Creating new perspectives since 2009

Why did the Gulf states withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar?

March 8, 2014 at 1:25 pm

In a collective statement this week, three members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced their intention to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made this surprising move after a meeting in Riyadh. The decision seems to carry more symbolic significance than anything else, not least because two of the three have already left Doha for reasons unrelated to the latest measure. No specific reason was given for the withdrawal other than a general statement that it has been done “to protect security and stability”. So why have these GCC members made such a move?

The most likely factor, as Dr Theodore Karasik argues, is probably related to Doha’s ties with Ankara. The GCC believes that Qatar is returning to its old strategy of pursuing independent policies beyond the council’s blueprint. Doha’s relations with the Turks are leading to major tensions in the Gulf. Turkey, clearly, is one of the countries supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt but demands an armed resolution of the Syrian conflict, particularly to remove Bashar Al-Assad from power in Damascus. The Qatari government aims to link up with the Turks concerning support for the Brotherhood, which places Qatar at odds with countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

However, the issue is a little more complicated. Arab politicians are accusing Qatar and Turkey of setting up intelligence networks in the Gulf to gather information regarding anti-Brotherhood planning and the prospect of GCC support for Egypt. It seems that this accusation goes to the very heart of the issue of “non-interference” in the affairs of GCC countries. Hence, the claim that the diplomatic move is to protect security and stability.

Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood has continued since the current Emir took over from his father last year, much to the dismay of the GCC. It is reported widely that some Muslim Brotherhood institutions continue to operate in Qatar.

To make matters worse, from a GCC perspective, the government in Doha refuses to silence Shaikh Yousuf Al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born Islamic scholar based in Qatar who is a strong critic of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Dr Al-Qaradawi uses his sermons to condemn their policy towards Egypt and its treatment of the Brotherhood there. He has drawn the anger of officials in the Emirates who are looking for some way to get back at Qatar for its unwillingness to do anything about the elderly scholar.

The Ambassador of Qatar to the UAE had already been summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs concerning Al-Qaradawi, particularly his speeches broadcast on national TV which, claims the Emirates, break the reconciliation agreement and promises made by the Emir late last year. It is also said that this measure has some connections to Qatar’s global TV station Al-Jazeera, which is perceived by many to have pro-Brotherhood bias in its reporting.

As tension escalates, Qatar has been told by the UAE to apologise for Al-Qaradawi’s remarks and ban him or there will be “consequences”. These are very strong signals to the Qataris from fellow GCC members.

What will happen next? All of the efforts to set up a GCC Union and to unite the Gulf states as a joint defence strategy for the old order appear to be in disarray. What we may now see is a repeat of events which took place in the early nineties when when cross-border disputes arose between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and roads were blocked to prevent imports and exports of food items. Occasional armed incidents may also occur. Furthermore, we may see the Qataris stirring up tribal discord across the region. That has also happened before, with the Al-Murrah tribe in particular.

Although Dr Karasik argues that Doha may withdraw its diplomatic staff from other GCC countries, I do not believe that this will happen. According to Doha News, the Qatari government has announced that it will not pull out its envoys in a tit-for-tat move.

Some have said that this action seems to be of little significance. The UAE embassy in Doha has pointed out that it has been without an ambassador since late last year while Bahrain’s ambassador has not been in Qatar for personal reasons since Tuesday. Meanwhile, it is reported that the Saudi ambassador was still there on Wednesday.

There is a slight possibility that Qatar will disown Shaikh Al-Qaradawi but the government does not want to appear as if it is bowing to the will of the Saudis and Emiratis. Qatar is also unlikely to change its foreign policy, especially towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nevertheless, there is still a possibility that tension could be heightened by closing airspace to Qatar Airways, which would have serious consequences, or by cutting off trade to Doha by both land and sea. In other words, all forms of informal sanctions are possible if Qatar does not take any steps to change its current positions.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.