On 5 June 2017, unprecedented sanctions were levied against Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. The story is still unfolding and has already garnered substantial international attention. For those who know the region well, the reasoning behind the Qatar sanctions is not surprising—accusations of supporting terrorist organisations, its propagation of biased news coverage, maintaining ties with Iran, etc.—given that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been locked in a regional power game since the 1990s. However, this latest conflict seems to be of a heightened nature, with more severe sanctions directly affecting citizens, and the hacking of news sites and email accounts in order to control the narrative. What is also interesting is the increased international attention and the repeated call for that diplomatic dialogue between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc, despite most countries clearly taking sides in the rift. But it is unclear what a truly constructive dialogue would look like, particularly in this case. While it is a lofty goal, overtly optimistic, and would require a radical rethinking of international relations norms, perhaps now is the time to consider what a new paradigm for diplomatic dialogue would entail. A space for meaningful discussion between world powers and diplomats that would foster mutual understanding and result in lasting change, rather than the continued reemergence of long-standing rivalries that result in heightened conflict.
Background of a rivalry
One must put the recent sanctions in the historical perspective of Qatar’s frigid, and oftentimes contentious relationship with the majority of the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain (Oman has largely stayed out of the conflict and Kuwait has maintained ties with Qatar). The rivalry can be traced to 1995, when then crown prince of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, took power from his father in a bloodless coup. Sheikh Hamad unapologetically made it his mission to bring Qatar to the level of Saudi Arabia, economically and politically, and to create a Qatar that was a regional power to be reckoned with. For example, he exploited new technologies in energy extraction, and liquified natural gas (LNG) exports from Qatar subsequently skyrocketed between the mid-1990s and 2014, due to the fact that LNG can be transported via ship and bypass Saudi-owned pipelines.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also had territorial disputes for decades, intermingled with merely symbolic gestures of diplomacy. It was only in 2008 that Qatar and Saudi reached a definitive agreement on their borders, which had initially been set in 1965. This was followed by a diplomatic visit to Doha by Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, marking what many thought would be an easing of tensions after the Saudi ambassador left Doha in 2002 and after Saudi Arabia withdrew its approval of Qatari plans to build two regional gas pipelines in 2006. Moreover, in 2010 at the request of the Saudi King, Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad pardoned an unknown number of Saudi citizens accused of an attempted coup on the then Qatari Emir, which seemed to further ease relations.
However, the Arab Uprisings of 2011 marked a turn in Saudi-Qatari relations, transitioning into a full-on proxy war of information and regional influence. Qatar was seen as backing opposing sides from Saudi Arabia, namely in Egypt, where the Qatari funded Al Jazeera news outlet was accused of bias coverage that favoured the protesters. The pro-opposition coverage of Al Jazeera was then countered by Saudi Arabian funded Al Arabiyya—a news outlet created in 2003 as a response to Al Jazeera (the latter was launched in 1996). The coverage of the Arab Uprisings was exemplary of the two kingdoms’ use of their respective news outlets in a media proxy war for regional influence, pushing Qatar closer to the status of ‘regional power’. However, when Sheik Hamad abdicated in 2013 due to health reasons, he left power to his 33-year-old less experienced and less tenacious son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. This in turn marked what many believe to be the end to Qatar’s ambitions to overtake Saudi Arabia as the dominant power in the Gulf.
Regional tensions go beyond the Saudi-Qatari relationship though, with the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt joining in on Saudi Arabia’s alienation of Qatar, many of their actions based on accusations of Qatari terrorist support. In March 2014, the UAE sentenced a Qatari doctor to seven years in prison on charges of supporting al-Islah, an Islamist political society seen by the Emirati government as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—the latter deemed a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE. This was closely followed the same year by the three countries cutting ties with Qatar for eight months based on allegations of supporting the Brotherhood, hosting the ‘hostile media outlet’ Al Jazeera, violating the 2013 GCC security agreement, and interfering with other GCC countries’ affairs. While this particular quarrel was resolved, the root issues remained in the minds of Qatar’s neighbours. Shortly thereafter, in 2015, the UAE government was revealed to have hired a British firm to promote the UAE’s foreign policy agenda, including publications that accused Qatar of funding terrorism. Late the following year, there was an attempt made by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to mend ties with Doha by making a diplomatic visit.
To be fair, Qatar has taken a relatively congenial stance towards Islamist organisations that are deemed terrorist groups by many other nations, namely Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. In May 2017, Doha hosted Hamas representatives for several events, and the Gulf nation has openly supported the Palestinian group in their bid to supersede Fatah as the ‘true representative’ of the Palestinian people. The U.S. government has also claimed that the Qatari government is supporting extremist groups in Syria, as well as turning a blind eye to fundraising on behalf of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. No substantive proof of this exists though. Qatar is now facing even more pressure for Hamas to withdraw from Doha, where the organisation’s political bureau has been headquartered since its move from Damascus in 2012.
A ’war of information’ escalates
The escalating diplomatic tensions in the Gulf can largely be seen as a war of information. As with news media, computer hacking has played a significant role in the current quarrel between the GCC countries and Qatar. On 23 May 2017, the Qatar News Agency’s website and Twitter account were hacked, publishing what Qatar claims to be a false statement by the Emir of Qatar, which criticised Donald Trump’s hostile stance against Iran and affirmed Qatar’s good relations with Iran, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The following week, on 4 June, a series of emails were leaked to the Huffington Post, which showed the UAE’s Ambassador to the U.S. denigrating Donald Trump, as well as revealing a close partnership with a pro-Israel think-tank in Washington, DC in efforts to ‘discredit Qatar’.
On Monday 5 June 2017, the region’s relations crumbled. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt (as well as the Maldives and one of the three rival governments of Libya), all cut ties with Qatar, based on the hacking, the allegedly false comments Qatar’s Emir made in May, and the continued argument that Qatar supports and funds terrorist groups. Jordan, Mauritania, Chad, Niger, and Senegal have also downgraded relations with Qatar. On Friday 9 June, claims that independent hackers from Russia were behind the leaked comments from the emir arose, but this was later dismissed by the Washington Post, which stated that the information war is more likely homegrown.
The actions taken against Qatar that followed have included the banning of air, land, and sea travel to and from Qatar, and the closing of Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini, and Egyptian airspace to Qatar Airways. This has massively disrupted global air travel (Doha is one of the main international hubs between Europe and Asia), and has affected thousands of the airline’s employees. Saudi Arabia closed its land border the same day, which was also a significant escalation from previous measures against Qatar. This means that now Qatar is wholly reliant on air and sea freight for imports, as the Saudi kingdom is Qatar’s only land border. Moreover, approximately 40 per cent of Qatar’s food comes from Saudi Arabia.
On the afternoon of 5 June, Iran made a statement calling for dialogue between Qatar and its GCC neighbours. The following day Turkey also expressed the need for dialogue and the easing of tensions. Both Iran and Turkey have promised to deliver water and food aid to Qatar (Iran has sent five planes of food thus far), and Turkey has ratified legislation allowing 3,000 Turkish troops to be deployed to the region in support of Qatar. Kuwait also stepped in, sending its emir to Saudi Arabia on 6 June to help contain the crisis, and later to the UAE putting an emphasis on the need to for serious and substantive talks between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Regional trade and labour have also taken a hit from the sanctions, with aluminum exports from Qatar temporarily blocked by the UAE, and migrant workers forced to return home or being barred from working in the Emirates. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have all mandated their nationals to leave Qatar immediately or face sanctions, and for Qatari citizens to return home in the next two weeks. The Philippines also banned workers from traveling to Qatar last week, though the ban was later partially lifted. Qatar says that it will not expel foreign workers, showing an effort to refrain from retaliatory policy moves against GCC citizens. The small nation will however seek reparations from the Saudi-led bloc, as the Qatari National Human Rights Committee is trying to hire an international law firm to handle the case. The diplomatic crisis has raised global concern about the accessibility of Qatar’s gas exports – on Tuesday Exxon Mobile said they would be unaffected, though Shell began diverting U.S. liquified natural gas to Dubai on Thursday 8 June.
A few of the sanctions taken against Qatar follow the aforementioned ‘information war’ rhetoric of the region, altering how citizens can access information, communicate, and even express themselves. Al Jazeera channels and websites have been blocked in Saudi Arabia and its regional allies, as well as Qatari newspapers al-Watan, al-Raya, al-Arab, and al-Sharq. Back in May, Egypt blocked 21 Qatari websites on accusations of terrorism support and false information. The UAE also closed postal services to Qatar, essentially blocking any outflow of mail. But perhaps the most extreme control placed on communication and expression is the criminalisation of outward signs of sympathy for Qatar. The UAE Attorney General Hamad Saif al-Shamsi declared that doing so could result in a sentence of 3 to 15 years in prison or a fine of $136,000 USD. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have since implemented similar measures against expressing solidarity with Qatar.
Outside of the region, Washington’s relationship with Qatar has now entered a complicated phase of contradiction. President Trump expressed his hard stance against Qatar and his favour of Saudi Arabia on Twitter shortly after the tensions began, and after his recent diplomatic visit to Riyadh on 20 May. Trump tweeted “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding… extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”. The U.S.’s official political stance is one of close cooperation with Qatar against IS. While Trump lambasts Doha, the U.S. is simultaneously continuing its military relationship with the small Gulf country. The largest U.S. military base in the region, Udeid Air Base, is in Qatar, with some 100 fighter jets and 11,000 troops. On Wednesday 14 June, Qatar’s Ministry of Defense signed a deal with the U.S. to buy 36 more F-15 fighter jets for $12 billion USD. The same day, two U.S. Navy vessels arrived in Doha for what is reportedly a ‘joint exercise’ with Qatar’s military.
Is it time for a new paradigm?
Along with the discord in the region itself, the rift has split other global powers, while only a few are simply calling for dialogue. Donald Trump tweeted that Qatar is a backer or terrorist activity, and reiterated U.S. support of the Saudi royal family and its allies, as have Israel and Pakistan. Turkey and Iran are clearly in defence of Qatar, and have given their material support. Russia, France, Iran, Turkey, the U.S., Oman, and particularly Kuwait have been stressing the importance of resolving the situation as soon as possible, despite most taking clear sides. It may seem obvious that dialogue is the way to solve a cold conflict, however meaningful discussion between Qatar and its GCC neighbors is unlikely to occur at a substantive level, with a long-term impact or conciliation. It has also been a personal attack for many Qataris—Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways told Al Jazeera English on 15 June that “This is a wound that will last for generations… people will not forget”. The multifaceted and multiplayer conflict exemplifies the need for reimagining diplomatic dialogue, or at least how a more effective paradigm might begin to look. This can begin with regional mediators, such as Kuwait, leading discussions, rather than Western powers stepping into a conflict laden with historical and cultural factors they may not understand, let alone relate to. While military action is not seen as likely (as of yet), it is still unclear how this tangled mess of influence and conflict with be resolved with few repercussions felt by the region’s citizens, as well as international players.