As expected Qatar has defied the extortionate demands made on it by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The stage is now set for a prolonged economic blockade and political isolation.
But barring military action, Saudi Arabia and its allies will eventually have to moderate their demands with a view to conducting more realistic negotiations with Qatar. For its part the latter is in a combative mood, as evidenced by its demand for compensation for the damage inflicted on Qatari businesses as a result of the economic blockade.
In the immediate term, Qatar’s defiance deepens a split in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and brings to an end Saudi Arabia’s aspiration of dominating the Gulf through this forum. This split will have significant political and security repercussions, principally on two interconnected fronts –confronting Iran and the shape and cohesion of Western military presence in the region. Until now the West has dealt with the Gulf States as a cohesive block. Clearly, this approach is no longer tenable.
Long-term, provided Qatar can stay the course, then the maturation of a new regional block defined by innovative media, education and political projects can have a transformative political and cultural impact on the region. Above all it can lessen animosity on the two sides of the Gulf and potentially lay the foundations of sustainable regional security architecture.
Qatar’s defiance of the Saudi-led quartet’s demands is potentially a fatal blow to the GCC, the cornerstone of the Gulf States’ fledgling defence and security infrastructure. But this should not come as a huge surprise since as early as 2014 influential voices were doubtful of the six-member bloc’s future.
Whilst the main disagreement back then was between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, there were other ruptures and points of contention. GCC member states’ attitude towards Iran is a hugely sensitive topic and Oman’s historically warm ties with Iran made it impossible from the outset for the Saudis to turn the GCC into an anti-Iranian club.
The key question is can Qatar survive outside the GCC? For a start, Qatar has sufficient financial resources – to the tune of $335 billion in the form of a sovereign wealth fund – and strong diplomatic support in the form of Turkey and to a lesser extent Iran to weather the storm for the foreseeable future. As for the longer-term, some well-informed analysts are adamant that Qatar can survive more or less indefinitely arguing that even impoverished Gaza has survived its siege.
The biggest threat to Qatar’s independence is of course a Saudi-led military invasion. In the short term, the presence of Turkish troops on Qatari soil has sufficient symbolic and diplomatic power to deter an invasion. But longer-term, unless the Turkish military presence substantially increases from the current meagre force (comprised of around 90 personnel), in practical terms it will be next to impossible for Ankara to credibly defend Qatar’s sovereignty.
Whilst an invasion appears to be out of the question for now, not least because the United States appears to be opposed to it, in the Middle East nothing can be ruled out. Qatar’s lack of strategic depth, and its deep vulnerability to an invasion, necessitates radical thinking on defence and security. If Ankara stays true to its original promise of deploying 3,000 ground troops to Qatar then that is likely to materially impact Saudi Arabia’s strategy.
The demise of the GCC, or failing that its loss of cohesion, should be naturally welcomed in Tehran, which in defence and security terms at least has tended to view the GCC as a potential threat. However, previously Iranian reaction to the GCC crisis has been mild and measured. Whilst Iran has sent food to Qatar to ease the blockade, unlike Turkey it has not indicated that it is willing to defend Qatari sovereignty.
Long-term Iran stands to benefit economically from Qatar’s estrangement from the GCC, particularly in the engineering and construction sector, especially as foreign firms are forced to choose between Qatar and the mightier Saudi-Emirati market.
Economic benefits notwithstanding, Iranian diplomacy appears to be still coming to terms with the GCC crisis and in view of multiple differences with Qatar (not least over Syria policy) Tehran is careful not to align closer with Doha. Qatar has also been careful, for obvious reasons, not to closely align with Iran. Looking ahead, if Qatar succeeds in consolidating its independence vis-à-vis the GCC then it has the opportunity to forge closer ties with Tehran. There is far greater potential to moderate Iran’s regional ambitions through engagement than with Saudi Arabia’s confrontational approach.
Beyond its ties to Iran and Turkey Qatar must develop its diplomacy more broadly, particularly in terms of engagement with key western powers, notably the US and the UK. Both powers have substantial interests in the region and up to now they are used to dealing with the Gulf States as a united entity, at least in strategic terms. Qatar will need to employ a skilful balance of power diplomacy to ensure that these influential extra-regional powers continue to support – albeit grudgingly – its independence and sovereignty.
In the final analysis the affirmation of Qatari independence and Doha’s insistence on diversity is an exciting prospect. Provided Qatar makes a success of it then the Middle East stands to become a more vibrant and tolerant place.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.