Qatar crisis: Implications and options
India has deemed it prudent to consider the Qatar–Arab states’ feud as an intra-GCC affair. But if the crisis is not resolved soon, India will have to throw aside this pretense of neutrality and take a position consistent with its counter-terrorism policy
It is three months now since the Qatar–Arab states feud erupted with no thaw in sight in near future. The global powers have high stake in the stability of the Gulf region because of its strategic significance for energy security and they would prefer to contain the spillover effects of the present crisis to prevent further destabilisation of the region. The crisis began with the announcement of severance of diplomatic ties and an economic and political embargo by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt against Qatar, including the closure of sea, land and air access.
This was followed by a charter of 13 demands for Qatar to implement. The crucial demands included the following, which were by no means new: (a) cut off all ties with internationally and regionally designated terrorists and terrorist organisations, including the Muslim Brotherhood and its spiritual mentor Yousuf Al Qaradawi; (b) shut down all media channels, including Al Jazeera, as the four countries considered them platforms for the spread of extremism; (c) stop the dilly-dallying approach on and flirtations with Iran, and; (d) disband the Turkish military base.
It is important to understand why the Saudi-led coalition had to take a maximalist position against its Arab sibling. What are the dominant narratives around the dispute? Is the present crisis one of Qatar’s own making? Does the Qatar’s narrative of victimhood for pursuing a “relatively liberal, reformist and democratic” role in the region hold truth? Many important commentators, mostly trained in the western mode of reasoning, have argued that the Saudi-UAE-led moves against Qatar, particularly the demand for closing down Al Jazeera, amounts to a counter-revolution against the forces of Arab Spring. How true are such narratives?
First of all, Arab Spring did not seriously affect the Gulf region, except Bahrain. The united GCC military moves under Saudi leadership and with Qatari participation it quickly foiled the politics of Arab Spring in Bahrain. Oddly, hardly anybody accuses Qatar of counter–revolution for this. Its participation in the Yemen civil war under Saudi command also does not elicit the charge of counter-revolution. Second, the Arab Spring actually had more to do with the erosion of social character, corruption and failing politics of distributive justice of relatively poor, non-oil republican Arab states and less to do with the issues connected with freedom and democracy. The Spring met its waterloo with the coming of Al Sisi in Egypt and the onset of civil war in Libya and Syria without much intervention from the Saudis. The current mess in Libya and Syria has its initial roots in “Islamist brinksmanship” of Turkey and Qatar. Third, Arab Spring brought to the fore and even to power the Islamist leadership across many parts of the Arab world though the Islamists hardly played any significant role in the making up of the uprisings.
It is this rise of political Islam — whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza, Al Qaeda in Yemen, Al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Ennahda in Tunisia and Al Qaeda affiliates in Libya — which alarmed the Saudis and the Emiratis both from the points of view of their implications for regional security and regime security. The Saudis and the Emiratis felt insecure, more so because of the gradual withdrawal of American security commitment to the region and the warming up towards Iran under Obama. They remained insecure under the unpredictable Trump Administration, notwithstanding the latter’s mending of ties with the Saudis and distancing from Iran as was evident from Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and his address to the Arab Islamic Summit.
With Iran gaining an upper hand in the regional politics since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein on the one hand and the rise of anti-status-quoist Sunni Islamists on the other in a context of receding American security cover, the Saudis and their allies began to feel alarmed. Faced with such extraordinary circumstances, the Saudis demanded internal cohesion and solidarity within GCC, but found Qatar not only wavering in its commitment to fight against extremism and terrorism as pledged in the Riyadh agreement in 2014, but also opening itself up to all sorts of extremist elements. This was in addition to its increasing flirtation with Saudi Arabia’s bête noire, Iran. Qatar could not have demanded the luxury of GCC security while becoming a pawn in the expansion of Iranian influence in the region.
In fact, the post-Arab Spring developments were quite soothing for Qatar, Turkey and Iran. This partly explains their alliance in regional politics. Apart from ideological homogeneity, which they share in terms of Islamist world view, all three found in the politics of Arab Spring and its Islamist overtones a tool to consolidate their respective regimes and expand their regional influence. This also gave them the aura of being the champions of democracy and freedom in the region. Among the three, the Qatari situation is the most problematic. While Turkey and Iran can legitimately claim their status of regional power given their history, demography, political tradition and geographical size, Qatar has none of that. Buoyed with only money power, it sought to build its regional status by pursuing an active foreign policy and distancing from Saudi-centered regional politics on the strength of its three strategic assets: the American military base (hard power), Al Jazeera TV (soft power), and patronage and loyalty from a range of Islamist groups.
With American security-cover and newly acquired democratic legitimacy through Al Jazeera, the regime felt confident of enhancing its national, regional and global profile by facilitating global debates (World Economic Forum, Doha Round, etc) and negotiations between the Islamists and the West at its capital, Doha. With such an exercise, Qatar tried to build its image as a “modern Islamic reformist nation” that stood against the status quo and for democratic changes. This in turn made other Arab countries, principally Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to be perceived as “pro-status quo” and against change. While Qatar can afford “disorderly change” in the region as it does not affect its political stability, the Saudis and others prefer orderly, gradual change, which they have been pursuing for long in a piecemeal fashion. However, among all Arab nations, Qatar has the least history of any kind of liberal reform within. It remained socially a very closed and conservative society. There is no elected legislative body in Qatar at all, unlike most other Gulf countries where some semblance of people’s participation in power has been materialised.
Another paradoxical feature of the Qatar politics is Al Jazeera. While Al Jazeera has been hailed as “the democratic voice” in the region, it remained dubiously silent on the democratisation of Qatari polity and society. Its “democratic voice” just highlighted collective discontent and frustration of the Arab youth without providing any sense of direction for legitimate protests and negotiations — whether on the question of Palestine, unemployment, corruption or democratic reforms. Since Arab masses have greater expectations from (and hence disillusion with) large Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Al Jazeera’s coverage for “disorderly change” was perceived as a threat to regional security and stability. By regularly broadcasting the message of extremist and terrorist outfits and providing their leaders with disproportionate air time, Al Jazeera also quickened the process of the “Islamisation of Arab politics”.
The hypocrisy of Qatar was evident in Doha where the Islamists, designated terrorists and the West, including a massive US military base, happily co-existed. From the same Doha, anti-Western discourses and denunciation of various Arab regimes except Qatar flew day in and day out. It is this glaring duplicity of the Qatar regime continued for long despite repeated warnings from other GCC members which brought about the current crisis. Qatar must take the blame for stretching its Machiavellian politics far too long and breaking the inner tribal code and trust intrinsic to Gulf Arab society.
As the conflict rages unabated, what are India’s options? India has good relationships with all GCC members and Egypt. It does not have much leverage to influence the course of events in the region. India has deemed it an intra-GCC affair without taking any sides. But if the crisis is not resolved soon, India will have to throw aside this pretense of neutrality and take a position consistent with its counter-terrorism policy. At a time when Pakistan is losing its legitimacy in the region, India must come forward and denounce Qatar for its patronage of extremism and terrorism. From any angle, Saudi Arabia and the UAE best serve our interests (energy, trade, remittances, investment, counter terrorism cooperation, defence deals, etc) in contrast to Qatar, which is crucial for us only in terms of our LNG needs. As India is one of its biggest markets, it will not be economically viable for Qatar to cut the supply of LNG. In any case, our current neutrality in the conflict is neither principled nor in our national interests and does not go well with the rising profile of India.
(The writer is Alexandor Von Humboldt Visiting Fellow, Abert Ludwig Freiburg University, Germany)
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