A simmering conflict between the Gulf State of Qatar and its larger neighbour, Saudi Arabia, has abruptly flared into an open, serious stand-off.
Beginning on 5 June, a Saudi-led grouping of states including Egypt, Bahrain and UAE broke off diplomatic relations, and implemented travel and trade bans against Qatar. Qatar has said it will not retaliate.Saudi Arabia has closed Qatar’s only land border and ordered its citizens to leave Qatar.
UAE, Egyptian and Saudi ports have refused to allow Qatari ships to dock.80% of Qatar’s food comes from its Gulf neighbours and 40% comes across the land border with Saudi Arabia. In response to the blockade Iran sent five plane-loads of food. Iran has also opened its airspace to Qatari flights. Iran is seeking to benefit from the disarray among the Sunni Gulf states. And the Saudis might have adopted a tactic that could produce exactly what they fear most: more Iranian influence in their backyard.
Qatar has also received support from its regional ally, Turkey. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for the lifting of the sanctions and the parliament has passed legislation allowing Turkey to provide military help to Qatar. The Saudis accuse Qatar of supporting terrorist organisations and being too close to Iran. This dispute is a more-serious re-run of a similar crisis in 2014.
In March 2014 Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE removed their ambassadors, claiming Qatar was interfering in their internal affairs. That conflict was solved after Qatar told members of the Muslim Brotherhood to leave. That indicates one of the real, underlying issues in this dispute: Qatar backs the Muslim Brothers and Hamas and the Saudis are scared of their influence. The Egyptian military government, too, regards the Brothers as its number one enemy.
The Saudis seem to believe that Qatar is also aiding or sheltering Saudi oppositionists.In fact both the contending states — Qatar and Saudi Arabia — have funded extremist Sunni militias in the Syrian civil war and elsewhere. The Saudis have also provided billions of dollars to fund fundamentalist, Wahhabi-aligned mosques across the world which have been an ideological breeding ground for jihadist groups. And much funding for Daesh (IS) and al-Qaeda comes from individuals in Saudi Arabia — something the Saudis have failed to prevent.
Recently the Qataris paid a huge ransom — apparently around $1billion — to secure the release of Qatari royal family members kidnapped in southern Iraq. The kidnappers were Shia militia members linked to Iran. Much of the ransom is believed to have gone to Iran. It seems this deal was linked to a complicated exchange of populations from Shia and Sunni villages and the release of prisoners in Syria. Apparently the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda was also involved, releasing Hezbollah fighters as part of the agreement. This deal has also angered the Saudis.
Although Qatar has been active in the Saudi coalition’s squalid war in Yemen — where the opposition is backed by Iran — and in Syria ,where Qatar has funded groups which have fought the Iranian-backed government and Lebanese Hezbollah, the Saudis also beleive Qatar is too close to Iran. Qatar does have reasonable relations with Iran. Qatar had a self-imposed restriction against working with Iran to extract the gas of the South Pars-North Dome gas field until it signed an agreement with Iran in April 2017.
The world’s largest natural gas resource, it is jointly owned by Iran and Qatar.Qatar, facing Iran across the Gulf, clearly has economic and political reasons to want to maintain working relations with Iran. This also seems to be one reason that Saudi Arabia has had loud backing from Donald Trump for the move against Qatar. Trump agrees with the Saudis that a more aggressive policy must be conducted against Iran — although other American government spokespeople have been more cautious, urging the Saudis to use restraint, in contradiction to Trump.
Trump even claims to have taken part in the Saudi decision to take action against Qatar, having been in Saudi Arabia recently. Trump’s comments come despite the fact that the US has a major air base, Al Udeid, in Qatar, which is home to 11,000 American military personnel. The German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has called for an end to the blockade and a diplomatic solution. Alarmed, Gabriel told a German paper that the crisis was so dramatic it could even spiral into war. Qatar was a British protectorate until 1971. Formerly a poor state, it has been transformed by the exploitation of enormous gas fields.
2.7 million people live in Qatar, of whom only 300,000 (12%) are Qatari. Migrant workers, many from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are often very badly treated. Labour rights are trampled on and migrants are often abused, badly paid, working very long hours in unsafe conditions. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani took power from his father in 2013. He is British public school and Sandhurst educated. His authoritarian regime uses sharia law, including regular use of corporal punishment for offences such as drinking alcohol and adultery. In the past Qatar was effectively dominated by Saudi Arabia. But Qatar’s great wealth has freed it to develop its own independent politics.
One element of Qatar’s policy was the development of the international TV broadcaster Al Jazeera, which is owned by the government. Although Arabic Al-Jazeera does not criticise the rulers of Saudi Arabia, it does advocate a very different policy. And it has caused the Egyptian military, for example, acute embarrassment when it showed the civilian casualties of Egyptian bombing in Libya.
In Libya the UAE, along with Egypt, has backed former army commander Khalifa Haftar, appointed by a government and parliament based in the East. Qatar and Turkey have supported rival Islamist groups in Western Libya. Last Friday Saudi Arabia and its allies issued a list of individuals and organisations they regard as Qatari-backed terrorists, including five Libyans, among them Tripoli Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, an influential figure for anti-Haftar militias in western Libya. Saudi Arabia has now prevented Al Jazeera broadcasting to the Kingdom and has shut its local office. The Saudis want Al Jazeera shut down.