Q&A | The Qatar blockade explained, by Stian Overdahl

On June 5, Saudi Arabia and the UAE led several of their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies in implementing a trade and travel blockade against Qatar. They claimed the small country, also a member of the bloc, was funding terror groups in the region and encouraging political instability through that and other means. Stian Overdahl, who writes frequently on issues related to the MENA region, outlines the background to the ongoing crisis, and whether he thinks the current stalemate can be broken to Sarah.

Why did the blockade on Qatar start, and what is the current situation?
Saudi Arabia and the UAE – the two main parties in the dispute – have claimed that Qatar is a sponsor of terrorism; that it supports Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas; that it is getting friendly with Iran, the arch-nemesis of Saudi Arabia; and that its media – especially Al Jazeera – create regional instability by providing airtime for Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood, and also criticising Arab rulers, who normally control their domestic media.

The autocratic rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their political security, whereas Qatar is seen to be supporting groups such as the Brotherhood that are agitating for change in other countries in the Middle East. It’s worth noting too that Qatar is intensely autocratic – political parties and demonstrations are banned. That’s just one of the many strands of hypocrisy that run through this dispute.

Read further analysis of the Qatar diplomatic crisis by Stian

More generally, what Saudi and the UAE really dislike about Qatar is that it maintains an independent foreign policy, whereas they would like it – as a far smaller member of the six-country GCC – to essentially abide by their ‘rules’ and pursue the same foreign policy objectives as they do.

Currently the situation seems to have reached a stalemate. Rex Tillerson, the United States Secretary of State, has visited the region to try to resolve the crisis.

What are the extremist groups Qatar is said to be helping to finance?
It’s a longish list. In the mid-90s, Qatar was home to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who would later mastermind the 9/11 attacks; in 1996, when the United States wanted to arrest him, he was tipped off by Qatari officials and fled the country. In recent years, Qatar has been linked to al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda spinoff group in Syria – they changed their name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in 2016. Qatar has to some degree admitted this, saying that it was a mistake made in the chaos of war, and pointing out that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States were also sharing weapons with armed groups in Syria.

Qatar has also been a home to many members of ‘extremist groups’, including the Taliban, who have been engaged in informal peace talks with Afghanistan and US government representatives. Meanwhile, both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist group, but it hasn’t been designated as such by the United States or the European Union, since the nature of the organisation varies from country to country, and it has also proven willing to engage with democracy – when it is on offer.

As a side note, the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an ally of Saudi Arabia and the UAE who is participating in the blockade, is accused by rights groups of presiding over a regime that has used summary executions as a means of political repression, and has jailed tens of thousands of Egyptians in horrific conditions since he deposed a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013. So it’s hard to see a moral high ground.

There has been criticism of the blockade as being a “publicity stunt” aimed at tarring international perception of Qatar. Do you think this is likely, and why?
I think that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are more concerned with bringing Qatar to heel and establishing hegemony over the GCC bloc than international opinion per se. The public relations game is just one tool in their efforts, along with the economic embargo. Regardless, Qatar seems to have emerged fairly well from this dispute, having managed to paint Saudi Arabia and the UAE as bullies picking on their far smaller neighbour.

“The public relations game is just one tool in their efforts, along with the economic embargo.”

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that Qatar had already managed to tar its international reputation fairly well all by itself, due to the international outcry about its treatment of overseas workers on construction sites, especially those connected with the FIFA World Cup, which it will host in 2022. Its system of work visas has been likened to slavery, and many workers have died or suffered injuries while working on construction sites.

What are some of the potential impacts of the blockade on the strength of the GCC?
Certainly the GCC as a bloc is weakened, since we can expect that economic plans for greater cohesion within the bloc will be on hold, as well as other plans including coordination of defence and intelligence. At the very start of this campaign, the calculation of the Saudi-led bloc seemed to be that Qatar would accede to their demands, which would have strengthened the hand of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. However, since Qatar has managed to resist their demands, Saudi Arabia and the UAE now look weak.

Saudi Arabia is also waging a pointless an internationally unpopular war in Yemen along with the UAE, and is reliant on the United States and the United Kingdom continuing to sell it weapons and munitions. The head of the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, Bob Corker, has called for weapon sales to Saudi Arabia to be suspended if the blockade doesn’t end. If this dispute drags on, it may put more pressure on weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, and bring more unwelcome attention to the humanitarian costs of the war in Yemen.

What has the social impact of the blockade been so far?
From my conversations with residents in Qatar, I hear that there have not been any major effects on ordinary life. Supply chains have been able to be re-routed, food has been brought in from Turkey and other countries. 4,000 cows have been flown in to create a domestic milk industry – previously milk had come from Saudi Arabia. The biggest impact is on GCC citizens, who had enjoyed open borders within the bloc, and some have family members in different Gulf countries.

Families have in some cases been separated, and there are cases of people that have been resident in Qatar for their entire lives being asked to leave because they hold a different GCC passport. There certainly has been disruption for the business community and there is a lot of uncertainty, but Qatar is an incredibly rich country. Its exports of natural gas have not been disrupted, so it looks able to weather the storm.

What are some of the potential impacts in terms of international relations?
This dispute arose because the Saudis and Emiratis saw a novice in the White House, and decided to take advantage of that. It’s a sign that the volatility and lack of adherence to traditional policy positions of the United States in the person of President Trump may have ripple effects around the world, undermining stability and creating a more ‘liquid’ geopolitical situation. National leaders are more willing to chance their hand with their own agendas if they see the US as distracted and its influence waning. In the present dispute, all the Gulf states are US allies, and Qatar is home to the largest United States Air Force base in the Middle East, so the US is one loser here.

“This dispute arose because the Saudis and Emiratis saw a novice in the White House, and decided to take advantage of that.”

If this dispute drags on for a long period, we may see Qatar drift away from the GCC, and realign itself with new allies such as Turkey. Other losers are countries, especially in Africa, that have been receiving aid from both sides of the dispute – including Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti. These countries will now have to pick a patron, impacting their inflows of aid and development funds; hat tip to Karen Young, Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, for this point.

Do you see any plausible possibilities for resolution?
Most analysts seem pessimistic about any kind of diplomatic resolution coming soon. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have said that they are willing to continue with the embargo for as long as it takes. Personally I’m more optimistic that it may be resolved sooner. The approach taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE is damaging to their own economic interests, and they have been unable to convince the international community to support their actions. Their ‘appeal to terrorism’ has not worked.

The solution will need to be engineered by US diplomats, especially the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. If the dispute drags on it may create domestic political friction for the Trump administration. Bob Corker has said he will block arms sales to Saudi Arabia if there’s no resolution, and for Trump the arms contracts signed between the US and Saudi when he was in Riyadh is one of his few notable achievements since taking office – even though the $110bn figure was vastly exaggerated.

With US diplomatic pressure now on the Saudis and Emiratis, it will be up to them to mull over what concessions they want, what they can realistically hope to achieve, and what outcome they can realistically sell to their populations as a victory. Qatar, meanwhile, may need to grant some concessions. Of course even if the countries manage to paper over their differences, the true effects of this dispute will likely be long-lasting.

Stian Overdahl is a journalist, and Managing Editor at zenith magazine in Berlin. Read further analysis of the Qatar diplomatic crisis by Stian.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.