Time is running out for the UK to help mediate in Qatar crisis

Time is running out for the UK to help mediate in Qatar crisis
Comment: Macron is leading negotiations, but he will need the backing of a more familiar face in the region, and the UK qualifies to fill this role, writes Marcus Hendriks.
7 min read
One third of the UK's gas supply comes from Qatar [Getty]

As the Qatar diplomatic crisis moves deeper into its second week, there are few signs of tensions abating.

With Russia and America in positions preventing neutrality, the UK should step forward definitively as a mediator alongside France to broker an agreement in order to end the hostility plunging the region into yet further instability.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are pressing ahead with their land, sea and air blockade, buoyed by the explicit support of President Trump (if not his state department's). Qatar in response is seeking its own backers, with the Turkish foreign minister set to visit the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, next Tuesday.

Yesterday, the pariah state exacerbated the situation by pulling its troops out of the Djibouti-Eritrea border area. Qatari forces there had been part of a patrol coalition alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE, so a cessation of this cooperative operation marks further souring in Gulf relations.

The severity of this inter-Gulf feud cannot be understated as it risks serious ramifications for both the Middle East and the rest of the world.

A rift in the Gulf brings flux to the Middle East's most cooperative region

First, a rift in the Gulf brings flux to the Middle East's most cooperative region. Saudi Arabia's move to ostracise Qatar has forced states to choose sides, with the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Morocco assisting in the blockade.

Qatari support has predominantly come from Turkey and Iran, while Kuwait and Oman have opted to distance themselves entirely. It is likely that they do not approve of the House of Saud's action, but remain reluctant to oppose it actively.

This volatility threatens all cooperative processes in the region. It represents the most significant conflict to arise between GCC members since its inception in 1981, potentially endangering collaboration on the wide range of issues pertaining to this council, including security, economy, policy and foreign policy.

French President Macron met Theresa May on Monday [Getty]

As the entire world seeks an end to the seemingly ubiquitous pandemonium in the Middle East, regression on this issue in its most stable area is good news for nobody.

Second, tension between OPEC members could undermine the organisation's efforts to weather the storm of falling oil prices. Such endeavours have already proven difficult, as the decision to exercise cuts in production has not yielded the price hike intended. The resulting need to pursue austerity in Gulf States has been halting economic growth for the past two years.

Since Saudi Arabia announced its blockade, Brent Crude Oil has fallen below the $50 mark once again. With economic prosperity always so closely linked to civic security - as illustrated by the 2011 Arab Spring - counter-progress in this regard threatens societal reverberations across the region.

Third, Qatar is the Arab state most involved in Gaza Strip reconstruction, and the crisis jeopardises progress in this area. It is the largest donor nation, funding vital measures such as the electricity supply to Palestinians living in the area. Qatar also holds significant influence over the Hamas leadership as it provides the capital to pay its officials' wages.

Qatar is the Arab state most involved in Gaza Strip reconstruction, and the crisis jeopardises progress in this area

Israel begrudgingly accepts this involvement as it negates the need for additional expenditure on its part. Tel Aviv also hopes that continued, if gradual, relations with Qatar will encourage other Arab states to partake in actions which implicitly buttress Israeli legitimacy.

As the crisis forces Qatar increasingly to look towards Iran, however, the latter may seize the opportunity to exert influence over Hamas and the Palestine-Israel conflict. This is a development which neither the other Gulf States nor Israel wish to see. Further tension across the Middle East would be inevitable, and the risk heightens of simmering rancour erupting into more violence in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Finally, a cessation in Gulf cooperation severely risks scuppering the coalition against terrorism, the impact of which would be felt across the globe. It would be greatly and troublingly ironic for the Saudi faction and American condemnation of Qatar's alleged links to terrorism, to interrupt essential unity of purpose in fighting extremism.

As Qatar continues to withdraw into itself, and away from its Gulf neighbours towards Iran, this becomes an increasingly possible prospect.

A cessation in Gulf cooperation severely risks scuppering the coalition against terrorism

The necessity of averting these disastrous consequences is clear, and the solution lies in a neutral and steadfast mediating body. So far the only internal effort from within the region is coming from Kuwait, which is failing to hold much influence over its neighbours.

America has ruled itself out of objective adjudication thanks to President Trump's rash approval of Saudi actions.

He tweeted support for the blockade, and his desire to re-establish strong American ties with Riyadh were clearly expressed at his state visit, during which he laid the foundation for deals worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Neither is Russia well placed to fulfil the role of mediator. So far, Foreign Minister Lavrov has only fleetingly commented on the crisis, alluding to Russian disinterest in the situation.

Most likely they know that their strong ties to Iran would make the Saudi faction unhappy with a Russia-led de-escalation. As such, the Kremlin does not wish to upset its big business interests in the Gulf.

The French president has already met the Kuwaiti emir to discuss the crisis

France has offered itself strongly as candidate, behind the keen lead of Macron. As well as being very vocal on the matter, the president has already met the Kuwaiti emir to discuss the crisis. The French foreign minister followed suit by meeting his Qatari counterpart, who replied that the emirate would be happy to engage in talks conforming to international law.

While important, these steps will only progress at a snail's pace without momentum and a growing backing. Macron remains a fresh-faced president and could use the support of a more familiar face in the region. The UK qualifies to fill this role.

Britain maintains a working relationship with all members of the Gulf. Its enormous arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE are often publicised, while one third of the UK's gas supply comes from Qatar. Last December, Prime Minister May and her agenda were well received by all members of the GCC.

The UK is in a uniquely enabling position to proffer itself as a mediator

This therefore puts the UK in a uniquely enabling position to proffer itself as a mediator. Foreign Secretary Johnson broke British silence on the matter positively on Monday by simultaneously calling on Qatar to "do more to address support for extremist groups, [by] building on the steps they have already taken to tackle funding to these groups", whilst also being "concerned by some of the strong actions which [the Saudi faction] have taken against an important partner".

The subtle touch of consenting to Saudi accusations of Qatari links to terrorism, yet focusing on a renewed commitment to previous Qatari pledges instead of demanding more, is exactly the kind of diplomacy which will prove necessary in diffusing the crisis.

Similarly, urging the aggressors to reassess their actions, without contradicting or provoking them, appears judicious. It is now imperative for the UK to press on with this line of approach and become more active in settlement efforts. Direct involvement from the PM herself would not go amiss.

The Qatari diplomatic crisis is rapidly moving towards the danger territory of developing into a situation of wide-ranging and grave consequences for both the Middle East and international community. In a dearth of prospective mediators, the UK must fortify French efforts in order to adjudicate a Gulf agreement successfully. The clock is ticking.

Marcus Solarz Hendriks currently works for the social enterprise Horizons and has written for various media outlets. He is currently playing full time tennis before studying the Middle East at Pembroke College, Cambridge in 2018. 

Follow him on Twitter: @hendricks_marcus

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.

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