UAE and Saudi Arabia's boycott of Qatar creates rift between US allies in Arab Gulf, compromises Washington's grip on Iran

A shift in traditional alliances found in the Arab Gulf has become apparent in the wake of Saudi Arabia and the UAE's year-old trade embargo on Qatar.

AP June 04, 2018 14:17:00 IST
UAE and Saudi Arabia's boycott of Qatar creates rift between US allies in Arab Gulf, compromises Washington's grip on Iran

Dubai: At a time when the United States hopes to exert maximum pressure on Iran, a regional bloc created by Gulf Arab countries to counter Tehran looks increasingly more divided ahead of the anniversary of the diplomatic crisis in Qatar.

A coalition of Arab Gulf countries launched the economic boycott of Qatar which stopped Qatar Airways flights from using their airspace, closed off the country's sole land border with Saudi Arabia and blocked its ships from using their ports.

The lack of cooperation among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has already seen the US limit some military exercises. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also been sent to the region to urge allies to end the boycott of Qatar, a tiny, gas-rich nation.

The GCC consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On 5 June 2017, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Egypt, cut ties to Qatar, citing its close links with Iran and Qatar's alleged support for extremist groups in the region.

UAE and Saudi Arabias boycott of Qatar creates rift between US allies in Arab Gulf compromises Washingtons grip on Iran

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has been publicly criticised by UAE and Saudi leaders for his close ties with Iran. Reuters

Amid the dispute, Qatar restored full diplomatic ties with Iran. And just like Iran after the US pulled out of the nuclear deal with Tehran, Qatar appears to have no interest in ceding any ground, having already decried the demands as an affront to its sovereignty.

Ahead of the anniversary, Qatar's Government Communication Office began sending messages out with the hashtags "movingforward" and "Qatarstronger."

That leaves the GCC adrift at a time of regional tension.

The GCC has long been viewed as a regional counterweight to Iran and crucial for the US military. Bahrain hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet and Kuwait is home to US Army Central. UAE military bases host American fighter jets, drones and soldiers, while Dubai's Jebel Ali port is the navy's busiest foreign port of call. Qatar's massive al-Udeid Air Base holds the forward headquarters of the US military's Central Command.

While hosting no troops, Oman does allow US forces access to its bases and serves as a crucial go-between for America and Western diplomats and Iran. Saudi Arabia also relies on US military support for its ongoing war in Yemen against Shiite rebels there.

The Qatar dispute has seen a public reordering of the GCC, with Saudi Arabia and the neighboring UAE taking an increasingly neoconservative foreign policy, as seen in their military intervention in Yemen. Ties between Abu Dhabi's crown prince, 57-year-old Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have grown closer. Bahrain, long dependent on Saudi money to aid its troubled economy, cast its lot with Saudi and the UAE.

Kuwait, ruled by 88-year-old Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, has sought to mediate the dispute. It hosted a GCC summit in December that it hoped would bring the bloc together. Instead, it only saw the UAE and Saudi Arabia upstage it by announcing its own closer union.

For Oman and its 77-year-old ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the country has sought to maintain its own separate diplomatic identity from the larger GCC. The sultanate's ports also have become a crucial lifeline to Qatar.

Both Kuwait and Oman feel the pressure of the diplomatic dispute. The two countries have yet to prepare for the coming generational leadership shifts that await them, as there is no clear successor to Sultan Qaboos, while an internal dispute among the branches of Kuwait's ruling family remains likely.

The two have also undoubtedly seen the criticism by Saudi and Emirati media of Qatar's ruling emir, 38-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, which has included promoting exiled Qataris as possible leaders for the country. Open criticism of ruling families is extremely rare among Gulf Arab nations, even during the border disputes in the 1990s that saw some skirmishes.

Threats of military action were also directed towards Qatar in the early days of the crisis. The combined troops and equipment of Saudi Arabia and the UAE dwarf those of Kuwait, Oman and Qatar's armed forces.

Gulf Arab nations have relied on US military power as a safety net since former president Jimmy Carter's 1980 pledge to use force to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf. The aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War cemented that, as has America's reliance on Gulf bases for its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, it remains unclear what options the US would have in a confrontation between Gulf Arab nations themselves, even though one does not look imminent.

Gulf states also have grown increasingly wary of President Donald Trump who initially came out in support of the nations boycotting Qatar, only later to back off. Investigations into Trump also have touched the UAE and Qatar, while nations involved in the dispute have spent millions of dollars on Washington lobbyists and influence peddlers.

For now, the crisis has improved ties between Qatar and Iran. The Islamic Republic immediately opened its airspace to Qatar Airways after the boycotting nations blocked its routes and sent food and other goods into Doha. In return, Qatar has restored full diplomatic relations with Iran, with which it shares a massive offshore natural gas field.

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