The Saudi-led blockade on Qatar could backfire for Riyadh

The Saudi-led blockade on Qatar could backfire for Riyadh
5 min read
08 June, 2017
Analysis: Keeping up the pressure could drive Doha closer to Turkey and Iran, writes Paul Iddon.
Donald Trump has reportedly offered to mediate in the dispute [AFP]

Qatar's neighbours have implemented a threat they made three years ago, and severed their ties with, and physically cut off, the small Gulf state, prompting a diplomatic crisis in the important resource-rich region.

Bogus comments attributed to the Qatari emir in the state press - which Doha says, and the FBI has confirmed, was a result of a hack - criticising Arab nations' hostility to Iran are ostensibly what sparked this crisis.

However, it has been clear for some time that the smallest spark would cause such a firestorm.

The Saudis and the Emiratis have long viewed the Al Jazeera network in Qatar and Doha's alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood as problematic. In early 2014 - after the Saudis welcomed the military coup in Egypt that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood's President Mohammad Morsi, who Qatar supported - Riyadh and Abu Dhabi withdrew their ambassadors in protest of Doha's independent foreign policy.

After making some reforms, Doha was brought back in from the cold.

The current crisis conspicuously arrived shortly after US President Donald Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia, where his administration negotiated exorbitant arms sales to Riyadh and spoke of confronting the "Iranian threat" to the region.

Qatar has historically had closer bilateral ties with Iran than the rest of the region has, not least because they share the world's largest natural gas field. Doha recalled its ambassador from Tehran after an Iranian mob ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in the country, following Riyadh's execution of a Shia cleric, but did not outright sever ties.

Iran is likely rejoicing at the internal squabbling within the Gulf Cooperation Council

"The Qataris appear committed to pursuing their traditional foreign policy strategy of playing off both Gulf powers' conflicting agendas to advance the Persian Gulf emirate's own geopolitical interests," noted one analysis at the time.

Today, Tehran is reportedly granting Doha access to its ports to import foodstuffs and help it endure the blockade, and is also providing Qatar use of its airspace to allow its national airliners to circumvent the newly forbidden airspaces of its neighbours.

Iran is likely rejoicing at the internal squabbling within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Some speculate Tehran may even have been behind the original hack to sow disunity in the GCC following Trump's jingoistic visit. The FBI has reportedly blamed the Russians.

Read more: Qatar diplomatic crisis again reveals Trump's incoherent Twitter policymaking

Doha's best hope for getting the blockade lifted will likely reside in Turkey and the United States. Ankara and Doha's strategic relationship has blossomed in recent years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani address each other as "brother", and Qatar hosts Turkish troops on its soil.

Ankara is currently debating sending more troops there and has called for the blockade to be lifted and a peaceful resolution to the dispute, since it also retains friendly ties with the Saudis and the other Gulf states.

The Ankara-Doha relationship is forged over common interests and politics. Erdogan is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and bitterly condemned both the July 2013 coup against Morsi and the coup leader and later Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi - who the Saudis strongly supported as a bulwark against the Brotherhood.

Both Ankara and Doha have also hosted the Palestinian Hamas group's political leader Khaled Mashaal.

Despite President Trump's denunciations of Qatar as a state sponsor of terror on Twitter - which, coupled with his aforementioned visit to Riyadh last month, risked emboldening the Saudis and further inflaming the crisis - the US partnership with Qatar is very important to the region.

While Washington certainly diverges with Doha on a variety of issues, upholding cordial ties with Qatar is a much more beneficial policy to maintain over isolating and antagonising it

Since 2003 the Americans have used the enormous Qatari Al-Udeid Airbase as their main base in the Gulf region, and are currently using it as a launchpad to bomb Islamic State group militants in Iraq and Syria. It is the most significant airbase used by the US in the wider region outside of Incirlik in southeast Turkey.

While Washington certainly diverges with Doha on a variety of issues, upholding cordial ties with Qatar is a much more beneficial policy to maintain over isolating and antagonising it. Trump is already reportedly playing a mediating role between the two sides since his administration likely recognises Washington's self-interest in averting this crisis.

Now he's inviting representatives from both sides to the White House which, according to CNN, was a gesture motivated by the Qatari military putting their forces on high alert over fears of military attack.

US and Turkish troops would deter Qatar's neighbours from actually risking a war. Were any to actually break out, both sides would find it difficult to sustain their vast military arsenals of Western equipment for long without close support from Washington.

The quixotic decision to blockade Qatar could also backfire if this policy continues, since it will force Doha to rely more on Iran and Turkey. 

The Armenian-Iranian relationship is a fitting precedent to contemplate. Armenia, a small country with powerful neighbours, forged a close relationship with Iran in the 1990s. Armenia was at war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and Iran feared Baku would stir up secessionist Azeri movements in its northwest.

Armenia is predominantly Christian, while Azerbaijan is a Shia Muslim-majority country like Iran, yet Tehran retains much better bilateral relations with Yerevan than Baku.

Armenia also relies heavily on Iran for its energy and trade since 80 percent of its frontiers are blockaded by rival neighbours, namely Turkey and Azerbaijan. Its 22-mile southern frontier with Iran has therefore been termed a "lifeline" for the country.

A similar relationship, borne of necessity rather than political or ideological affinities, could eventually emerge between Doha and Tehran if the Saudis and their allies persist in their current policy of shutting Qatar off completely from their side of the Gulf. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon