On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, ending their trade with it and imposing an unannounced embargo. They accused Qatar of sponsoring terrorism by supporting groups like Hezbollah, ISIS and Muslim Brotherhood and undermining regional stability by getting close to Iran. This was preceded by a well-orchestrated media show to set the ground for such an aggressive course of action.
This has added a new toxicity in the brewing cauldron of Middle East, scratching old fault lines and making strange bedfellows.
Journey from 13 Demands to Six Broad Principles:
On 22 June, 2017 Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt issued a list of 13 demands to Qatar to comply with within 10 days, to end the Qatar-Gulf crisis. The list, inter alia, included severing of diplomatic and military ties with Iran, ensuring trade and commerce with latter abided by US sanctions; closing of Turkish military base in Qatar and shutting down Al-Jazeera news channel. It also called for Qatar to shun all links with a broad spectrum of terrorist groups, which included as ideologically diverse groups as Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Arab allies demanded Qatar not to give sanctuary to political dissidents and make its political, economic and military policies subservient to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Calling these unreasonable demands that were draconian and deliberately designed to be rejected and labeling the list as an act aimed more at impinging the sovereignty of an independent state than ending a diplomatic rift, Qatar did not comply. The two-day extension of deadline did not yield much in terms of ending the crisis. Sensing a want of requisite support for their laundry-list of demands, and wanting to strengthen their diplomatic position, the four states presented a list of six principles in Cairo on 5 July. Superseding most of the previous demands, the six principles call upon Qatar to commit ‘to combat extremism and terrorism in all its forms’ and prohibit ‘all acts of incitement…which promote or justify violence and hatred’. They also state that Qatar refrain from interfering in their internal affairs; abide by the Riyadh Agreement of 2013 and the supplementary agreement of 2014.
The boiling down of 13 demands to six principles does indicate the realization on the part of four Arab states the impracticality of some of their demands and despite their statements to the contrary, might herald a diplomatic thaw with Qatar. Moreover, the support Saudi Arabia and its allies expected from Trump administration to stand behind them and press Qatar did not fully materialize. Despite purported US slant towards them, the latter has tried to play more of a balancing act than overtly taking sides.
Issues Hindering the Resolution of this Crisis:
On July 11, 2017, CNN claimed it had exclusively obtained the documents of secret agreements, done in 2013 and 2014, between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors. The existence of these agreements was an open secret, but their contents were never revealed. These documents not only allude to the sources of tension between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors in past but a careful perusal of them also gives an insightful peep into the present crisis. In a handwritten 2013 agreement, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia mutually agree not to support Muslim Brotherhood and groups/individuals out to subvert the regional order. In addition, they would not ‘support any faction in Yemen’, an obvious reference to Houthi. In a supplementary agreement the following year between Qatar and four other Gulf states, they reiterated their commitment to the Riyadh Agreement, also calling for all countries to further ‘Gulf Cooperation Council discourse to support the Arab Republic of Egypt…ceasing all media (sic) activity directed against the Arab Republic of Egypt…including all the offenses broadcast on Al-Jazeera’.
The tensions between Qatar and Gulf countries long precede the current diplomatic crisis. The latter have considered Qatar to be getting too big for its britches; asserting its regional clout through policies independent of GCC, mediating between Hamas and PLO, brokering a deal between Houthi and Yemeni government, facilitating a negotiated ouster of Abdullah Saleh, playing an instrumental role in some of the population swap deals between Syrian government and rebel forces. Qatar was the most enthusiastic cheerleader when NATO forces established a free-zone in Benghazi and in violation of it, toppled the government of Gaddafi. It championed the causes of both Egyptian and Syrian protesters. But more importantly, the launching of its satellite new network Al-Jazeera in mid-1990s was a watershed. In the suffocating environment of information landscape in Middle East, Al-Jazeera has proved to be a whiff of fresh breeze. Its critical approach towards monarchies and espousing of causes like democracy and grassroots movements and its engaging and informative documentaries, has made it a household name in Arab world.
So far Qatar has been able to hold its ground and have not caved in. Its MoU with America does indicate that it is willing to concede on some issues. An emboldened Saudi Arabia expected full support from Trump administration to endorse its aggressive policies against Qatar, but after the initial fireworks occasioned by Trump tweets, America has been treading a diplomatic approach to help resolve the issue through talks and bargain. The neutrality of Kuwait and the critical help of Turkey and Iran, a minuscule population with huge financial reserves, have also helped Qatar to weather the boycott and embargo of Saudi and its allies.
How do four Arab countries resolve the paradox of an abrupt backtracking with its accompanying cost of credibility and the intransigence of sticking to some of its impractical demands, is a moot point. The journey from the laundry-list of 13 demands to six broad principles alludes to Saudi and its allies’ concession on some issues and this might have the potential to be a springboard for a negotiated settlement of Qatar Crisis.
Efforts at Mediation:
Gulf Crisis has prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity on the part of different states, offering their good offices to mediate a negotiated settlement between Qatar and the four Arab countries. The most important has been the American role. Just immediately after the diplomatic rift and boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its allies, Trump, toeing the line of boycotting states, tweeted his support to them and called Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism. Ironically, the next day, Trump made a call to Qatari King, offering to mediate in the Gulf Crisis, which prompted Vali Nasr to quip wittily, “Should Qatar believe his tweets of yesterday or his call today?”
The subsequent statements coming from State Department and Pentagon indicated an approach that signified American efforts to maintain neutrality and help resolve the conflict. Saudi Arabia is a long time strategic ally and Qatar hosts largest American base in the region. Later American Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, embarked on four-day trip to Gulf to help resolve the Qatar Crisis. He met with Kuwaiti and Saudi Kings and signed an MoU with his Qatari counterpart Shaikh Mohammad bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani, in which Qatar reiterated it would shun all links with terrorist groups and halt their funding. Though both states refused to link this MoU to Gulf Crisis, it is obvious it was part of American diplomacy to appease four Arab states and make them find an alternative solution.
Rex Tillerson was accompanied by British National Security Advisor Mark Sedwill and Kuwaiti mediators. Kuwait’s role in GCC has not always aligned with other members. It has pursued policies taking into account ground realities in Kuwait and an independent outlook. Kuwait played the role of a mediator in Yemen crisis byhosting UN-sponsored talks between different factions. Given its one-third Shia populations, it has tried to be a bridge between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Kuwait did not send ground troops in Bahrain. Thus, the role of Kuwait as a genuine mediator is recognized on both sides. Though, it has come under increasing pressure from other Gulf states to take a stronger stance against Iran.
Pakistan too offered to mediate in the Gulf Crisis. Qatar accepted its offer and its foreign minister visited Pakistan, but it was curtly snubbed by Saudi Arabia.
Implications for Pakistan
Pakistan had not fully disentangled itself from the quandary of Yemen, when four Arab states severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, boycotting it and imposing an unannounced embargo. For Pakistan, the Gulf crisis is like ‘one woe treading upon the another’s heel’. Pakistan, despite its slant towards Gulf monarchies, has tried to dance a delicate balancing act and not to take sides in rivalries of regional powers, be it in Yemen or Syria. Pakistani parliament decided against sending troops to fight in Yemen against Houthi. Pakistan has refused to tilt towards any party in Syria. However, sending of Raheel Sharif to head the Saudi-led Islamic Alliance has put Pakistan in hot water, scrambling for all sorts of explanations, giving mixed signals and at times threatening to back out of the alliance.
Pakistan enjoys close relations with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The former hosts nearly two million Pakistani and is a source of huge remittances. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has stood by Pakistan in hard times and has been a source of secret dole outs. Current ruling family’s indebtedness to Saudi Arabia in hosting them after the military coup of 1999 and facilitating their return is unlikely to take any position that alludes to its support of Qatar. On the other hand, Qatar too host more than one lakh Pakistanis, but more importantly Pakistan has signed with it a 15-year LNG supply deal to end electricity crisis and diversify its sources of energy. Qatar’s role in trying to take out the ruling family from the political lurch is an open secret. Choosing one over the other is a difficult choice for Pakistan. The opportunity cost of tilting any side would be huge. Best course of action for Pakistan would be to stick to its policy of neutrality and resist the temptation of taking sides in conflicts that have no immediate bearing on it.
Sajid Ali is a IPI Resident Scholar specializing in Middle East affairs.