Pundits are at it again, screaming that Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago heightened the sectarian divide in the Gulf region leading to this week’s snapping of relations and punitive measures against Qatar. That’s not quite the correct picture; this is a GCC, and more importantly, an Arab affair.
The Riyadh Summits provided the platform and resolve to unite against Iran and extremism. In the wake of these unprecedented meetings, dozens of steps are now being taken including an imminent crackdown on financial support for terrorism.
Within the GCC, these measures are serious business where Qatar needs to align with other member states. This GCC crisis is a house-cleaning exercise of the upmost importance to promote Arab unity.
The severity of the penalties against Qatar is testimony to the requirement for Doha to regain its orientation toward the GCC. At no time in the GCC’s history have three member states, along with other Arab countries, instituted a punitive blockage on an Arab country, along with the ejection of Qatari nationals from Saudi Arabia and allies.
What it means to be a GCC member
Now Qatar is undergoing a tutorial in what it means to be a GCC member, and what Doha has “lost” in terms of its alternative focus in Arab lands by partnering with the “worst of the worse” according to a GCC interlocutor. These actions are an unfortunate but necessary move simply based on the seriousness of regional requirements. Kuwait is acting as an intermediary, which is of course a necessary door for negotiations.
Before moving forward with the next stage of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) or any other Arab NATO or Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw that Qatar needed to be reined in to move forward with any new Arab initiatives to settle the three civil wars raging in the Middle East in addition to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
This necessity is one of the major reasons why Saudi Arabia and some of its allies are imposing stiff measures against Qatar. It is critical for the GCC to be united moving forward regarding targeting Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Bahraini Shi’ite militias, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and an ascendant Iran.
Qatar’s past behavior complicates the mission that Saudi Arabia and its allies see as necessary now. With a new urgency for a greater integration of like-minded Arab states to deal with local and regional ills, Doha needs to be a positive Arab actorDr. Theodore Karasik
Qatar’s past behavior complicates the mission that Saudi Arabia and its allies see as necessary now. With a new urgency for a greater integration of like-minded Arab states to deal with local and regional ills, Doha needs to be a positive Arab actor. Hence, Operation Restore Hope is unable to see any benefit in Qatar’s participation and thus Doha was ejected.
Riyadh sees that the harsh air, land, and sea sanctions against Doha impacts to a small degree the GCC’s overall economy during this time of transformation. For Qatar, the economy may suffer tremendously. Qatar’s trade with Gulf nations reached $11 billion in 2016, constituting 86 percent of the country’s trade with Arab countries and 12 percent of its international trade.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain account for 85 percent of Qatar’s trade with the Gulf, while Kuwait and Oman account for only 15 percent. Qatar’s export sector in particular will suffer the biggest losses. The GCC constitutes 80 percent of Qatar’s exports to Arab countries, with the three Gulf nations accounting for 86 percent, while Kuwait and Oman account for only 14 percent.
Clearly, the impact on other GCC economies is going to be a litmus test of durability and thus ultimate pressure is being applied to Doha’s lifelines now to resolve this dispute quickly.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia and Arab allies are using smart sanctions on Qatar. With Riyadh and allies thinking about the energy equation as a pressure point, Saudi Arabia and allies do not want to damage their own relations with Doha’s LNG East Asian end-users such as Japan who are investors in GCC economies. This fact is to give investors and markets reassurance about the sanction’s intent.
Iran reaching out
The moves that Qatar makes next will count. Iran is reaching out to Doha with promises of food deliveries (Qatar and Iran share a maritime border). If Qatar accepts the Iranian offer, Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati patience will be tested with consequences.
The sanctions put into place against Qatar are based on a list of actions to be taken against Doha originally drawn up during the 2014 spat three years ago and now being implemented without hesitation to continue Qatar’s tutorial. Saudi and Arab sanctions consist of about half of what is in the Saudi and Arab toolkit. According to a GCC interlocutor, “an Iranian food supply chain to Doha is not going to transit a blockade.”
Make no mistake, Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies are dead serious about Qatar and intend for punitive measures to go on for months or longer. Qatar has to face the fact that Doha too must go through its own special transformation that brings about GCC unity by abandoning its current agenda and uniting with its fellow Council members.
If Doha chooses to maintain its strident attitude without change, further punishment will be delivered.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Washington DC-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik.