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The GCC in Troubled Waters

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • June 13, 2017

    The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt cut off diplomatic relations as well as air, sea, and trade links with Qatar on June 5, 2017, accusing it of funding terrorism. Of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Kuwait and Oman did not act against Qatar while Kuwait has since been engaged in mediation but without any visible success so far. The crisis has affected Qatar, which is the world’s largest Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) exporter, with the highest per capita income at $127,660.

    President Trump’s role

    US President Donald Trump paid a two-day state visit to Saudi Arabia starting on May 20. While newly-elected US Presidents traditionally go either to neighbouring Mexico or Canada, Trump chose instead to go to Saudi Arabia. The foundation for Trump’s unusual choice was laid in mid-March 2017, when the KSA’s Defence Minister, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, 31, son of Saudi King Salman, came to Washington on an invitation from Secretary of Defence James Mattis. The Saudi Prince was invited for lunch with Trump as a huge snow storm delayed the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Trump was scheduled to meet.

    Trump used the opportunity to get closer to Riyadh which was already in a hostile confrontation with Iran. Trump’s moves gelled with his policy of getting tough with Iran, and his keenness to undo as much of Barack Obama’s legacy as possible. It was agreed during the meeting with Prince Salman that Riyadh would place orders for a huge amount of arms and equipment and also pledged to invest in a big way in the US.

    During Trump’s visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia successfully projected itself as the undisputed leader of the Arab/Muslim world by inviting over 50 heads of state for the ‘Arab-Islamic American Summit’. Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and others spoke at the Summit about the need to stop the funding for terrorists. It was reported that some of them told Trump that Qatar had not stopped sending money to terrorists.

    In short, King Salman had the confidence at the end of the visit that if there was a move to break off diplomatic relations with and to humiliate Qatar based on its ‘funding of terrorism’ charge, Trump will approve of such a move. This was confirmed when Trump tweeted claiming credit for the isolation of Qatar shortly after the Gulf states broke off diplomatic ties.

    Mixed signals from US

    While Trump claimed credit for Qatar’s isolation, the Pentagon made it clear that there were no plans to move the US Central Command air base in Qatar which has 100 aircraft and 11,000 military personnel. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobile, on June 9 called for an early resolution of the crisis through talks and urged Qatar to do more to stop the funding of terrorism. Trump meanwhile later on the same day publicly reiterated his support to King Salman and said nothing about an early resolution of the crisis through talks. The mixed signals might be deliberate, or more likely, a reflection of the inherent incoherence of the Trump Administration.

    Cyber war against Qatar

    The Qatar News Agency (QNA) on May 23 carried a story, later deleted, that the Emir of Qatar, while speaking at a military graduation ceremony, had flagged tensions with the Trump administration, and that Qatar had good relations with Israel, praised Iran as a strong Islamic power and reiterated that Hamas deserved support. The hacked twitter account of the Qatari Foreign Minister spoke of plans to withdraw ambassadors from Egypt and elsewhere. The KSA and UAE dismissed the Qatari claim that the QNA had been hacked, despite two teams from the US and the UK concluding that the hacking operation might have started in April.

    Qatar’s response

    After the initial shock as a result of the cutting off of diplomatic ties, Qatar has reacted with a degree of sobriety and calmness. It has not taken any retaliatory action against KSA and others. Egypt has 300,000 of its nationals in Qatar. Though Egypt’s air space is closed to Qatar, the Egyptians in Qatar have not been expelled. Qatar has been in touch with Turkey, Iran, Germany and Russia. Turkey’s Parliament passed a resolution authorizing the government to send troops to Qatar where a Turkish base has been under construction for a while. Arrangements have been made for food items to come from Iran and Turkey. Denied entry into the airspace of its neighbours, Qatar Airways planes now fly over Iran and Turkey.

    Roots of the confrontation

    Essentially, Riyadh resents Qatar’s independent foreign policy. For Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Al Jazeera, the popular channel owned by Qatar, is the bete noire. Qatar’s only land border is with Saudi Arabia. In 1992, there was a clash at the border and two Qatari soldiers were killed. In 2002, Riyadh recalled its ambassador from Doha over critical coverage of KSA by Al Jazeera. The ambassador returned only in 2008.

    In August 2013, when Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani took over as the Emir of Qatar, Riyadh had hoped that there would be a change in Qatar’s policy. The expected change did not happen and in March 2014, KSA, UAE, and Bahrain withdrew ambassadors, who were sent back in December of the same year. At that time, Qatar had entered into long bilateral negotiations and might have given certain assurances. It is evident therefore that the issue is not the ‘funding of terrorism’, but Qatar’s support to Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and Al Jazeera’s coverage of KSA among other policies that has attracted the ire of the KSA and UAE.
    There is also the suspicion in Riyadh that Qatar is getting too close to Iran. However, Riyadh cannot realistically expect Qatar to join it in a confrontation with Iran for the simple reason that Qatar and Iran share the gas field South Pars, the largest in the world. A look at the map shows that if blockaded by KSA, the only way Qatar can be in touch with the rest of the world is through Iran.

    India’s stance

    India wants harmony and stability in the region. There are 8 million Indians in the GCC and their remittances home at about $36 billion is of great importance to India. The country further imports about 75 per cent of its hydrocarbon requirements from the GCC. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a press release on June 10 urged all parties to ‘resolve their differences through a process of constructive dialogue and peaceful negotiations based on well-established international principles of mutual respect, sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries’. The MEA further stated that ‘international terrorism, violent extremism and religious intolerance pose grave threat not only to regional stability but also to the global peace and order and must be confronted by all countries in a coordinated and comprehensive manner’.

    How will the crisis end?

    A few scenarios can be envisaged:

    • Qatar agrees to align its foreign policy with that of Riyadh and to rein in Al Jazeera. This is most unlikely.
    • Kuwait manages to bring out a compromise saving face for all parties. This is probable.
    • Qatar has reached out to Iran and Turkey to reduce the inconveniences arising out of the diplomatic and economic blockade by its three GCC neighbours. This policy could be strengthened in the near future.
    • The blockade seriously affects the functioning of the Central Command’s air base at Al Udeid. The US steps in and promotes a compromise. This is highly probable.

    The GCC has discussed plans to have a common currency and common defence forces. It is an important contributor to regional stability and harmony. A prolonged confrontation can hurt the GCC and the wider region. The GCC should treat the crisis as an opportunity and fortify its internal coherence. The well-wishers of the GCC including India should help out in the process.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.