The Qatar Quandary


by Rajeewa Jayaweera

In the years gone by, foreign relations were considered vital by most if not all countries. Despite the need for a country’s foreign policy to be formulated based on its domestic policies, foreign relations has played a crucial role in the affairs of state in the past, especially among the big and powerful nations.

A paradigm shift in priorities has taken place since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Free trade, commerce and free trade agreements have become buzz words. China is expected replace US as the world’s largest economy by 2031. The global village concept has virtually replaced that of the nation state.

Regional groupings have been in the make across the globe for several decades. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) comprising of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman was established in 1981. Its objectives are wide ranging covering trade, removal of tariff barriers, scientific research and a unified military. The proposal for a common currency similar to the Euro has not materialized.

Cooperation and free trade within the GCC came to a grinding halt, shortly after US President Donald Trump’s two day visit to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia last month.

Shortly after the Trump visit, Saudi Arabia, together with UAE, Bahrain and Egypt who is not a GCC member cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed an air, sea and land embargo. Qatari citizens living in those countries were given fourteen days to depart. The air embargo stopped all air traffic between Qatar and the four countries. The sea embargo prevented vessels from entering Saudi Arabian, UAE, Bharani and Egyptian ports in case they had visited Doha on its inward journey or was scheduled to visit Doha on its return journey. The land embargo prevented movement of vehicles overland between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It has caused untold hardships in Qatar due to its dependency on land transportation from Saudi Arabia for over 50% of its food requirements.

Libya, Yemen and Maldives too have joined the boycott.

President Trump, added fuel stating "the nation of Qatar has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level. Nations came to me and spoke about confronting Qatar over its behavior", during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. "So, we had a decision to make: Do we take the easy road or do we take hard but necessary action?" He did not provide any evidence to substantiate his accusation.

Thanks to vast cash reserves available and the goodwill of Iran and Turkey who have commenced the daily air lift of over 50 tons of fruits and vegetables. Qatar, for the moment has managed to avoid serious shortages. An indefinite food airlift is not sustainable. Any nation, dependent on food imports could eventually encounter food riots when faced with an extended shortfall of 50% of its food requirements.

One of the Qatari organizations severely impacted by these developments is its national carrier Qatar Airways (QR). It has been barred from operating to 18 destinations in the four countries, resulting in the need to ground several aircraft which would have normally operated these routes. Some of its flights to Southern Europe, normally overflying Saudi air space are compelled to use alternate air corridors resulting in additional costs. QR offices in the four countries have been closed down.

Under normal circumstances, responding to unfriendly acts by foreign powers is handled by the Foreign Minister/Ministry, Head of State/Government and the government spokesperson of a country and not Chief Executives of commercial organizations. Qatar has adopted a different approach.

An interview had been scheduled by Qatar based and funded Al Jazeera with Akbar Al Baker, CEO of QR to announce its latest trading results. The airline had made a profit of USD 541 million, a 22% increase from previous year, besides a 20% increase in passenger traffic during same period.

Relegating trading results to the back burner, Al Baker declared Trump’s comments of Qatar "ill-placed" and "ill-informed". He further stated, "I am very disappointed in the leadership of United States. We are an ally of the United States against terrorism; we are an ally of United States with bringing stability into the region." Referring to the Headquarters of the US Central Command with over 10,000 troops and its largest airbase in the Middle East located in Qatar which Trump had not been aware of till after his utterances, Al Baker added "I want the American people to realize that they are trying to intimidate a small country which has the closest relations with the United States."

Qatar is a small state, rich in oil and natural gas. On the surface, it is known as one of the more moderate states in the Middle East. Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), Qatar’s state-owned investment holding company and its subsidiary Qatar Holding reportedly handles Assets Under Management (AUM) valued at over USD 355 billion, most prominently in The Shard, Barclays Bank, Heathrow Airport, British Airways, Harrods, Paris Saint-Germain F.C., Volkswagen, Siemens and Royal Dutch Shell, to name a few. According to latest CIA fact book, Qatar’s estimated GDP Per Capita (PPP) of USD 129,700 in 2016 is the second highest in the world.

In the last two decades, Qatar has generated an independent foreign policy agenda, different from its larger and influential neighbors. It has upgraded its international profile and regional prominence. It has fostered close relations with Iran, Hamas and the Brotherhood besides maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel till 2009. Qatar maintains its influence over the Arab World through the state funded Al Jazeera news media group, which more often than not is an irritant to other GCC states.

It is widely believed Qatar financially supported Jihadist organizations such as  Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, who are fighting for independence in the Northern Mali conflict, as well as ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, Qatar was seen as meddling in the affairs of other Arab countries, supporting insurgents and increasingly radical Islamists and Salafists. This policy has led to rebukes by neighboring Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain. Qatar joined NATO operations in Libya and reportedly armed Libyan opposition groups. It is also a major provider of money and support for rebel groups in the Syrian civil war. With close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar’s funding for rebels strongly favored Islamic and Salafist forces in both Libya and Syria. It also soured relations with the present government in Cairo. Qatar’s continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood also resulted in a diplomatic rift with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain in 2014, culminating in the withdrawal of the latter three countries’ ambassadors in March of that year. It was resolved with Kuwaiti mediation.

The Arab Spring was a nightmare for many autocratic Middle Eastern potentates. Qatar’s independent policy outlook has earned it the wrath of big brother Saudi Arabia, the regional bully who has little tolerance for dissent from smaller GCC member states. Saudi Arabia’s conduct towards its neighbors is no different to that of US, China, Russia and India towards their respective neighbors.

In view of Qatar’s huge investments in Western Europe, it has raised the issue with UK, France and Germany besides Russia. Notwithstanding receiving a sympathetic hearing from these countries, battling equally influential Saudi Arabia, emboldened by Donald Trump, will not be easy.

Whilst Al Baker was making statements critical of the US and the four countries involved in the imbroglio, Qatar’s foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani stuck a more conciliatory note in Berlin, Paris and Moscow, expressing Qatar’s willingness to negotiate with the four nations involved, in order to resolve issues through dialog. It has few other options, especially in view of the stance adopted by US. Qatar, in adopting independent policies on key issues such as terrorism not in sync with other GCC members and important regional players such as Egypt may have seriously over estimated its reach besides miscalculating on support from its traditional ally, United States, under the Trump Presidency.

Despite President Trump branding Qatar as a "funder of terrorism", the Qatari Defense Ministry, on June 14 announced the inking of a deal to purchase 36 F-15 fighter jets from US. This is in addition to sale of 72 F15QA fighters costing USD 21.1 billion, approved by US last November. Meanwhile, two US naval assets have reportedly arrived in Doha on June 15 for joint exercises.

Saudi Arabia and its allies on the embargo project, for their part, are yet to list out its grievances against Qatar other than on the broadest possible terms. Qatar is accused of aiding and abetting terror groups besides cozying up with the likes of Iran and Hamas. It leaves the Doha government unable to respond and helpless.

In the back drop of the current stalemate, it is also being questioned if a regime change project is underway. Saudi Arabia would no doubt prefer an emir more amenable to the House of Saud, in Doha.

From the Qatari experience, it is clear, whether rich or poor, aligned or non-aligned, ability for small countries to act independently has limitations.

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