[Opinion] Tensions in the Arab World hit a flashpoint recently after Saudi Arabia and surrounding nations turned their underlying discontent with neighbouring Qatar into a full-blown excommunication. But questions remain, namely why and what does it mean for the region?
The official line remains that diplomatic ties with Qatar have been severed following the country’s failure to combat terrorism, with Saudi Arabia going so far as to accuse the country of directly supporting religious extremists and jihadist groups in the region both financially and through the provision of arms.
Indeed, it is believed that Qatar may have recently sanctioned the paying of a $1bn ransom to jihadists in Syria to secure the release of a 27-strong falconry group believed to have included a number of members of the Qatari royal family. Those jihadists were believed to have been linked to both al-Qaeda and to Iran.
However, the concept of Saudi Arabia exiling a country for reportedly funding and supporting jihadist and extremist groups in the region comes with a great deal of hypocrisy.
For the past two decades, Saudi Arabia has been accused of doing exactly the actions that it has used to justify the isolation of Qatar. British foreign policy links, and in particular arms dealings, with Saudi Arabia have been repeatedly condemned and scrutinised due to the country’s poor track record of combating extremism in the Middle East.
Even so, the country appears to have support from the United States President Donald Trump, with this declaration against Qatar coming just days after his visit to the country.
It is that, added with the fact that Qatar is a much smaller country with considerably less pushing force in the region compared to its neighbour, which has left Saudi Arabia in a position where it clearly feels it can now push through these sanctions and actions.
That timing, almost as soon as it saw it had the support – or at least it wouldn’t have the scrutiny – of other major world powers is what makes this move feel ever more suspicious, and which makes the idea that this move is actually being motivated by different factors that are being masked by the terrorism angle ever more plausible.
Tensions between Qatar and the rest of the Sunni Muslim region have existed for years, simmering beneath the surface. Saudi Arabia, in particular, have long held disapproval of the Qatari emir’s rule.
In a region ruled by absolute monarchies, whereby the expectation is for the Sunni Muslim countries to stick tightly together, the Qatari emir’s foreign policy approach to Iran – a Shia Muslim nation and a major regional advisory to the Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia – which was to encourage dialogue and better relations was seen as entirely taboo and the source of great disapproval.
Then there is the emir’s other cherished project, one which also generates a lot of discontent among neighbouring countries’ autocrats, the news organisation Al-Jazeera.
The Qatari emir sees Al-Jazeera as an agent of positive change across the Arab world, allowing the opening up of political debate and providing a voice to the people – in a region long known for crackdowns on political dissent. This was seen no more clearly than during the coverage of the Arab Spring uprising across the Arab World.
Those in power in the surrounding area, unsurprisingly, don’t share similar views of this being a positive, instead seeing Al-Jazeera’s impact and coverage as a direct threat to their rule. As such, the idea of those countries using the blockade of Qatar as a method of shutting down the news organisation’s impact in their countries is an entirely plausible – and particularly worrying – theory.
If true, it would show that the leaderships of these countries believe they are now in a position to entirely sever ties with a smaller country simply to shut down uncontrolled news.
The move to isolate Qatar, which relies heavily on using its only land border – which it shares with Saudi Arabia, and which is to be soon closed – for food imports, meaning there is a risk that Qatar will suffer from food shortages and therefore likely some form of inflation, possibly even hyperinflation.
As such, it would appear that these countries are willing to use extreme methods to target the freedom of the press in order to secure the stability of their own rule, and feel they can get away almost unaffected by such actions.
Given the support of the US President and lack of condemnation from the rest of the world’s leaders, it appears they would be correct in that notion too, which is possibly the most concerning going forward.
The only country to address the crisis and offer a peaceful solution, somewhat surprisingly considering the are in a similar position geographically to Qatar and therefore also risked angering neighbouring countries, was Kuwait, which called for calm in the immediate aftermath of the move and offered to facilitate dialogue and negotiations. The proposal was quickly rejected by Saudi Arabia.
As such, all we can hope for is for this crisis to quickly and natural reach a conclusion and tensions resolve themselves in the region.
Worryingly, however, there currently appears to be no sign of any real progress towards a settlement, but rather the reverse. The rift seems to be both deepening and widening as the week progresses.
Both sides have taken to their various existing connections have begun throwing further attacks at each other. Qatar appealed to the Human Rights Council about the border closures, whilst several member states of the Arab League have backed an anti-Qatar campaign.
Both Turkey and Russia consolidated their support and friendship to Qatar, with Turkey passing laws to allow far quicker troop deployment to the Gulf nation, whilst Russia invited the Qatari foreign minister to Moscow for talks about support.
In all, the situation appears to show no signs of cooling anytime soon, and that presents a very worrying picture for the world beyond, as further instability in the Middle East is about as far from what anyone could possible want at this time – especially in an area where for so long the world has relied upon dependable, if not necessarily democratic, stability.