Gulf crisis: Qatar has championed a modern approach to diplomacy

Gulf crisis: Qatar has championed a modern approach to diplomacy
Comment: Qatar's strategy in dealing with the Gulf crisis could form part of a new Arab diplomatic approach that rejects isolationism and conspiracy, writes Alaa Bayoumi.
8 min read
02 Aug, 2017
The rational Qatari approach to diplomacy gained international backing [Anadolu]
One of the most noticeable aspects of the ongoing Gulf crisis, is the way Qatar has responded in rhetoric and diplomacy to the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain on 5 June.

Instead of reacting angrily to the blockade, which included cutting diplomatic relations, closing borders, and expelling citizens, Qatar responded with what its officials have called a "rational and legal" approach to solving the crisis.

"To seriously find a solution for such issues, there should be a clear framework based on international law that is respected by all parties." Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar's foreign minister told Al Jazeera

Qatar refused to bow to pressure form the blockade states or to accept their initial long list of demands, which included shutting down the Al Jazeera Media Network, closing a Turkish military base in Qatar, scaling down relations with Iran, and paying compensation to the four states for what they claim to be losses inflicted on them by Qatar's policies.

Instead, it called for a rational and legal approach that is based on equality and respect. It also urged its opponents not to rush into making demands, and to follow a logical approach like the existing one for rational, legal dispute.

In his comments to Al Jazeera, the Qatari foreign minister called on the blockading states to first present their concerns - substantiated with supporting evidence, then wait for a thorough investigation by the internationally-backed Kuwaiti mediation, and for Qatar's response, and finally to respect the ruling reached by the mediator.

This approach has gradually gained international backing for its rationality and its respect for the sovereignty of all countries involved.

Qatar has also emphasised the negative human rights impact of the blockade after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain expelled hundreds of Qatari citizens living on their soil and forced thousands of their own citizens living in Qatar to leave.

It also highlighted the negative economic impact of the blockade which shut down Qatar's only land border with Saudi Arabia and closed the airways of the four states to Qatari aircrafts.

Qatar called for a rational and legal approach based on equality and respect

This rhetorical response and consistent diplomatic approach hoped to achieve the following objectives:
First, Qatar tried to strengthen its relations with the United States despite initial backing by US president Donald Trump for the blockade. During the first week of the crisis, Trump tweeted in favour of the campaign against Qatar and accused it of being a "funder of terrorism and at a very high level".

In response, Qatar tried to reach out to US state institutions, such as the Pentagon and the State Department, to help balance Trump's views. Qatar sped up the signing of a $12 billion deal to buy F15 Jets form the US and signed a memorandum of understanding on combating the financing of terrorism with the US.

It also reminded the American public and officials that it has been a longstanding and reliable American ally, and that some of its most controversial policies such as hosting a Taliban delegation, were done in coordination with the US and within its strategy.

Read more: America's Rex Tillerson says Qatar has fulfilled its commitments, appoints new Gulf envoy

Second, Qatar also reached out to world powers especially in Europe to help explain its position, gain their backing, and strengthen relations in the face of the blockade. The role of Germany and its Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was particularly significant after his initial rejection of the Trump approach to the crisis and his latter visits to the region to help mediate the conflict and deescalate tension. Qatar also reached out to Russia, China, and Japan and emphasised its ongoing diplomatic and economic relations with the rest of the world.

During his only speech to the nation since the crisis started, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, emphasised that Qatar was keen on opening up its economy and diversifying its resources in response to the crisis.

There has been an outpouring of public support for Qatar's Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani [AFP]

Third, Qatar used what could be described as human rights diplomacy by dispatching representatives of its National Human Rights Committee and Shura Council to the US and Europe to help explain the human impact of the blockade. It also hosted an international conference on media freedoms to help counter demands by blockade states to shut down Qatari financed critical media.

Fourth, Qatar also reached out to neutral and sympathetic neighbours such as Kuwait, Oman and Turkey. Erdogan's government played a major role by speeding up the signing of more military cooperation agreements with Qatar and by sending hundreds of its soldiers to a new military base in the Gulf country.

Qatar saw the blockade as an attempt to isolate it internationally

In other words, Qatar saw the blockade as an attempt to isolate it internationally and instead of caving in to pressure or crying foul about a foreign conspiracy backed by the US president, it responded with more foreign policy openness and by reaching out to US institutions and to world and regional powers.

It activated its diplomacy and economic relations to explain its position. It also formulated a response that seemed modern, rational and diplomatic in response to the force-based logic used by its adversaries.

Such an approach may not have helped to end the crisis yet. But it did help prevent further escalation, and may have put its opponents on the defensive and under increasing international pressure for dialogue.

Read more: Saudi Bullying of Qatar: A Spurious Game of Thrones Crumbling

In addition to these obvious results, Qatar's strategy may have wider and more long-term implications.

In the short term, the Qatari strategy may delay a final solution to the crisis. This is not because it is a mistaken or an irrational one. But, because it rejected the logic of force and submission adopted by its opponents.

In the Middle East, where authoritarian regimes often serve the logic of force to get away with almost anything - the Syrian regime is a clear example - it is difficult to impose a different approach to regional politics based on dialogue and win-win solutions. Had Qatar caved in to pressure, the crisis may have ended swiftly, at Qatar's expense, including giving up an important part of its foreign policy independence.

For Qatar to confront major Arab states and economic powers such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, using a rational and a legal approach based on open diplomacy, neutral mediation, and mutual respect, was never going to be an easy task.

The position taken by the four countries during their latest meeting in Bahrain last Saturday is a further demonstration of their stubbornness. After appearing to soften their positions at their meeting in Cairo on 5 July, the four states hardened their position again in Bahrain by calling on Qatar to unconditionally accept all their demands as a precondition for dialogue.

They also neglected to address any of the international efforts taken to defuse the tension, including the signing of an agreement between Qatar and the US on fighting terrorism, an issue that they claim to be at the centre of their disagreement with Qatar. 

However, if Qatar's diplomacy is successful it could help set a positive precedent in inter Arab relations.

The Qatari response is also unusual in its openness to the world, which is an interesting development when it comes to the history of Arab responses to external pressures.

Qatar's strategy in dealing with the Gulf crisis seems part of a new Arab diplomatic approach that rejects isolation and conspiracy thinking

Arab regimes have very often respond to foreign pressure by closing down and complaining about international bias and conspiracy. The Egyptian regime for example employed such approach in dealing with international pressure following the July 2013 military coup and its widespread human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also complained of sour relations with the Obama administration because of its support for the Arab Spring.

In this context, the Qatari approach that called for more security and economic cooperation with the rest of the world should be appreciated.

Qatar also emphasised the need to respect human and media freedoms during the crisis. This approach should challenge Qatar itself to open up further to international cooperation and institutions on such issues.

It should also test Qatar's willingness to open up more on the long term. If successful, it will improve Qatari relations with the international community tremendously.

Finally, it will be interesting to observe how Qatar's strategy will resonate among the Arab public and mass movements that are sympathetic to Gulf state. Those who sympathise with Qatar should be intellectually challenged and simulated by the strategy explained above.

Qatar did not provoke the dominant foreign conspiracy discourse, and reacted to protect itself from isolation. It reached out to world powers and differentiated between what Trump said on one side, and actual American policies on the other.

It also emphasised the language of human rights and international law in dealing with the crisis instead of the vague notions of Arab traditions and brotherhood.

In March, a similar discourse was adopted by the Doha based political bureau of the Palestinian group Hamas when issuing a revision of its charter. After years of deliberation, Hamas decided to give up old religious and political language and project the Palestinian cause as an issue that has major human and international aspects.

"Supporting it is a human and civilisation mission dedicated to the quest for truth, justice, and shared human values." says the charter. The introduction of such ideas by popular groups and states will certainly have a wider ideological impact.

Qatar's strategy in dealing with the Gulf crisis seems part of a new Arab diplomatic approach that rejects isolation and conspiracy thinking and insists instead on international openness, cooperation and global human values.

Not only does it constitute a challenge to the blockading states, it is also destined to represent a political and intellectual challenge to many of the Arab and Muslim mass groups that look up to Qatar. 

Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian journalist and the author of two books studying US foreign policy in the Middle East. He also writes on democratic transition in the Arab world.

Follow him on Twitter: @Alaabayoumi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.