Gulf Council In Peril

Qatar

Qatar’s decision to strengthen relations with Iran and Turkey may turn out as self goal

By KP Fabian

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) composed of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirate, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain formally established in May 1981 is in crisis. The GCC Charter stipulates that the purpose is “to effect coordination, integration and inter-connection between Member States in all fields in order to achieve unity between them.”

The 1979 Iranian Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini that felled Shah Mohammed Reza increased the sense of vulnerability of the GCC monarchies. It was noted that the Shah fell despite his decade’s long alliance with US. Further, Khomeini threatened to export revolution to the neighboring countries. He was totally opposed to dynastic rule. Washington encouraged the formation of the GCC partly as a counterweight to Khomeini’s Iran.

CURRENT CRISIS

The current crisis erupted when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt formed a Quartet and cut off diplomatic, trade, and transport links with Qatar on 5th June 2017. Earlier, President Trump had visited Saudi Arabia (20/21 May 2017) where he was received with unprecedented fanfare. About 50 leaders including heads of state joining King Salman in welcoming President Trump on his first visit abroad. It is believed that Trump was asked and he had given a green signal for the Quartet’s plan to break off links with Qatar.

The Quartet did not come out with any list of demands. But, it was evident that the Quartet led by Saudi Arabia was unhappy over Qatar’s rather independent foreign policy; they wanted Qatar to terminate its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood; shut down Al Jazeera and the Turkish base; and scale down relations with Iran. When US publicly scolded the Quartet that it had not clearly listed its demands, 13 demands were brought up with a 10-day deadline to meet them. The list was handed over to Kuwait on 12th July. Qatar cleverly publicized the demands to the chagrin of the Quartet.

It is necessary to briefly comment on the demands. Qatar has been following a foreign policy not always aligned with that of Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s insistence on independence is understandable as it is a question of sovereignty. The Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt in 1928 is not a terrorist organization. President Morsi, the first democratically elected President of Egypt, was removed in a military coup carried out with money and diplomatic support from UAE and, possibly, Saudi Arabia in July 2013. Qatar was a strong supporter of Morsi. It is not reasonable to demand that Qatar should always follow the Saudi lead.

Al Jazeera is a professionally run channel and it is not reasonable to demand that it be shut down. If the channel has been unduly critical of any GCC member state that should be corrected. There is no need to shut down the channel. The Turkish base has been there since 2015 and it has been recently strengthened only because Qatar feared a military intervention. There have been unconfirmed reports that UAE had contacted the US company Black Water used by the Pentagon in Iraq to train mercenaries for such an intervention in Qatar.

Coming to the demand to downscale or cut off relations with Iran, this is not a reasonable demand. Qatar and Iran share the largest gas deposit known as the South Pars and Qatar has to do its utmost to maintain good relations with its large neighbor.

As expected, Qatar ignored the deadline, but signaled that it was ready to negotiate. The Quartet replied that it wanted Qatar to surrender first before talking.

INCOHERENT US POLICY

If such a crisis had occurred when Obama was President, Secretary of State John Kerry would have rushed to the GCC capitals and resolved the crisis using US clout. Under Trump, Washington has failed to address the issue.

 Initially, Trump tweeted firm support to Saudi Arabia and insisted that Qatar should ‘stop funding terror’. His Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense General Mattis reminded Trump that the biggest US air base in the region is in Qatar. Eventually, Trump came round. He promised to have a Camp David style meeting with him chairing it. Saudi Arabia did not find it necessary to accept the invitation. One doubts whether Trump has the stamina and tact of a Clinton or Carter. Tillerson has visited Riyadh and other capitals more than once, but so far to no avail.

KUWAITI AMIR’S ROLE

The most important mediation has been attempted by Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, eminently qualified to engage in the delicate task that requires diplomatic skills of the highest order. The Amir, Foreign Minister from 1963 to 1991, has successfully handled intra-GCC disputes earlier. That the mediation has not yet borne fruit is unfortunate. But, the fault is not of the mediator. He can only facilitate a resolution if and if only both the disputants want a resolution.

QATAR’S MATURE RESPONSE

Qatar has demonstrated patience, maturity, and sound judgment in abundant measure. It could have thrown out a few hundreds of the 200,000 Egyptians in Qatar and President El Sisi of Egypt would have lost domestic support for his policy against Qatar. Similarly, Qatar continues to supply gas to UAE. The Amir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and its Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani have always avoided using harsh language against the Quartet. There have been reports of attempts to effect regime change in Qatar. But, Doha has invariably avoided verbal attacks.

INDIA’S STAKE

India wants to see an early resolution of the crisis. It believes that the crisis has affected adversely all the GCC member states. The IMF has assessed that unless resolved soon the crisis will affect economic growth.

India’s total trade with the GCC amounts to $ 643 million in 2015-16.The GCC supplies half of India’s oil imports. There are 8 million Indians in the Gulf and their remittance back home is essential support for lacks of families. In short, instability and tension in the Gulf will affect India adversely.

India should not see the GCC merely as an economic opportunity. There are millennial many-splendored human ties and an obvious common security interest.

WHAT NEXT

The next GCC summit is due in Kuwait on 5/6th December 2017. Bahrain has said that it wouldn’t sit with Qatar and it wants to ‘freeze’ Qatar’s membership. The GCC charter requires unanimity for such decisions. Obviously, Bahrain’s proposal will not be accepted. The summit might be postponed.

Already, the Quartet has scored a few self-goals: Qatar has strengthened relations with Iran and Turkey. Reported attempts at regime change have failed and there is no reason to believe that future attempts might succeed.

It is highly probable that sooner or later, sooner rather than later, the Quartet will ask Kuwait to arrange for a compromise and the mediation will succeed. If not, Washington might have to impose a settlement. If neither a compromise nor a settlement is reached, the GCC will cease to be. Let us pray and hope that wisdom will prevail and that the GCC will be restored to good health.

Author is a retire IFS who served as Ambassador to Qatar, Italy and various other countries.