The Gulf crisis and the blockade of Qatar have reached an important juncture, after seemingly dwindling until a statement was issued by the Saudi Foreign Ministry a few days ago, which gave it new momentum. Since June 2017, the crisis has been on the verge of suffocating Qatar at the hands of, primarily, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Like many before it, this Arab crisis looks set to be long term, having passed its second anniversary with no apparent goals being achieved. This is why an initiative by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, is the most important step in the crisis to date, because it has helped to calm the situation.
When the foreign ministers of the four countries involved in the siege demanded in 2017 that Qatar must comply with 12 conditions, they looked odd. Demanding that it shut down its media and deport clerics or political refugees did not seem to many observers to sit comfortably alongside claims to be upholding human rights, international conventions, freedom of expression and sovereignty. Moreover, the terrorism accusations made against Qatar were unrealistic. It is obvious that Arab discourse is, by its nature, not concerned with the truth or international values, and is still very traditional in its expressions.
How can the terrorism accusations directed at Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt stand up to scrutiny, given that the US signed a memorandum of understanding related to terrorism with the government in Doha in the first few weeks of the crisis? Is supporting factions from the Syrian revolution considered terrorism after the Al-Assad regime killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions? Didn’t all of the Gulf countries back various armed factions in Syria, especially after the first year of the crisis? What about the US support for the Kurdish armed groups in Syria; is that terrorism? What about supporting Khalifa Haftar in Libya against the legitimate government; is that terrorism? And South Yemen’s break away from the legitimate government, is that terrorism too? How about the behaviour of Israel? Isn’t Israel a terrorist state, or does its influence prevent it from being accused of terrorism? Can we accuse the US of terrorism because it negotiated with Iran and is negotiating with the Taliban and North Korea, or because its administration covers up its white supremacist rhetoric and violence against Muslims and minorities? The accusation of “terrorism” is a convenient, off the shelf allegation directed at any and all who disagree with the blockading countries on a political level.
The most that has been achieved by the siege on Qatar is that ordinary citizens are inconvenienced by travel restrictions; they can’t go from Doha to the UAE, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. As a result, free movement in the Gulf has been disrupted strategically because those particular Gulf countries have demanded that their own citizens leave Qatar immediately in light of the threat of sanctions, while Qataris residing in those countries have been ordered to leave. Such decisions have a major impact on the jointly-held Gulf vision for free trade, the private sector and the free movement of capital and labour.
Since the summer of 2017, there has been no neutrality in the Gulf crisis except from Kuwait and Oman. Only in these countries can citizens from all of the Gulf Cooperation Council member states meet. The losses sustained by the Qatari and Gulf citizens as a result of the crisis are human capital losses, as well as losses for the local economy, independent of oil. This has led to an increase of migration among the respective labour forces. There are genuine fears that the kind of decisions that have been made for largely unknown reasons may cause even more instability in the region.
The Gulf crisis and the blockade of Qatar are evidence of emotional reactions and personal positions rather than deliberate and studied policies. The absolute power possessed by leaders can be used for constructive purposes, or they can be destructive. In democracies, the decision to declare war or a siege of another state has to go through several stages, with checks and balances on the way to it being made final. The decision to get involved in the war in Yemen was made in the same impulsive manner as the siege of Qatar, yet the GCC states were involved in it. In the case of the siege, the decision was not discussed by the GCC countries affected by the knock-on effects of the crisis.
Solving the crisis is obviously better than not resolving it, but this will not change the crisis of trust that has spread in the region. Resolving it will not change the fact that Qatar has taken a more independent path than it ever has and it will continue to follow this path. It also will not change the fact that all of the GCC states have new strategies and alliances. The search for a proper, accountable process for political and sovereign decision-making in the Gulf has become a matter of survival. That is the existential crisis now.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 12 September 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.