Qatar's blockade in the GCC

March of folly

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Saudi King Salman (left) with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha. A file photograph. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/AFP

Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani (left) with U.S. President Donald Trump in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2017. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the Saudi-UAE Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on June 6. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/REUTERS

Qatar remains resilient a year after it was blockaded, but the UAE and Saudi Arabia do not want to recognise the failure of their project of isolation and intimidation.

Contemplating the sad state of the Gulf Cooperation Council a year after the June 5, 2017, blockade of Qatar by three others in the GCC, namely, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, it is impossible not to be reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s seminal book The March of Folly, published in 1984, three years after the formation of the GCC in 1981.

Barbara Tuchman, giving examples from the Trojan War to the U.S. war on Vietnam, has convincingly demonstrated that those who hold state power can act against their own self-interest. She defines folly as the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives. In the case of the GCC, that Tuchmanesque folly is writ large, as it was Saudi Arabia, which claims to be the paterfamilias of the GCC, that initiated the move to isolate, humiliate and threaten Qatar, a founder member, a move that has practically dismantled the GCC.

If Saudi Arabia and its allies ever calculated that by insulting and isolating Qatar in the manner they did Qatar would have appeared before them in sack cloth and ashes, genuflected and sought absolution for its sins, it is now abundantly clear that such a naive calculation was a form of somnambulism. Alas, the somnambulism continues.

The background

There are long-term and short-term causes for the blockade. The long-term cause is Qatar’s rebellion against Saudi Arabia’s policy of treating it like a younger brother who needed guidance.

When the GCC was formed in 1981, the gross domestic product (GDP) of Saudi Arabia exceeded the sum of the GDPs of the rest. Qatar was relatively poor. But Qatar’s GDP grew exponentially as it emerged as a major exporter of natural gas, with the United States, Japan and others investing heavily in that sector. By 2016, the GDP of Saudi Arabia was about 40 per cent of the GCC total while Qatar had, years earlier, emerged as the largest exporter of natural gas. Qatar also topped the list in per capita income. However, Saudi Arabia refused to take note of the changes and continued to treat Qatar the same old way. Riyadh withdrew its ambassador from Doha in 2002 to force Qatar to fall in line but had to send the ambassador back in 2008. There were border disputes and, once, Qatari border guards were killed by Saudi forces.

From 1995, when Sheikh Hamad, the father of the present ruler Sheikh Tamim, staged a peaceful coup and took over from his father, Qatar started looking for a countervailing force to balance its big neighbour. Following the 1991 liberation of Kuwait through Operation Desert Storm, Qatar entered a defence treaty with the U.S., avoiding publicity. Qatar built an air base at El Udeid at a cost of $1 billion and invited the U.S. to station its air force there. The invitation was accepted, and currently the base has about 11,000 U.S. military personnel. Saudi Arabia was not amused but was helpless. But Riyadh effectively put the spokes into Qatar’s plans to build a gas pipeline to Kuwait and Oman.

When the Arab Spring arrived in 2011, Riyadh and Doha supported different groups by giving money and arms. Qatar was close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia abhorred. By 2014, ambassadors from the three countries were withdrawn from Doha, but they returned after eight months, thanks to Kuwaiti mediation.

The origins of the current crisis are not shrouded in mystery. The most significant factor is the sudden change in U.S.-Saudi relations. Riyadh was angry and frustrated with President Barack Obama for “abandoning” Egyptian leader and long-time friend Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, who fell in February 2011. Riyadh got further embittered when Obama agreed to the nuclear deal with Iran in 2013, ignoring Riyadh’s repeated objections. Therefore, when Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, the Saudis went out of their way to befriend him.

In March 2017, Mohammed bin Salman, the Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia, visited Washington. He attended a lunch hosted by Trump, whose son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was also present. The chemistry between the Saudi Prince and the two Americans turned out to be superb, and Trump triumphantly announced that the Saudis would buy huge amounts of arms from the U.S. and invest equally huge amounts in the U.S., generating thousands of jobs. “This meeting,” a senior adviser to the Prince said in a statement, “is considered a historical turning point in relations between both countries and which had passed through a period of divergence of views on many issues” (emphasis added). Traditionally, a newly elected President of the U.S. makes the first official visit to Canada or Mexico. But Trump chose Saudi Arabia and landed in Riyadh on May 20, 2017, to an unprecedented reception by King Salman. Leaders from 55 Muslim countries, including Kings and Presidents in many cases, had assembled to welcome and congratulate Trump, who was pleased and overwhelmed.

We do not know, but there is good reason to believe that King Salman would have, in confidence, told Trump of the plan to isolate Qatar. Trump might have been told that Qatar was funding terrorism and getting too close to Iran, Trump’s bete noire. Trump’s subsequent tweets endorsing the isolation of Qatar seemed to indicate that he might have given the green signal for going ahead with the Saudi plan. There was no reason to believe that the green signal was given after consultation with the Secretaries of State or Defence. Such consultations are not part of Trump’s style of taking decisions.

Trump left Riyadh on May 22, 2017, and the next day the e-mail of QNA (Qatar News Agency) was hacked and QNA carried for a while a fake speech by the Emir of Qatar criticising the U.S. and praising Iran. Later investigations have almost proved that the UAE paid the hackers. It may be noted that UAE and Saudi media gave wide publicity to the fake news within 20 minutes of its appearance.

The blockade

On the morning of June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and the Maldives announced their decision to break off links—diplomatic, consular, commercial, financial and transport—with Qatar. It may be noted that Libya then had—and still has—more than one government and Yemen’s is a government-in-exile based in Riyadh. Further, Egypt is a recipient of Saudi aid. In short, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the true decision-makers and the others, including Egypt, were “attendant lords”. Kuwait and Oman did not join in the boycott of Qatar. Thus, it was a divided GCC that wanted to humiliate and isolate Qatar.

As Trump tweeted his support for Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis tried to draw Trump’s attention to the fact that there was an important U.S. base in Qatar, heavily engaged in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and “terrorists” in the region. Trump had, by then, virtually decimated the State Department, with senior positions in the Department lying vacant, not to speak of the absence of ambassadors in key embassies. In a rational world, the State Department should have been able to tell the President:

    * The charges levelled against Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE of funding terrorism do not stand scrutiny. All the three countries have funded different terrorist groups. It does not make sense for the pot to call the kettle black.

    * The demand for the shutting down of Al Jazeera does not make sense. It is a rather professionally run agency, of course answerable to the government of Qatar. Qatar will find it impossible to shut it down.

    * It is in the interest of the U.S. and it is the duty of the U.S. to exert diplomacy to resolve the crisis before it gets aggravated.

Whether the State Department tried to brief Trump or not, the fact of the matter is that Trump is unbriefable. Tillerson, as the former head of Exxon Mobile, has known the GCC monarchs for decades. He embarked on a shuttle diplomacy to the Gulf, but that was a fool’s errand as the world knew that he lacked the support of his President. Trump himself publicly offered to mediate and invited the GCC heads of state to Washington. They did not accept the invitation; however, that did not prevent Trump from repeating it.

There is a crucial diplomatic blunder that needs to be mentioned. The boycotters made rather vague statements, charging Qatar with various offences, but they never stated clearly what they wanted from Qatar. Washington rather naively thought that it was important that Qatar should be told in writing what was expected of it. Urged by Washington, the boycotters came out with their rather convolutedly worded 13-point ultimatum asking for compliance within 10 days. Kuwait transmitted the ultimatum and Qatar cleverly made it public, exposing the rather absurd position of its foes. Qatar ignored the deadline but declared that it was prepared to sit down and talk once the blockade was lifted.

The written ultimatum aggravated the dispute as by reducing to writing their demands, the boycotters painted themselves into a corner. It was not the best example of U.S. diplomacy. There is another aspect to the incoherence of U.S. policy. On June 10, 2017, Trump publicly chided Qatar for not doing enough to prevent the flow of funds to terrorists. Four days later, the Pentagon announced the sale of F-16 fighter planes worth $12 billion to Qatar. That sale showed that the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex (MICC) was benefiting from the crisis and, obviously, the longer the crisis lasted, the better for the merchants of death. Unless the crisis led to military hostilities or threatened to do so, Washington would not be interested in resolving it, although its ability to bring the parties to an agreement was rather limited.

Kuwait’s mediation

The 89-year-old Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, is uniquely qualified to act as mediator. He was Kuwait’s Foreign Minister from 1963 to 1992 and Prime Minister from 2003 to 2006 before taking over as Emir in 2006. The Emir met with Saudi and UAE officials on June 6 and 7, 2017 before he went to Doha. The Emir has worked assiduously, but so far to no avail.

It will be utterly wrong to blame the mediator for the aggravation of the crisis. Qatar is willing to sit down and talk, but the Saudis and the Emiratis are still chasing the mirage of a total victory, implying Qatar’s surrender. Oman, too, has been lending its support to Kuwait. Oman has consistently and successfully chosen to pursue a foreign policy not always aligned with Saudi policy. For example, it provided a venue for the U.S. and Iran to meet before the nuclear deal negotiations involving Iran, the U.S. and others really took off. But Oman’s ability to mediate is limited, partly because Sultan Qaboos has not been keeping good health for years.

Neither the United Kingdom nor France has the diplomatic clout to engage in mediation in this intra-GCC crisis. How about India? Unfortunately, India’s diplomacy towards the Gulf, before and after the GCC was established, has not been guided by a clearly defined goal to be achieved in a given time frame. India has treated the region as a destination for manpower export and as a source of energy import. It has never bothered to build up a team of Indians who would keep in touch with the crowned heads and other leaders in the region over a period, say three or four decades, unlike France and, to a lesser extent, the U.K.

I have personally noticed that the visiting Minister from India is unable to have an engaging conversation with the Emir. The Minister will start by conveying greetings from his President, Prime Minister and the people of India in a monotonous voice. The French visitor establishes an immediate personal rapport by asking about the latest horse acquired by the Emir.

The signals coming from the UAE make it clear that the UAE and Saudi Arabia do not want to recognise the failure of their project of isolation, humiliation and intimidation. They did try to prop up a Qatari prince, but there is no chance of any coup to remove Sheikh Tamim, who has strong support from the 300,000 Qataris.

Qatar has paid heavily in financial terms and has burned up approximately $40 billion of its reserves. But its pockets are deep with a sovereign fund of $335 billion; and by moving closer to Turkey and Iran, Qatar has neutralised the adverse impact of the blockade. We need to take note of the economic cost to the boycotters, too. For example, the banks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have about $60 billion exposure in Qatar.

The UAE did try to weaken the Qatari currency and even thought of arranging an invasion of Qatar by mercenaries to be provided by the infamous U.S. firm Blackwater. The UAE tried unsuccessfully to persuade the U.S. to shift its base from Qatar.

Will there be military action against Qatar? Saudi Arabia has publicly threatened Qatar that there might be such action if Qatar buys the S-400 missile system from Russia. It is true that Saudi Arabia and the UAE together have a numerical superiority of 8 to 1 in terms of military personnel over Qatar. But, they will not move without another green signal from Trump, who has urged Riyadh to reconcile with Doha.

For all practical purposes, the GCC is dead and buried. But, it will be wrong to write an epitaph to the GCC as it can be resurrected if there is a change of policy, with or without a change of regime, in Riyadh. Sooner or later, Saudi Arabia will have to agree to a ceasefire and political settlement in Yemen and then it might find it easier to look at the intra-GCC crisis in a more pragmatic way. However, even if the current crisis is resolved, the GCC is unlikely to realise the goals mentioned in its charter signed in 1981. The GCC will not regain for a long time the vitality that it once had. A new generation has come to power in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and for it the ideals and goals of 1981 do not make much sense.

K.P. Fabian is a former Indian diplomat and has served in Madagascar, Austria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Canada, Finland, Qatar and Italy.