To say that the timing, swiftness and apparent ferocity with which several of its neighbours recently ganged up on Qatar was something of a surprise would be an understatement, while the consequences are potentially de-stabilizing for the wealthy states that adjoin the western side of the Persian Gulf.
It is one thing for violence and mayhem to roil Syria or Yemen, in which complex proxy wars have caused untold misery and suffering; quite another for one supposed US ally (Qatar, which hosts a major US air base at Al Udeid) to be vilified and ostracized by several supposed other allies, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
So, the questions that arise include: “Why; why now; and what will happen?”
Ostensibly, Qatar is accused of supporting terrorists and terrorism, and of being a little too friendly with the Saudi bete noire, Iran. However, there is more to it than that. The Al Jazeera network has long provoked the regimes of Qatar’s “neighbours”, while Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood (an example of political Islam) frightens those, such as the Egyptian autocracy which supplanted it. One of a new list of demands includes the closure of a Turkish naval base, leading the Turkish government (which is already helping the Qataris to evade the boycott) to state that it is contemplating “enhancing” its presence (with Turkish tanks recently parading through Qatar). Qatar is also being told to surrender all “designated terrorists” on its territory, which seems more like an attempt by various regimes, which have little respect for due process, to get their hands on annoying opponents.
One trigger may have been the alleged payment of a huge ransom to the kidnappers of a Qatari hunting party in Iraq, with the funds said to have been paid to terrorist groups; but one senses that this, even if true, is cover for the desire to bring to heel a regime that has proved rather too independent for its adversaries’ taste, and an attempt to curb the influence it has wielded as a result of the wealth generated by production from its enormous natural gas reserves.
Of course, whatever the true cause(s), (and one cannot say that Qatar is exactly an “innocent” in all this), what really matters is what the potential consequences are.
It seems unlikely that the Qatari regime will simply give in to the demands being made upon it, as the “blockade” is not yet that effective given Qatar’s ability to use alternative supply lines and the fact that the Turkish government is openly supporting it. Similarly, as its main source of wealth comes from giant gas fields operated jointly with Iran, it will not wish to jeopardize that relationship. The Trump Administration has, so far, given no real indication of its intentions (even if there is speculation that it tacitly encouraged the Saudis to take action) and certainly appears to have no interest in “banging heads” in order to resolve the stand-off. As a result, the chances are increasing that one of the numerous parties involved, directly or indirectly, will act in a way that triggers an escalation in the conflict, even if that is not the intention. A bilateral argument is one thing; a complex, multi-lateral one entirely another.
So, the situation bears watching closely because of its potential for causing armed confrontation between US allies, which will, no doubt, delight the Iranian regime and give it more latitude in its continuing proxy wars elsewhere.
At Awbury, we always monitor such events, because we are looking for second order effects, and are well-versed in how seemingly modest acts can create a cascade of outcomes that can change seemingly stable environments into chaotic ones.
The Awbury Team