Gulf diplomatic crisis: Qatar must choose between supporting Iran and bridging the gap with UAE

While Qatar may not have thought that its fellow members and neighbours would ever come together and take such a consolidated action, now it has to take a decision on whether to back off needling these countries by aligning itself with Iran or rework its diplomatic strategy.

Bikram Vohra June 05, 2017 20:21:43 IST
Gulf diplomatic crisis: Qatar must choose between supporting Iran and bridging the gap with UAE

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are leading the boycott of Qatar ostensibly over its support of terrorist elements. And they are not alone. Joining these nations in what is the sharpest rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are Yemen, the Maldives and Egypt. There could be more.

Gulf diplomatic crisis Qatar must choose between supporting Iran and bridging the gap with UAE

File image of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (left) and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in Saudia Arabia. AP

The sudden move is not indicative of a misunderstanding but a collective and concerted effort to send an unequivocal message to Qatar to stop playing games and either be in the West Asia partnership or risk being isolated. The move to break diplomatic ties and then back it with a freeze on flights causes a serious split in the relationship and has been done with considerable thought and intent.

For this reason, alone, the rest of the world must be prepared to feel the ripple effect. From aviation to tourism, shipping to intermodal usage for commerce, things have changed overnight. The UAE has given Qataris two weeks to leave the country; Emirates and Etihad are closing down their flights. Diplomatic mission staff are being recalled. These are not halfway measures and have come after several warnings and a great deal of endurance by these countries.

The inside story could possibly be a caution, asking Qatar not to get too cosy with Iran; something that was ignored and treated with derision. A couple of weeks ago, a Qatar News Agency report was hostile to Saudi Arabia and others in the region for their attitude towards Iran and their status as "client states" of the United States.

The state heads meeting in Saudi Arabia to discuss terrorism and other issues with United States president Donald Trump were mocked. Things went from bad to worse after the Trump trip, when Doha neither read the writing on the wall nor appreciated the ire of its neighbours. Even though Qatar said the website was hacked and denied the statement, the damage was done. It ripped a relationship that had turned fragile in the last few months with Qatar almost overtly helping radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

However, there is a school of thought which believes that Doha wished to scuttle what it saw as an effort by the Saudi-United States alliance to encourage a Sunni initiative in creating a nexus with Iran. It has not taken long to blame Washington for this boycott.

The United States immediately responded to the boycott with Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, calling for damage containment and urging the involved nations to clear the air but that will not be enough. If anything, Washington finds this impasse a matter of grave concern.

Another nation that would be watching this closely is China, because, now it has to plan how to tiptoe through this minefield. Qatar has also been asked to leave the Saudi-led 41-nation coalition that is currently combatting terrorists. For a region already facing schisms and refugee problem in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, the GCC has always stood as a bastion of unity.

While Qatar may not have thought that its fellow members and neighbours would ever come together and take such a consolidated action, now it has to take a decision on whether to back off from needling these countries by aligning itself with Iran or rework its diplomatic strategy to extend a solid and fathomable reassurance that it is back in the flock and will not be playing backdoor games or engaging in intrigue.

That said, it is not going to be easy. In the Arab world, friendships are based on trust and once that trust is bruised, it is very difficult to return to status quo. In the early hours of this crisis, one still has not been able to wrap their head around the developments which have been breathlessly swift. The world may at this moment fail to appreciate the gravity of this split but unless it is addressed frontally and Qatar is placed on the mat, more nations could join in its isolation. This is not something that will be resolved with a thump on the back and an apology.

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