The succession of Qatar’s new Emir Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani as the Ruler and the replacement of former Prime Minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al Thani opened a window of hope that Qatar would realign its foreign policy closer to that of Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent the UAE. But in the past few months, Qatar’s apparent refusal to budge has slammed that window shut, prompting Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha in a surprising public gesture of discontent.
Disagreements with Qatar are so broad that it is futile to attempt to isolate any particular issue as the single cause of the drift. Saudi Arabia believes Qatar has provided material support to Shiite Al Houthi rebels, located along Yemen’s border with the kingdom. Saudi Arabia entered into a military conflict with the Al Houthis in November 2009, in which at least 70 Saudi lives were lost.
The UAE strongly objects to Qatar’s overt support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which it believes maintains direct ties to its own local, outlawed chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Last month the UAE summoned its envoy to Qatar over hostile remarks made by cleric Yousuf Al Qaradawi on Qatar’s state television. Only a few days ago, the UAE’s Federal Supreme Court sentenced a Qatari national to prison for charges related to providing support to the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE.
The statement released by the three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states also contained an implicit reference to Al Jazeera’s coverage of events, which sparked much official outrage from Bahrain, especially in 2011. The laundry list of Qatar’s foreign policy ventures, such as its foreign minister’s visit to Tehran last month and its alleged support for Al Qaida affiliates in Syria, drags on. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain’s reference to the Security Agreement, renewed in November 2013, underscores their overarching belief that Qatar’s foreign policy, especially its ties with regional non-state actors, poses a threat to their own domestic political stability and internal security.
However, Qatar was prudent enough to de-escalate the situation by issuing a conciliatory statement that expressed “surprise” and “regret” at the move. Qatar promised not to reciprocate and recall its own ambassadors. Ignoring the rationale espoused by the three GCC states, it explained that the disagreement did not stem from matters related to internal security. Rather, it stemmed from divergences over foreign policy.
Isolation within the GCC can have serious consequences for gas-rich Qatar. The tiny country shares its only land border with Saudi Arabia, on whom it depends for the import of basic commodities like food, much like its smaller neighbours. Saudi Arabia has leveraged that fact in the past: It halted exports of sand, an essential component for construction, to Bahrain for signing a Free Trade Agreement with the US in 2004 in spite of Saudi objections.
Moreover, in its bid to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup, Qatar presented plans for major road and railway connections to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as a central component of a project to expand its transportation infrastructure. The proposed bridge with Bahrain, called the ‘Friendship Bridge’, has already faced severe delays in the past largely because of political tensions. Late last year, Bahrain’s foreign minister announced that due to financial difficulties, the bridge is likely to be completed shortly before the 2022 deadline. That could seem like an optimistic deadline should relations continue to be as strained.
It is telling that shortly after he announced the move against Qatar, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal promised to declare a Gulf Union before the next GCC summit. With Oman out of the picture, Qatar isolated and the UAE and Kuwait sceptical of the implications that membership may hold for their sovereignty, the prospect of a Saudi-Bahraini union is now back on the table.
But such a step will only entrench and solidify the divisions that have come to riddle the member states of the GCC. Moreover, it is doubtful whether a union will generate any significant benefit to those involved. As it stands, the current agreements between GCC member states provide ample room for all sorts of military, security, economic and even foreign policy-related cooperation.
For the sake of the continuity of the GCC as an effective collectivity, one can only hope that Kuwait’s mediating effort could preempt any further escalatory measures by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as convince Qatar to backpedal on its most controversial foreign policy ventures. It is about time Qatar realigned itself closer to the GCC mainstream.
Hasan Tariq Alhasan is a Bahrain-based economic and political analyst who writes regularly on Bahraini and Arab affairs.