Its independent economy and foreign policy could help Qatar fulfill its ambitions of holding an influential position in the Middle East. Qatar could use its ties with all major powers in the region and the US to act as a catalyst in many peace agreements like it did with the US and Taliban in Afghanistan. Qatar's longstanding ambitions are close to being a reality, and especially after it showed its character during the blockade, it might not be long before Qatar challenge Saudi hegemony in the Gulf region.


References

[1] Barakat, Sultan. Qatar-GCC Agreement: A Victory for Measured Diplomacy. 8 Jan. 2021, www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/1/8/qatar-gcc-agreement-a-victory-for-measured-diplomacy. [2] Paterson, Stuart, et al. “The Al-Ula Declaration - GCC Diplomatic Relations Restored.” Lexology, 14 Jan. 2021, www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=c5d38c11-67e9-4239-bf52-6ec82d10dd4a. [3] Harman, Danna. “Backstory: The Royal Couple That Put Qatar on the Map.” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 5 Mar. 2007, www.csmonitor.com/2007/0305/p20s01-wome.html/%28page%29/2. [4] Kamrava, Mehran. “Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar.” Middle East Journal, vol. 63, no. 3, 2009, pp. 401–420. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20622928.

[5] Zacharia, Janine. “For Qatar, Relations with West Are a Balancing Act.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Mar. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/world/africa/04iht-letter5.1.10686376.html. [6] “Qatar Says It Will Not Alter Relations with Iran or Turkey after Gulf Breakthrough.” Middle East Eye, 2021, www.middleeasteye.net/news/qatar-will-not-alter-relations-iran-turkey-despite-gulf-breakthrough. [7] Al Jazeera. “New Details Revealed on 1996 Coup Attempt against Qatar.” GCC News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 4 Mar. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/3/4/new-details-revealed-on-1996-coup-attempt-against-qatar. [8] “Muslim Brotherhood's Mursi Declared Egypt President.” BBC News, BBC, 24 June 2012, www.bbc.com/news/world-18571580.

[9] “Egypt's Morsi Says He Was Kidnapped before Being Removed by Army.” The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com, www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Egypts-Morsi-says-he-was-kidnapped-before-being-removed-by-army-331597. [10] Toumi, Habib. “GCC Endured Its Worst Diplomatic Crisis in 2014.” Saudi – Gulf News, Gulf News, 29 Oct. 2018, gulfnews.com/world/gulf/saudi/gcc-endured-its-worst-diplomatic-crisis-in-2014-1.1432568. [11] “Qatar Crisis: What You Need to Know.” BBC News, BBC, 19 July 2017, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-40173757.

[12] Al Jazeera. “Arab States Send Qatar List of Steep Demands.” GCC News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 12 July 2017, www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/7/12/arab-states-issue-13-demands-to-end-qatar-gulf-crisis. [13] Sharif, Arif. Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 2018, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-20/s-p-says-qatar-injected-43-billion-to-help-banks-after-standoff. [14] Kumar, Sachin. “Qatar to Remain World's Largest LNG Exporter.” The Peninsula Qatar, 2021, www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/25/02/2021/Qatar-to-remain-world%E2%80%99s-largest-LNG-exporter.

[15] Zhdannikov, Dmitry. “Qatar Ships LNG to the UAE after Dolphin Pipeline Outage: Source.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 19 May 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-qatar-emirates-lng-idUSKCN1SP063.


Cover Image: Middle East Monitor


About the author: Pradeek Krishna is an undergraduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs pursuing bachelors in Global Affairs. His main areas of interest include the Middle East and North Africa and the Indo-Pacific Region.

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