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"It's kind of a family feud", 3.5-year crisis in the GCC

Donald Trump, President of the United States (US), considers lifting the blockade on Qatar a priority in his last 70 days in power. This his national security adviser Robert O'Brien told the 2020 Global Security Forum. The blockade, imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain, has been called a crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and has been going on for 3.5 years. The big question is: can the crisis really be resolved with US help? To answer this, we will first have to look at what exactly happened.

In late May 2017, statements allegedly belonging to the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad al Thani, in which he expressed support for Iran, Israel and various terrorist organisations were posted on the Qatar News Agency website. These statements were picked up by several other Arab news outlets, making their way across the MENA region. However, Doha claimed that these statements were false and posted by hackers. On 5 June 2017, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, led by Saudi Arabia, announced that they would close all borders with Qatar. Air traffic was halted, land borders closed, Qatar was no longer allowed to be reached by sea and all nationals of the four countries were ordered to leave the country. Qatar was given the chance to stop the blockade if they complied with a list of 13 demands. The most important of these were to curb its relationship with Iran so that it falls within US trade guidelines; close the Turkish military base in Qatar; stop relations with organisations seen as terrorist by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain; stop interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign countries[1].

However, Doha refused to cooperate, claiming to have done nothing wrong. The response of the four Arab countries was to press ahead with sanctions, with disastrous consequences for the Qatari economy. Qatar was affected not only at the macro level, but also at the micro level. Many Qataris married citizens of the four countries that imposed the blockade. This meant that entire families were driven apart and sometimes have not seen each other for years.

Financing terrorism: "the pot calling the kettle black"?

The biggest reason, indicated by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, of the sanctions is that Qatar is allegedly financing terrorism and also allowing terrorists to operate from the country, something confirmed in the eyes of Arab leaders by the statements on the Qatar News Agency website. Multiple groups have been associated with Doha such as Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, Deash, Hamas, Al-Nusra and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is something that violates the agreement the GCC countries made in 2004 and 2013. However, Qatar denies having connections with the bulk of the aforementioned organisations. The most well-known groups that Doha does openly support are the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Al-Nusra. The Muslim Brotherhood is not internationally recognised as a terror group and therefore Doha rejects this accusation. Hamas, on the other hand, is considered a terrorist organisation by most countries, but the Qatari government justifies this connection by arguing that their concern is not Hamas itself, but the Palestinians in Gaza, where the party is in power. Qatar is a major financial donor to the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank and also frequently engages with the Israeli government as a mediator between all parties. The Gulf state thus denies encouraging terror and claims to be in contact with all parties to promote the interests of the Palestinians. Connections with al-Nusra are also not denied by Doha, reasoning that they do not categorise the group under terror.  

On top of that, many consider the accusation about terror support from Saudi Arabia towards Qatar a case of "the pot calling the kettle black", given that the kingdom itself is also more often accused of funding radicalism and terrorism. For instance, Iraq's former prime minister accused not only Doha but also Riyadh of escalating the wars in Iraq and Syria by funding Sunni terrorist groups. It is a given that not all countries agree on which organisations are terrorist and this is something Qatar thus uses to deny the allegations. And beyond this, the countries that established the blockade are regularly criticised for their harsh regimes and accused of violating human rights and funding terror and war, which makes one wonder whether the sanctions against Qatar are hypocritical.

Iran VS Saudi Arabia: fight for Islamic leadership

Terrorism is cited as the main reason for the blockade against Qatar, but several analyses show that the fork could be different. Qatar has improved its relationship with Iran in recent years, which many Gulf countries are not happy about. Iran is number one enemy of Saudi Arabia and many of its allies, such as the UAE, and the two countries are fighting the rivalry in multiple proxy wars, in Yemen, among others, where each country supports a different group. The struggle between the two countries is economic and religious, in which both strive to be the most powerful in the Middle East. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are rich in and export oil and gas. Due to the difference in population size and living conditions of the population, Saudi Arabia opts for lower prices and Iran for higher ones, resulting in clashing policies. Essentially, the religious competition has nothing to do with the fact that Saudi Arabia is Sunni and Iran is Shia. Until 1979, the countries had strong diplomatic ties, as they both had Western-backed monarchies. This changed when an Islamic revolution took place in Iran and the Shah (the king) was deposed. The new leader, Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini, labelled monarchies as un-Islamic and opposed governments supported by the West. Saudi Arabia, which saw itself as the Islamic leader of the region, felt threatened by Iran, which became the start of proxy wars. A reason to think that the sanctions have to do with the relationship between Doha and Tehran can be found in one of the 13 tough demands Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE made to stop the blockade, which was to reduce relations with Iran. 

Turkey: an enemy of Saudi Arabia should not be a friend of Qatar

Qatar has a good relationship not only with Iran, but also with Turkey. The two countries have strong economic ties and Qatar even has a Turkish military base. It is more common in the Middle East for countries to have military cooperation, but this particular cooperation is seen as a threat by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are often diametrically opposed in wars. These wars have never been fought on their own territory but, as with Iran, take place in proxy wars, although this case is slightly more complicated. Indeed, there have been times when Ankara and Riyadh have been allies, for instance when the war in Syria broke out. Both sides opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and therefore supported anti-government units in Syria. A major point of conflict between Ankara and Riyadh mainly concerns another country: Egypt. Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia sees this organisation as a terror group. When in Egypt, in 2013, former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was ousted by Saudi-backed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkey was again diametrically opposed to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In countries such as Libya and Sudan, the countries also support rival parties. Still, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were trading partners for a long time. However, this changed when the blockade against Qatar began and Saudi Arabia and the UAE decided to drastically reduce trade.

United States: 'we would love to see all the cousins back at the Thanksgiving table'

The US has tried several times to mediate in the GCC dispute. The country is a military and economic ally of both Qatar and the four countries maintaining the blockade. President Trump has indicated that the sanctions are having a major impact on Gulf countries militarily and economically and that the US is also feeling the consequences. Yet the US has changed its position on Qatar three times in a month. Early in the crisis, a US delegation travelled to the Middle East to mediate between the countries. Not much later, Washington nevertheless accused Doha, like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, of funding terror, only to reach an agreement with Qatar a few weeks later. This agreement concerned a mutual initiative to stop terrorist financing. During the press conference of the accord, Trump stressed that Qatar is a good friend of the US and that other countries in the Gulf, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, should also do more to counter terror. The fact that, despite the accusations towards Qatar, Washington is still working so closely with Doha shows that, once again, one has to question whether the country is actually intensively funding terror. 

Before President Trump leaves the White House in January 2021, he has indicated he wants to try one last time to resolve the GCC crisis, his national security adviser Robert O'Brien announced. This is because a united Gulf region is stronger against Iran, also an enemy of the US, and because this way Washington wants to persuade more Arab countries to make normalisation deals with Israel, something the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan have already done in recent months. O'Brien is optimistic that the sanctions will be lifted, but says it will not be easy. For instance, he told "It is a kind of family dispute and these are often the hardest to resolve, but we would love to see all the cousins back at the Thanksgiving table, so to speak," referring to the fact that many of the royal families in the Gulf region are linked by marriages.  

Maintaining the status quo is the essence of conflict

Financing terrorism is labelled as the main reason for the blockade against Qatar, but this may not be entirely true. It seems that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain are mostly troubled by Qatar's relationship with Iran and Turkey. Saudi Arabia does not want to lose its role as an Islamic and economic leader in the Middle East and would like to see the status quo in the region remain unchanged. It also looks set to hold Qatar to different standards than the rest of the Gulf countries. For instance, Doha is required to stop interfering in policies of sovereign countries, but Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt are allowed to do so in Qatar, when they impose it to stop its relations with other countries and groups. Qatar cooperated from the first negotiations initiated by the US to resolve the crisis, while the other four countries refused to do so until Doha agreed to the 13 demands.

The Gulf states feel that Qatar is playing the victim and does not want to solve the essence of the problem. Given that Qatar does not agree to the demands, a reconciliation seems out of the question. Moreover, the country has gone through major economic changes in recent years to ensure that it no longer needs the other Gulf states to survive. Many of the imports Qatar used to buy from the other GCC countries are now sourced from Iran and Turkey. The small Gulf state has also become significantly more self-sufficient. So the blockade has actually caused Qatar to become closer with the very countries that the other four Gulf states wanted to hold off. 

Still, despite the fact that the GCC conflict has been going on for over 3 years, Americans are optimistic of being able to resolve it within a few weeks. This seems unrealistic, as initial mediation attempts have failed, but Trump has also managed to get several Arab countries to sign normalisation agreements with Israel, something many also saw as impossible. Perhaps the US president will manage to reconcile Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain after all, before he leaves the White House. 

[1]Complete list: Reducing relations with Iran so that it falls within US trade directives; Stopping relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, Deash, al-Qaida and Hezbollah and declaring that these organisations are terrorist; Stopping funding individuals or groups considered terrorist by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain.; Extraditing all terrorists allegedly residing in Qatar; Stopping interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign countries; Closing news outlet Al-Jazeera; Closing other country-funded newspapers such as Middle East Eye and Rassd; Closing the Turkish military base in Qatar; Stopping contact with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain; Compensating financially for damage caused by Qatari policies in recent years; Making Qatar maintain the political, military, social and economic identity as the rest of the GCC; Agreeing to monthly inspections to hold Qatar accountable for complying with the above demands; Complying with the above demands within 10 days.

Sources: Aljzeera1Ajazeera2Aljazeera3Atlantic CouncilBBCCATFCarnegieFuturityGuardian1Guardian2Reuters1Reuters2, PhysStateThe HillTimes of IsraelTRTEdge

Image: Pixy