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The Qatar crisis and regional ramifications

Published Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The dispute between Qatar and its Arab neighbours remains unresolved and is playing out in other conflict situation across the region.

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The dispute

The disagreement between Qatar and a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia, which built up after the 2011 Arab uprisings, has not been resolved and may even be becoming more entrenched.

The dispute has manifested itself in proxy conflicts across the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa.

Qatar was more positive about political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood after 2011 than Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, which saw it as a threat. Egypt elected a Muslim Brotherhood president who was later deposed in a military coup, leaving Egypt firmly on the Saudi side.

The dispute flared up in 2014, but did not really ignite until 2017, when the Saudi group imposed a trade blockade and severed travel and diplomatic links with Qatar, citing a list of demands, including that Qatar should close the state-funded broadcaster al-Jazeera.

The crisis is related to the power struggle between Sunni Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, and Iran; Saudi and its allies are suspicious of Qatari ties with Iran. The blockade has made those ties stronger.

Qatar is immensely wealthy and has proved resilient. Individual wealth has cushioned Qatari citizens, while the state has cultivated new international contacts using its gas wealth.

The crisis has strengthened Qatari links to Turkey, whose ruling AK Party has strong links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey has troops in Qatar.

As well as strong economic ties outside the region, Qatar hosts the US Central Command forward operating base and some 10,000 US troops. The Qatari base also hosts the UK RAF’s expeditionary air capacity in the Middle East.

The dispute has proved more intractable than many expected.

Differing domestic insecurity concerns drive these policy differences. The Saudi leadership is worried about domestic political dissent, while the tiny and immensely rich Qatari population looks less likely to present problems to the Qatari monarchy.

It is also partly driven by a new generation of decision-makers in the Gulf monarchies pursuing much more assertive policies than those of their predecessors. The most noticeable of these policies is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s war in Yemen.

The same assertiveness may be an obstacle to resolving the Qatar crisis.

The personal nature of foreign policymaking makes it difficult to know how the situation will develop; the individuals involved could equally change their minds and resolve the dispute quickly.

Region

Saudi-Qatari rivalry has spilled over into various conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Sudan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Qatar and Iran have all backed factions both before and since the fall of Omar Bashir.

In Somalia, Qatar and the UAE are engaged in a tussle for control, particularly of ports that would give access to growing African markets.

The main divide in Libya is between supporters and opponents of the Libyan National Army of General Haftar. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt are now close to Haftar, while Qatar and Turkey call for the enforcement of the UN arms embargo against him.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia financed different Syrian rebel factions, although there was some collaboration on the common goal of promoting Sunni rebels against the Syrian government.

The shifting and complex Yemeni conflict is also a theatre for Saudi-Qatari rivalry; Qatar is close to Islah, a powerful party with some features of Islamism, that had several ministers in the Saudi-backed Hadi government. Having been expelled from the Saudi-led coalition in 2017, Qatar may have strengthened its contacts with the Houthis, the Iran-supported group in control of much of Yemen.

The Gulf Cooperation Council used to be one of the only effective regional organisations in the Arab world. Since the Gulf crisis has led to three GCC members boycotting Qatar, the GCC is now effectively suspended.

Qatar left the Saudi-led oil producers organisation OPEC at the beginning of 2019.

UK relations

The UK government calls for the sides to the dispute to engage with Kuwait’s mediation efforts.

The UK has sold arms to the Qataris, including Typhoon fast jets and Hawk trainer aircraft. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund is a major investor in the UK, with more than £35 billion worth of investments, and Qatar is also the UK’s biggest supplier of liquefied natural gas, which makes up a significant portion of the UK’s imported gas.

 

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8690

Author: Ben Smith

Topic: Middle East

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