Going Global: The Gulf
Columns / June 22, 2017
Why are neighbours shutting the lights off on Qatar?
Tristan Johnston, Coordinating Editor
Qatar has lost diplomatic ties with many nearby Arab countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
The small state of Qatar, which juts out of the side of the Arabian Peninsula, has been accused of seemingly everything relating to terrorism. Saudi Arabia claimed in a recent statement that “Qatar has also supported the activities of the Iranian-backed terrorist groups in the Qatif province of Saudi Arabia and in neighboring Kingdom of Bahrain. It has also financed, adopted and is harboring extremists who seek to destabilize unity at home and abroad. It has used the media that seeks to fan internal strife.”
The House of Saud also makes the accusation of Qatar supporting the Shia Houthis in the Yemeni Civil War, despite the fact that Qatar is working as an ally with Saudi Arabia in fighting them. Saudi Arabia themselves have also been highly suspected of funding Wahhabist terrorist groups such as ISIS.
Another source of tensions has been Qatar’s relationship with Iran, as Qatar is the quietest voice when it comes to criticising Iran’s support of a Shia uprising in Bahrain in 2011. Iran and Qatar work together in harnessing the same natural gas field in the Gulf, as well as on shipping. Because Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been in a “cold war” with Iran for decades, Qatar has had to tread carefully between their relationships with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries and Iran for years, trying to eke advantages out of both.
This seems like a lot of opposition to such a small country, but Qatar is more powerful than it seems. While the nation’s military is a modest size at 11,800 men, the country is exorbitantly wealthy. Qatar has the highest per-capita income in the world and a small population relative to their massive amount of natural resources in oil and gas. The ruling Qatari family, the House of Thani, is also the primary owner of Al Jazeera, which can be thought of as the “BBC of the Middle East” and has expanded throughout the world. You might already have it at home as part of your cable subscription.
Qatar has issued statements saying that it finds the whole ordeal to be ridiculous, but its citizens are going to feel it much more than the government. Almost 80 per cent of food in Qatar is imported from nearby states, namely Saudi Arabia. Flights have also been suspended, with the other Gulf states allowing a 48 hour grace period for their own citizens to get out of the country. Qatari citizens living in the other Gulf states have been given only a few weeks to pack their things and leave.
While saying stupid things isn’t anything new for Trump, he has already laid some blame on Qatar for funding terrorism, despite hosting a U.S. central command and a few critical U.S. military bases in the country. Trump has also taken credit for causing this mess, given that this crisis took place two weeks after Trump returned from his first overseas trip to a few Gulf states. However, some political writers such as Joyce Karam of Al Hayat have said that the recent Trump visit might have emboldened Saudi Arabia to initiate the halt to diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the GCC states to “sit down together, and address these differences.” Iran, Russia, and Turkey have issued similar statements.
With such a sudden diplomatic cutoff taking place, it’s hard to predict what could happen next. GCC countries affect the rest of the world when it comes to oil prices and the fight against terrorism. Of course, even more complicated will be the effect this has on the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially when Syria is the staging ground.