Democratisation in the Gulf
The happenings in Qatar must be assessed along religious lines and not strategically. The crisis is the beginning of an effort to end democratisation process that was initiated since the Tunisian revolution
Sanctions as a diplomatic tool to persuade and compel behaviour of states has been employed since the beginning of the international system. Though sanctions are aimed towards realising objectives, such as restoring democracy or preserving human rights in actual working, they have often been used to promote partisan interests of a nation or alliance of nations. Recent developments in the Arab world ie, diplomatic and economic channels with Qatar, is the latest example of using of sanctions as a tool to silence dissent.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a confederation comprising Muslim countries in the Arab Peninsula, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on grounds that the latter was supporting extremism and harbouring terrorists, which is a threat to peace and stability in the region. Member countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), cut off all forms of communication; closed down air and water spaces for vessels originating from Qatar; demanded Qatari nationals to leave their country; and urged their citizens to return to their respective nations.
The decision sent shock waves across the Arab world, particularly because it could weaken GCC-sponsored ongoing military operation against the Islamic State (IS) in the Arab Peninsula in which Qatar has a crucial role. Additionally, Qatar hosts the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest US military base in the region from where US has been overseeing its operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, most importantly, its current military operations against the IS. Besides, there are economic as well as humanitarian concerns too.
The immediate impact of the blockade, in terms of increase in oil prices, are on the table. However, Qatar can also shut down natural gas supply to the UAE, Oman and other countries, pushing the regions to an energy crisis, thereby affecting the economic stability of the entire region. Also, there is an issue related to immigrant labour. Qatar is predominantly inhabited by immigrant labourers. Diplomatic cut offs will mean a withdrawal of large amounts of skilled laborers, such as doctors, engineers many of whom are engaged in World Cup related activities.
However, the most notable spillover can certainly be if other regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, decide to intervene. This development will shift the geopolitical balance in the region; construct new alliance blocs; open fault lines among Arab countries in the face of a looming threat from the IS; thereby pushing the region into a more deeper crisis. However, besides the immediate implications, the present crisis demands a deeper analysis.
The present crisis reflects brewing tensions between Saudi Arabia, other GCC members and Qatar over issues such as role of religion, particularly Islam, and its role in the Arab public sphere, radicalisation of Islam and its influence in the Muslim world, demand for democratisation of institutions and civil rights for citizens, and, most importantly, the need for a more independent Arab politics with minimum interference from the West, particularly the US, has been the ground for these tensions.
Various GCC members have for long tried to ward off the demand for democratisation through direct use of force, legitimised through religious discourses. Monarchies across West Asia have, from time and again, used religion to consolidate their domestic constituencies through promoting religious ideologies with strong anti-US or anti-European sentiments. However, these measures went hand -in-hand with their external policy of joining hands with the US. Thus, these regimes have strengthened their power base against domestic and international demands for a more accountable regime based on popular mandate. These apparently contradictory concerns are to be read alongside the continued interest of Western powers in West Asia since colonial times.
Post-British period witnessed a heightened intervention of the US in this region which adopted a stand of actively supporting regional monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait for strategic returns such as military bases, oil, natural gas. The US also allowed these monarchies to organise the Arab world under the leadership of Saudi Arabia so as to prevent the emergence of anti-US politics, while allowing the nations to use the language of religion.
Thus, the GCC has simultaneously embraced the ideology of terrorism and counter-terrorism produced by the Anglo-American media-intellectual enterprises, often instrumentally employing ‘religious extremism’ or radicalisation of Islamic youth so as to strengthen the prevailing hegemony of Saudi Arabia, the US within the region. These contradictions have drawn fault lines within and between the Islamic states, producing a fragmented Arab polity. For example, Iraq and later Iran, who have challenged the Saudi leadership and its close association with the US, have been projected as potential threat to the Arab stability.
Thus, under the aegis of protecting this ‘threatened stability’, the US has assisted several GCC countries to maintain monarchial regimes which have adopted repressive and ideological apparatuses rejecting democratic rights. However, the fragmented nature of Arab polity has provided space for alternative politics and Qatar is part of this emerging trend. Qatar, even while being part of this region, attempted to move out of this sphere of influence. Even while hosting one of the largest US military bases, Qatar has adopted a principled distance from the Muslim politics and interventions from the US.
Qatar has, thus, proposed a closer association and engagement with Iran. It has also actively attempted to integrate the Shiite politics within the larger Sunni politics which dominates the GCC. Besides, Qatar has also encouraged the development of a critical liberal space in terms of allowing growth of independent media establishments such as Al Jazeera, which have been increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia and its role in toeing line of US foreign policy at the cost of sacrificing larger Arab interests. Besides the ruling Prime Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, has also tried to promote general education through training and hiring human resources, which is reflected in the general literacy level of Qatar.
All these efforts point to the emergence of critical space within the Arab world which has increasingly detested the current GCC policies as it’s largely dictated by the US and Saudi coalition and alienates Islamic republics such as Iran as the actual problem. This critical space supported by Qatar, through media mouthpiece such as Al Jazeera, has threatened the prevailing monarchies encouraging movement in the Arab world, demanding more representative regimes, which has recently spiraled into ousting of totalitarian regimes in Egypt, Tunisia etc and actualised the possibility of an alternative and autonomous Islamic politics outside the ambit of US imperialist interests with focus on devolution of powers to people and establishment of democratic regimes.
The present diplomatic fallout is an attempt to maintain grip over the Arab world. Any rapprochement between Iran and other Arab countries would certainly threaten the current discourse of Islamic solidarity which fails to identify the US as the problem. Qatar has often cited several US interventions as anti-democratic and being partly responsible for the problem in West Asia, encouraging the need to evolve a policy perspective that favours interests of Arab republics rather than the US or monarchies alone. This particular line of thought is now being targeted and the current crisis is the beginning of an effort to end the democratisation process that was initiated since the Tunisian revolution. Thus, this process needs to be assessed along these lines rather than as a strategic issue.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, at Department of Political Science, Sayd Abdulrahman Bafakhy Tangal Memorial Government College)
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