The Gulf Rift

By Assad Bhuglah

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The recent crisis in the Gulf triggered some of most serious American double standards towards Middle Eastern countries, chiefly exemplified by Qatar, a long time US ally and also home to the largest US military base in the Middle East and the command headquarters for US military operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. President Trump participated in the historic Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh and soon afterward several countries declared their decision to isolate Qatar diplomatically and economically. On 5 June, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, citing Doha's alleged support for extremist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. The four countries also sealed their borders off to Qatar including airspace and naval territory. Yemen, eastern government of Libya, Maldives, Mauritania, and Senegal also cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. Jordan and Djibouti downgraded diplomatic relations with Doha. Donald Trump signalled support for the move, describing Qatar as 'a funder of terrorism at a very high level'. The initial reaction by Trump was to support the regional initiative to isolate Qatar on the precept that the country was providing support to "Islamic extremism and terrorism." However, representing one of the most apparent U.S. double standards in recent years, the Congress then approved the sale of F-15 fighters to the Qatar Air Force as the country struggled under pressure from its Gulf neighbours. Saudi Arabian leadership who had been encouraged by President Donald Trump to gang up with other Arab states to impose political and economic sanctions against Doha, must be bewildered by US actions.

The immediate beneficiary from this Gulf rift is no other than the US. Amid Gulf crisis, Pentagon has been able to confirm sale of USD 12 billion jet to Qatar. On the other hand, the US-Saudi bilateral consensus was founded on a bargain, commercial on one side and political on the other. Saudi Arabia signed contracts for US defence supplies valued at $110 billion, with the indication that this could reach $350 billion in ten years. The Kingdom also gave American companies energy and industry development contracts of about $40 billion, and agreed to invest another $20 billion in the upgradation of infrastructure in the US, all of which would create a million US jobs directly and “millions” indirectly. It appears that the Trump Administration’s Middle East policy is aimed at balancing Washington's budget with Gulf money.

The long term beneficiary from Gulf crisis is evidently Israel, which is seeking to exploit the rift between a Saudi-led bloc of Arab states and Qatar to advance its strategic interests in the region both against the Palestinian movement Hamas and against Iran. The Qatar crisis will lead to the side-lining of Hamas and increase the likelihood of violent conflict between the Gulf and Iran – two things that the Israelis desperately want.  Qatar has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into infrastructure projects in Hamas-ruled Gaza to alleviate a mounting humanitarian crisis there, provoked by a decade-long Israeli blockade and a series of military attacks. Israel's strategy is to marginalise the Palestinian issue. The new situation in the Gulf makes it possible for the Arab world to ignore the plight of Palestinians as Israel builds new settlements in the West Bank. It will also provide an important window of opportunity for the Bashar Assad regime to make itself forgotten under the cloud of the crisis in the Gulf. The crisis will have no winners among the Arabs but many losers.

The Gulf crisis has brought to surface the fault line in the Arab solidarity and has perplexed the Muslim world. Kuwait, Oman, Iraq and Morocco have stayed away from the anti-Qatar coalition. The Emir of Kuwait undertook a mediation mission between the Qataris and the Saudis in his efforts to resolve the Gulf crisis. The Turkish President, in his capacity as the current chairman of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), multiplied his mediation efforts to defuse the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Gulf. Ankara is using its influence with Doha and Riyadh to resolve this crisis through dialogue. As a close ally of both nations, Turkey wants to serve as a mediator in an effort to mitigate tensions, help Muslim countries focus on pressing issues and create a common ground for regional powers to join together to restore peace and stability. Turkey is also preparing to establish a military base in Qatar in order to appease the security apprehensions of Doha.

The blockade of land, air and sea routes has made Qatar very vulnerable. Qatar's food which used to be provided by the highways passing through Saudi Arabia, is now being airlifted from Turkey and elsewhere. The Qatar Airways is now facing the inconvenience of linking up with the world because it has to make diversion through Iran and Turkey. Nonetheless, the Qataris hold the view that the Gulf crisis has been a ‘blessing in disguise’ for its seaport, the Hamad Port. The ongoing spat between Gulf countries and Qatar may even help the latter seal new transport deals that do not rely on Gulf neighbours. Hamad port’s imports include large quantities of food and building materials for construction projects including stadiums for the 2022 soccer World Cup, and a metro line running alongside highways that stretch out of Doha

When it comes to natural gas shipments, the UAE needs Qatar more than Qatar needs the UAE. Qatar, the world’s biggest seller of liquefied natural gas, can still access shipping routes to deliver oil and gas to buyers after Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring states barred Doha from exporting through their territorial waters. In principle Qatar should still be able to export via its own waters, Iran and Oman. With an ever increasing domestic demand of Dubai, and a quasi-total reliance on gas to produce its electricity and desalinate its water, the UAE, which depends on imported gas to generate half its electricity, avoided shutting down the pipeline supplying it from Qatar. Without this energy artery, Dubai’s glittering skyscrapers would go dark for lack of power unless the UAE could replace Qatari fuel with more expensive liquefied natural gas.

The Gulf rift is part of the turmoil which President Trump’s visit left behind in West Asia. His tour has exposed the demons of animosity and war. The region needs a strong dose of statesmanship and good sense for peace prospects to be revived. It is indeed a huge challenge to move in this direction, but one must not give up the dialogue initiative that can set some possibilities on the horizon.

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