On June 5, 2017 four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries including Saudi Arabia cut ties with Qatar reproving it of fostering “terrorist” groups and of links to Riyadh’s arch-rival Iran. The gas-rich Qatar was slapped with sanctions and demands that it announces its sincere willingness to stop funding terrorism and extremism and its commitment to not interfere in other countries’ foreign affairs and respond to the 13 demands of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia closed its land border and others snapped air and sea links with Qatar. The Saudi-led bloc demanded the closing down of regional news channel Al-Jazeera and the downgrading of Iran ties and the removal of a Turkish military base in the country. Saudi Arabia said it took the decision because of Qatar’s “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region”, including the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, Islamic State and groups supported by Iran.
The blockade forced Qatar to seek more expensive imports and reroute flights on costly detours over friendlier airspace. Qatar is dependent on imports by land and sea for the basic needs of its population of 2.7 million, and about 40% of their food comes in through the land border with Saudi Arabia. Immediately Turkey and Iran stepped in to provide fresh produce, poultry and dairy products to Qatar instead of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Oman provided alternative ports to those blocked by the UAE.
There was a mounting tension between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbours in recent years seen as a part of tussle for regional leadership. Qatar had supported Islamist movements in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, much to the dislike of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular. It has also been in favour of improving relations between GCC and Tehran.
Qatar is the home to the US Central Command, its biggest concentration of military personnel in the Middle East at Al Udeid Air Base. The sprawling base 20 miles southwest of the Qatari capital of Doha accommodates some 11,000 US military personnel. The US Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations. The base has one of the longest runways of 12,500 feet and can accommodate up to 120 aircraft.
The base was used as staging ground to fly B-52 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2016 . During the Afghanistan campaign, F-16 fighters and E-8C Joint Stars reconnaissance planes that monitor ground units were based there along with refuelling tankers. The base houses the forward headquarters of the US Air Force Central Command, Combined Air and Space Operations Centre and the 379th Air Expedition Wing. The Combined Air and Space Operations Centre (CAOC) oversee US military air power in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and 18 other nations.
The USA has to do a balancing act between controlling Iran through Saudi Arab and simultaneously maintaining its base in Qatar. No American military strategy will succeed in Middle East without Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base. The USA will definitely try to broker some peace by asking Qatar to make some changes in the anti terrorist laws of their country, but Qatar may not agree with the Saudi’s demand of a broader definition that names entities and persons connected with Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist. Even United States does not consider Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. But creating a data base of terrorists by Qatar will impress the USA and in return USA will let Kuwait do some mediation between Qatar and blockading countries.
In the meantime Qatar has filed a complaint with the with the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body against the “siege countries” over an “illegal siege” imposed by its Gulf neighbours. Qatar is facing a similar situation to that of Nicaragua in the eighties, when the latter approached the International Court of Justice and got full compensation.
Bereft of much of international support, the tough stand taken by Saudi led group appears to be diluting. Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United Nations is now talking in terms of agreeing on six general “principles” by Qatar on fighting terrorism and extremism. Qatar no longer needs to shut down Doha’s Turkish military base, expel problematic residents or close Al Jazeera, among other things. The six new principals basically constitute a commitment from Qatar’s side to combat extremism and terrorism in all forms and show compliances to Riyadh Agreement of 2013 and the 2014 and the outcomes of the Arab Islamic American Summit held in May 2017 in Riyadh. These are, on the face of it, very innocuous and give a safe passage to Qatar and face saving to Saudi led group.
Qatar is, not surprisingly, getting support from NATO allies of USA as well when the Saudi led GCC group is trying to tame the country. It just recently signed a 5 billion euro ($5.9 billion) deal to purchase seven naval vessels from Italy. Qatar, which is the world’s largest liquefied natural gas exporter, is also among the world’s biggest spenders on military equipment.
The NATO’s entire military industrial complex is dependent on the buyers from Gulf countries. The industrial complex of the NATO countries, facing recession, cannot afford to lose a customer like Qatar and lay off its employees. Saudi Arabia and other countries probably did not factor in these issues before announcing the blockade. They were probably on high after Trumps Summit in Riyadh and few tweets by the American President. Saudi Arab also miscalculated the business interest of Trump in Saudi Arabia and counted too much on US support. They should better be aware that the geopolitics of modern times is guided by the business concerns, markets and very little on ideological and religious moorings.