By Karim Traboulsi
What really lies at the heart of Gulf accusations against the Qataris? American academic and Middle East affairs analyst Professor Gary Sick talks to The New Arab. Emboldened by Donald Trump’s support, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are consolidating their counter-revolution in the region, and Qatar is one of the last few remaining ‘loose ends’ of the Arab Spring.
Much of the current crisis in the Gulf, which has seen the three Gulf countries as well as Egypt cut ties with and blockade Qatar, is a direct result of Doha’s support for the Arab wave of uprisings.
Regardless of how one may specifically characterise Qatar’s position on the Arab Spring, Professor Gary Sick, American academic and analyst of Middle East affairs, says that while Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw the revolutions as a threat to their monarchies, Doha saw them as an opportunity.
This, he says, lies at the heart of their accusations against the Qataris of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, it is not that they see this as support for terrorism and extremism, as much as backing for an agent that has played a key part in the Arab uprisings.
Even though Qatar toned down its initial role in the Arab Spring, it remained at opposite ends with the Saudis and Emiratis’ counter-revolutionary project.
In Egypt, they backed a military putsch against the democratically elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was friendly with Qatar. They managed to install field marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in power following the bloody coup, while Qatar provided for a while moral and political support for the legitimate president, challenging the Saudi-Emirati duo. n Tunisia and Libya, two other Arab Spring countries, the same dynamic has played out: The duo supports remnants and rehashes of the ancien regime, while Doha helped the forces of change hold out if not win.
It is no surprise that the timing of the current crisis coincides with the arrival of the Trump administration. Recall Trump’s hostility to the very notion of the Arab Spring, his censuring of his predecessors for abandoning allies like Hosni Mubarak, and his willingness to strike alliances with strongmen, including the Arab dictators against whom the Arab uprisings erupted.
The timing of the Qatar blockade, mere days after Trump’s visit to Riyadh where he committed the US to a new and improved alliance with the Saudis, is probably not a coincidence, Sick told The New Arab. However, he disagrees that the move against Qatar constitutes the closing chapters of the Arab Spring. “The Arab Spring is a powerful movement,” he stresses. “It’s not over.”
Is this the end of the GCC?
It is hard to conceive how the Gulf Cooperation Council, in the wake of the Saudi-Emirati-led blockade of Qatar, can be made whole again, and both the region’s security and US interests may be harmed as a result.
The Saudis and Emiratis have long accused Qatar of diverging from GCC consensus.
They say Doha-based media cross red lines by criticising their governments and policies, they allege Qatar supports Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and host extremists (Hamas and the Taliban), and are outraged by Doha’s rational policy vis-a-vis Iran.
Most importantly, however, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are appalled by Qatar’s support for the Arab Spring, which they see as a threat to their monarchies, while Qatar sees it as an opportunity for real change in the region in line with the aspirations of people.
But Qatar is not the only GCC member with an independent foreign policy. Both Oman and Kuwait have ‘diverged’ from Saudi and Emirati (and Bahraini) policies. Saudi Arabia and the UAE themselves have had differences, often even profound and violent.
And while Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are trying to drag Washington to their side, emboldened by Trump’s tweets and ignorance, the US establishment itself has not minded Qatar’s independent streak given the advantages for US interests.
“Qatar has always played an independent hand, and (yet) has had a good relationship with the US,” Professor Gary Sick told The New Arab. “The US has benefitted from Qatar’s approach,” especially in regards to launching negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, he added.
Even the hosting of Hamas is beneficial to the US, providing a back channel to the group whose leader lived only a few dozen kilometres from the largest US base in the region.
The Saudi-Emirati sudden and apparently improvised move against Qatar threaten both the survival of the GCC and US interests there, suggested Sick.
Unlike the last crisis, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may have crossed several red lines by imposing a near total blockade on Qatar, including cutting off food and medical supplies.
The Saudis and their allies miscalculated that it would be a quick affair, and that the Qataris would budge, Sick said.
“They believed, like in Syria and Yemen, that the matter will be settled quickly. That is a mistake.”
Qatar, a wealthy country with immense natural gas reserve and powerful friends, has been able to weather the blockade.
However, the longer the crisis drags on, the less likely the GCC could be mended, as Qatar is unlikely to surrender and the Omanis and Kuwaitis may choose to chart their own paths in light of Riyadh’s heavy-handedness and bid for GCC dominance, surmised Sick.
With Turkey relishing the opportunity to strenghen its presence in the GCC, any further escalation by the Saudis and Emiratis could well backfire, with the opposite of what they intended happening: Qatar would become further independent, and the GCC would be emptied of all substance, harming Saudi and Emirati interests first and foremost.
The US also stands to lose. To Washington, Sick explains, one of the top functions of the GCC is military in nature, in that it was desired for Gulf armies to be ‘interoperable’ and able to work together for collective and regional security.
The crisis threatens all of this, and perhaps this is why the US establishment (if not Trump himself) has been trying to de-escalate the crisis, signalling the US base in Qatar and Qatar’s role in the war on terror remain indispensable.
However, according to Sick, the US may end up staying out of the crisis. The differences between what Trump wants and what others in the establishment want is too wide to bridge, and this means there is little chance for major US mediation in the crisis.
US mediation would first “require a resolution of differences in opinion (in the US establishment), which is difficult,” he said.
It appears that the solution to the crisis lies within regional actors’ own hands. However the fear that some states have of the Arab Spring may well mean that further aggressive policies are taken which might drastically reshape the region’s alliances in a short period of time.
Karim Traboulsi is a staff writer and translator for The New Arab