The conflict over Qatar adds to Middle East quagmire

U.S. and Qatari naval officers onboard a patrol vessel
Hamad Port, June 16, 2017: After the announcement of the sale of F15 fighter jets to Qatar, U.S. and Qatari navy vessels held a high-profile joint military exercise (source: dpa)
  • The Arab states’ boycott of Qatar adds another potentially explosive conflict to the arc of crises that stretches from North Africa and the Sahel Zone to Central Asia
  • Qatar is an important ally of Turkey and the United States
  • Europe also has a big economic and security stake in the Qatar situation

Incendiary comments, allegedly by top Qatari officials, published by the state-run Qatar News Agency have been taken by Qatar’s Arab neighbors as meaning that the country sponsored terrorist activities, especially those masterminded by Iran. Doha claims that the statements were fake news posted by hackers, but Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain closed their links with the State of Qatar and imposed sanctions against it.

Among other revelations, it was alleged that Qatar was a sponsor and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas organizations, which prompted Egypt to also cut its ties with the Persian Gulf state.

This new and surprising development exacerbates the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which already has added to the carnage in Syria and triggered a proxy war in Yemen. A twin attack by Sunni ISIS terrorists in the capital of Shia Iran, which took place during the Qatar crisis, has added to the already high tension in the region. The coincidence allows Iran to publicly blame Saudi Arabia for the attack, even though Tehran knows full well the charge is not justified.

Delicate situation

Qatar is important for Turkey, especially as a potential investor in the Turkish economy and a market for Turkish business, construction in particular. Turkey has increased its military presence in Qatar and is making itself a military player in the Persian Gulf, which is a new aspect of the situation. It also appears that Turkey has been coordinating some of its activities with Iran.

The position of Washington on all this is somewhat ambiguous, as the United States finds itself in a delicate situation. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is a major U.S. ally. On the other, the main American air force and naval base in the region happens to sit on the territory of Qatar. The U.S. criticized Qatar for supporting terror, but also announced it is selling the country F15 fighters a week after the Arab boycott started. The $12 billion deal highlighted Qatar’s strategic importance to the U.S.

The Saudis are in danger of setting a precedent for all Qatar’s neighbors, themselves included

As Qatar is getting support from Turkey, Iran, implicitly the U.S. and probably also Pakistan, its position in the conflict is strong. It remains rather unclear what has motivated the Saudis to start the crisis and lead the anti-Qatar campaign.

If Riyadh’s goal is to force a regime change in Qatar by getting Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to step down, the Saudis are in danger of setting a precedent for all Qatar’s neighbors, themselves included. Sunni monarchies forcing a Sunni ruler to abdicate is a risky game. The campaign may backfire on Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain.

The squeeze on Qatar might benefit only the Palestinian authority in Ramallah. Qatar apparently was the main supporter of Hamas, which governs in Gaza, and is in many ways opposed to al-Fatah, which controls the Palestinian authorities on the West Bank. Significantly, the leadership of Hamas is stationed in Qatar, not in Gaza or Ramallah.

Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt appear solid lately, based on shared interests. Israel traditionally has had a good rapport with Qatar, in spite of Doha’s alleged sponsoring of radical groups.

Stability, stupid!

Similarly to Oman, Qatar frequently offered its good offices in the region. It played a mediator’s role, for example, in the negotiations with Afghanistan’s Taliban. It stuck to its notion of neutrality also in the case of the Arab rivalry with Iran.

Until now, the Arab Peninsula was generally stable – with the exception of Yemen – in the context of the tumultuous Middle East. The situation surrounding Qatar now adds another potentially explosive conflict to the arc of crises that stretches from North Africa and the Sahel Zone to Central Asia.

All this shows the complexity of interactions in Middle Eastern politics. Frequently, they are not understood well enough by foreign, especially Western, actors, whose interventions often make the conflicts only worse.

Europe’s stake

Stability in Qatar is crucial for Europe. The Gulf state plays an increasingly strategic role as a supplier of natural gas to Europe. Its sovereign fund has made considerable investments in major European companies such as Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and many businesses in the United Kingdom. It is an important partner in the French government’s investments in Lagardere media group and energy company Total and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space (EADS). 

The most important consideration, though, is security in the Middle East. The Sunni monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula have preserved stability and a broader prosperity in the area, even if Westerners are prone to criticizing them. The last thing that Europe needs now is further undermining of its southern neighborhood from Morocco to Central Asia.

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