The recall of ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain from Qatar more than a week ago was not a ‘brotherly dispute’ within the Khaleeji family that will fade away any time soon. This time around, the rift between Doha and the three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) capitals is fundamental, very serious and might last a while.
Despite the angry withdrawal of envoys, Qatar remains in a deviant posture whereas the mood in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama is dire. This diplomatic standoff is likely to get more serious in the days to come, including hints of airspace and border closure, joint trade sanctions and prudent troops movements in preparation for military action to rein in stubborn Qatar, if needed.
Clearly, these are not the best of times for Khaleeji politics, which is not used to this kind of decisive moves and severe display of anger. Khaleeji relationships are usually cordial and typically fraternal. The occasional misunderstanding is handled in a restrained manner and whatever big differences and small grievances exists between the highly decorous Khaleeji capitals are mostly resolved behind the scenes. More often than not, Khaleeji capitals pretend that these differences do not exist at all. Hence, the coordinated and abrupt recall of ambassadors from Doha ushers in a new era of turbulent Khaleeji politics.
This is also not the best time for the nearly 33-years-old GCC, which seemed in total control of its own affairs and regional politics until the sudden withdrawal of the envoys from Doha. Everbody thought that the GCC is a strong organisation that is growing stronger by the day. The impression was that the relationship among the six GCC states was brotherly enough not to reach to the point of sudden diplomatic rupture.
However, impressions aside, it is necessary to remember that all regional integrated bodies go through occasional difficulties and inevitable setbacks. The GCC is no exception. But the diplomatic rupture with Qatar and the loaded accusation labelled at Doha is by no means a minor setback. The rift is great and amounts to several steps backwards for the Gulf political integration. It seems that the political leg of the three-decade-old GCC is in a free fall and will take a long time to re-adjust. Extended political tension is certainly expected to put on hold any move towards higher political cooperation and coordination among the six GCC states. Of course, this dramatic development is not the end of the GCC — but the project for the Gulf Union, which was announced by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia last year, is now on permanent hold.
Qatar is at the centre of this turbulence in Khaleeji politics. The ball is now in its court and the initial response from Doha is not very promising. Basically, Qatar is not at its best either. It seems that it has changed its zest. Politically, Qatar is in retreat and looking more isolated than it has been in the past 20 years. Its foreign policy is in near shambles. It has lost much of its regional allies and has positioned itself on the wrong side of all key Gulf and regional issues.
The Qatar of 2014 is no longer the de facto political capital and the king maker of the Arab world. There is a complete reversal of fortune for the once super Qatar. The latest diplomatic standoff with the three GCC states is a huge challenge for the 32-year-old Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, who assumed power on June 25, 2013. In less than one year in power he has already consumed all his regional political capital and brought to Qatar a major diplomatic setback. The record of the unfortunate young Emir so far is not flattering.
Of course, many are happy to see Qatar finally down sized. But no one should underestimate the resourceful Qatar. Doha has already made it clear it will stay the course no matter what the price. The message from Doha is: Do not expect Qatar to relent. It has no intention of changing the fundamentals of its foreign policy.
First the Muslim Brotherhood is important to Qatar. Doha will accommodate its leaders even if Saudi Arabia classified it as a terrorist organisation. Implicitly, what Qatar is saying at this stage is that the Muslim Brotherhood is more important than maintaining good relations with Riyadh. Qatar is not going to give up on the godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yousuf Al Qaradawi, either. Qatar may not agree with some of his utterances, but will provide him with the needed shelter. Once again, Qatar is saying it loud and clear: Al Qaradawi is untouchable and he is as important to Qatar as the brotherly relationship with the UAE.
Qatar is in no way going to tamper with Al Jazeera channel’s orientation to please its GCC neighbours. Al Jazeera is an integral part of Brand Qatar. This maverick satellite channel is more valuable to Qatar than a good relationship with Bahrain and the rest of the GCC states. Al Jazeera is here to stay. So there is a serious deadlock in Khaleeji politics. To the dismay of its GCC partners, Qatar has made up its mind to be firmly on the side of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the outspoken Al Qaradawi and will stand behind its global brand Al Jazeera.
Succinctly, Qatar is not going to succumb to GCC pressure and has decided not to blink. This is a recipe for the worst-case scenario in Khaleeji politics. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, is left with only one option: A joint disciplinary action that goes beyond the symbolic recall of ambassadors.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is a professor of Political Science. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE