Qatar does not have much room to manoeuvre in the wake of the blockade being imposed upon it; the wave that threatens to engulf the small Gulf State is big and strong. Furthermore, the polarisation in the region no longer allows for the usual Gulf way of making-up by kissing beards, noses and foreheads. The conflict this time seems very different to previous tiffs, distinguishing the emirate from its older neighbours.
It seems to me that Qatar has but two options. It can comply with the conditions set out by the Arab Quartet of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, but this would be suicidal for Qatar, as it would destroy all that it has built over the past two decades. It would also be an explicit acknowledgment that there is some substance behind the accusations directed against it, which are serious enough to mark it out as a “rogue state”. Such an option may also have internal repercussions, affecting the government and the ruling family.
The second option is for Qatar to move to the other bank and reinforce its ties with the axis around which it has always revolved and been in its orbit; I’m talking of the axis of resistance. This, though, would also be suicidal for Qatar, not least because it would complicate its regional situation and place it at odds with the US administration, which has labelled Iran as public enemy number one. Washington is trying to overcome divisions within the Gulf and is content with keeping its distance and merely providing advice to resolve the conflict through in-house dialogue.
Doha has given indications in both directions, as it provided Hamas — the political leadership is based in Qatar — with a list of “liaison officers” in the West Bank, asking them to leave the country, just as Turkey did in the past (although Hamas denied this in both cases). Moreover, Azmi Bishara’s announcement of his retirement from politics and his focus on research was not his own decision. The former Knesset member living in exile in Qatar was closer to dismissal than resignation; this was to avoid the pressures of neighbours, near and far.
On the other hand, Doha sent a strong message when Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani initiated contact with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on his re-election, before offering to develop bilateral relations between the two countries. In doing so, he rejected the Riyadh-US-Arab approach that places Tehran at the top of the list of threats to Gulf, Arab and international security. This was a sign of Doha’s willingness to seek alternatives and expand its regional alliances beyond Turkey to Iran itself.
However, the truth is that Doha cannot go too far in either direction: if it succumbs to the Egypt-Saudi-UAE conditions, it risks its past and its benefits. If it jumps into the arms of the Iran-Damascus axis, it risks its future, its security and its stability, as well as the US cover extended over its territories, airspace and territorial waters.
This is why Qatar is looking for a way to absorb and then disperse the trauma as much as possible. In the next few days, we will see attempts by many parties expressing their willingness to mediate and make good between the countries involved. Doha will be the capital happiest to see numerous mediators, as this will buy it some time. It will also help it to soften the sharp edge of the Arab Quartet positions and may allow it to escape from the corner into which it has been backed.
In this context, Doha will show great willingness to make successive batches of concessions and it may take measures to assist the mediators to accomplish their tasks. Such measures may include removing some figures who are not desired to be in Qatar and re-adjust the media discourse. It may also include expressing positions closer to Riyadh, at least verbally, regarding numerous regional portfolios.
Of the four countries that are participating in what is clearly a coordinated attack on Qatar, it seems that Doha is most keen to neutralise Saudi Arabia’s position for various, fairly obvious reasons, of which Qatar’s sole land border — which is with the kingdom — is one. The Qatari leadership does not care what the UAE and Bahrain have to say, and it is not the least bit interested in Cairo’s discourse or speeches.
In the days leading up to the decision to sever ties with Qatar, Doha had tried to direct most of its anger at Abu Dhabi and avoided any sharp criticism of Saudi Arabia. This tactic will continue, and Qatar will seek to dismantle the Arab Quartet front by focusing on appeasing Saudi Arabia and neutralising it. However, the chances of this tactic being successful are very slim on this occasion.
The scenario that Doha does not seem to be thinking about at all is what I discussed a few days ago; there is, possibly, a third option. Qatar should look internally for the solution and re-draw the image of the emirate. Let it take a leaf out of Switzerland’s book, not Sparta’s. It will be able to do so if it possesses the political will and can move from being the “troublemaker” in the regional crises to the position of mediator and a reference point to whom conflicting parties can turn for help. It must transform itself from building dams and walls in the face of initiatives, regional cooperation and integration, to building bridges and platforms for gathering and creating understanding and consensus.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.