As the months drag on, it’s possible that the so-called “Gulf Crisis” — in which Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt severed trade and diplomatic relation with Qatar — will simply be the new order of business in the region.
On Wednesday, Qatar’s foreign minister said that he sees no sign that Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf region are willing to negotiate on the sanctions they’ve slapped on Qatar since June. Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism — a charge Doha denies — and question what they see as the Gulf nation’s close ties with Iran.
So far, the move to isolate Qatar has only forced the country into a closer relationship with Iran, which has been sending food supplies to Qatar and increased its access to Iranian airspace. Qatar, meanwhile, has restored diplomatic relations with Iran, saying it will send an ambassador to Tehran — a move that has infuriated the U.A.E.. In January 2016, Qatar recalled its ambassador to Iran after the Saudi embassy there was ransacked in protest over the execution of a Shia cleric in Riyadh.
“I think one of the most notable implications of the rift is the warming of relations between Qatar and Iran,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Middle East Policy. “It’s no surprise that the Qataris are looking for hedging strategies… and it’s not surprising that Iran jumped into the void — it’s typically very good at capitalizing on regional opportunities.”
Qatar has never seen Iran as as much of a threat as Saudi Arabia, plus, they share the world’s largest gas field, so there’s a practical dimension to the relationship.
“The Qataris are also sending a signal to the other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states in launching this blockade that they have other options,” said Kaye. “That’s an incredibly disturbing signal to send to the other states… This is suggesting that it’s going to be even more difficult to mend relations within the GCC anytime soon. This trend is likely to continue with Qatar and Iran.”
Additionally, she thinks there will be more tensions even within the U.A.E. as Dubai will likely defy Abu Dhabi and continue its robust trade with Iran. “Certainly any hope for strengthening any Sunni coalition against Iran is made all the more difficult with this rift… It’s going to be something that’s nearly impossible to do.”
Indeed, former Amb. Richard LeBaron, who has served in several countries, including Kuwait and Cairo told ThinkProgress that at this point, it’s even less likely that the GCC will become a “serious security organization” with the next decade.
“These events of the past few months are going to leave some deep scars,” said LeBaron.
There’s also the issue of what kind of governance Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. want to impose on the region, with neither one of those states having a model that can withstand criticism or opposition. “These two countries really think they have a strong model of governance and they don’t like to be criticized,” said LeBaron.
That’s where Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood comes in. “The Muslim Brotherhood is a foil for the notion that these Emiratis or Saudis don’t want to tolerate any form of political Islam that they don’t sanction.”
The United States has not only been ineffectual as a mediator in the crisis, but has at times fanned the flames of acrimony in the Gulf with President Donald Trump’s mixed messages. Trump has, at times, praised Qatar and then accused it of supporting terrorists. In the initial days of the crisis, there were conflicting statements from the White House and the Department of State. At the behest of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump eventually tried a more diplomatic tone.
LeBaron, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, characterized Trump’s handling of the situation as “unfortunate.”
“It’s never a good thing when a U.S. administration is sending mixed messages… The quieter we are about this, the better,” said. “But the damage has already been done… This was not something we were looking for.”
A months-long simmering tension among the deepest pockets in the region isn’t what anyone else was looking for either, especially the African nations that rely on good trade and diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Some, such as Somalia, have tried to remain neutral while others, such as Chad, have sided with Saudi Arabia, cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar.
“This does seem like we’re looking at a longer term shift with very two very entrenched positions,” said Ahmed Soliman, Africa researcher at the U.K.-based Chatham House.
Qatar, said Soliman, has been positioning itself as a monitor and mediator in the region, for instance, mediating the Darfur Peace Agreement (also known as the Doha Document for Peace) with Sudan.
“The Qataris have been quite actively, over the years, supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups further afield…the Muslim-Brotherhood leaning government in Sudan is an example and in Somalia, where there has been a strong Muslim Brotherhood presence and political Islam has very strong roots in that country as well,” said Soliman.
Political ties, financial investments and the developments of ports and military bases along the eastern coast of the Horn of Africa could be “threatened by this continuation of crisis within the Gulf,” said Soliman. “It can have implications for regional stability.”
Somalia, for instance, is coming out of a 30-year civil war with a federal government that requires international military support as well as financial support in order for it to maintain its existence and credibility. Sudan has strong ties with Qatar and has recently reestablished its relationship with Saudi via its military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Sudan has remained neutral thus far, although it remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia will take that neutrality as essentially siding with Qatar.
And even if there’s an agreement with the Gulf states themselves, those repercussions could linger further for countries in Africa and the Horn of Africa who have been reliant on support for many years. For instance, Somalia’s livestock trade – which relies heavily on annual exports to Gulf Arab countries, particularly over Eid holidays that involve the slaughter of sheep and goats – was to be affected over loyalties (or lack thereof) in the Gulf, would take a big hit if loyalties were demanded and trade relationships broke down.
“We don’t know where this Gulf crisis is going to go, we don’t know what the repercussions are going to be, long-term, internally, within the Gulf, and once you decide to cut a benefactor, a supporter… That will have consequences, long-term,” said Soliman, describing this as “a very delicate time” for the region.