Foreign Policy

The Qatar conundrum

In dramatic fashion, nine nations have moved to indefinitely sever ties with the gas-rich emirate of Qatar. They include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Mauritius, Mauritania, the Maldives and Libya’s eastern-based government.

Jordan also indicated it will downgrade its diplomatic relations. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain went further, announcing the unprecedented measures of shutting down all land, air and sea crossings, while giving Qatari citizens 14 days to leave and banning their own citizens from entering Qatar. If these measures continue, it will not only affect diplomatic relations but will have biting consequences for the oil-rich monarchy on a political and economic level as well.

{mosads}The aggrieved Arab nations point to three primary causes of the crisis. First, Qatar is meddling in the internal affair of other countries and has done so for a while and at no cost. Second, the Qatari royal family and likeminded wealthy donors support a wide array of Islamist groups, any number of which are increasingly seen as a threat to its putative regional partners. Lastly, Qatar has had an increasingly cozy relationship with Iran and the terrorist groups its supports. 

To be sure, Qatar has simultaneously had its hands in all regional pies. For example, the emirate supports al-Qaeda affiliates such as the al Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. It also supports the Taliban while providing more cash to Hamas than any other country. It views the Muslim Brotherhood as the wave of the future and has supported the organization and its various branches across the region since the Arab uprisings began in 2011 — a threat certainly noticed by its nervous Gulf Arab neighbors. Such actions may have allowed Qatar to wield more influence, but such a promiscuous foreign policy was bound to make many enemies along the way.

While it’s tempting in Washington to blame the latest crisis on what could be Russian hacking of Middle East Twitter accounts, it will make little difference in the region. Moreover, it obscures the fact that the underlying issues and the signs pointing toward a conflagration have been present for a while. What’s new is that the lukewarm war of words has finally escalated into a full-blown Arab Cold War. It appears for now that Qatar has managed to accidentally unify the Arab world in a way rarely seen in the Middle East — in a region where unity and alliances seldom last.

It would be helpful to draw several assumptions from these developments although some may be more wishful than others. But no matter how one slices up the issues and makes a diagnosis, there is an inter-Sunni and inter-Arab state system dimension, as well as an external Shia, Persian, Iranian dimension. It puts the growing list of nine or ten Arab states on one side, and Qatar, Turkey, and Iran on the other. 

Perhaps the old Arab playbook is finally being retired and Qatar neglected to read the memo. For decades, Middle East states have exported radical Islam to avoid domestic instability. In most cases, those efforts have come back to bite. Qatar’s religiously homogenous citizenry, unparalleled wealth, and physical distance from the region’s conflict centers have allowed it to foment instability abroad and punch far above its diplomatic weight. It has been able to do so at little cost. Maybe the days of this widespread double game are drawing to a close and it will take this level of isolation to convince the monarchy to change.

Perhaps the issue of Iran’s increasing regional gains coupled with their pursuit of nuclear weapons is threatening enough to unify the Sunni Arab states in opposition, while Qatar tries to play the middle and hedge its bets.

The current conflagration could also signify the return of American leadership and influence to the Middle East. The extra push needed may have been President Trump’s call in Riyadh to “drive out” the terrorists from their midst, coupled with a military arms package worth tens of billions of dollars that Washington is reportedly set to sell the Gulf states. Their new understanding that the U.S. is not only back but also has their back should not be underestimated. 

It is in America’s interest to see the situation peacefully resolved, especially with Qatar hosting the important Al Udeid airbase from which the U.S. coordinates air operations in Syria and Iraq. But Washington should work to ensure that any resolution comes on terms favorable to the U.S. and its allies. A rush to reestablish the status quo would not only waste an excellent opportunity to change the behavior of a duplicitous regional actor but it would send a mixed message to America’s allies who appear to be doing precisely what the president asked of them.

In the meantime, there are several metrics to look for as the crisis continues to unfold or moves toward resolution. How effective will inevitable Qatari and Iranian efforts be to cast the recent escalation as a result of Israel acting as the puppet master? What traction will their talking points gain when they invoke the Palestinian issue? The answer to this will go some way to indicating not only the extent to which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has receded in regional importance over the years but will also indicate the extent to which Sunni Middle East states are willing, if not able, to turn the page. It will also demonstrate the degree to which they prioritize Iran as a regional unifying threat above all else.

Another metric to look for is the durability of this new coalition. To what extent will new American leadership in the region be the glue that holds them together? Are additional ingredients needed besides shared interests in Washington, Riyadh, Dubai, and Cairo?

Will it prove viscous enough to make future progress against Iran and the Islamic State? If so, it could truly indicate that a new day is dawning. That said, no one has gotten rich betting on positive diplomatic Middle East developments.

For too long Qatar—as well as Turkey — has played duplicitous and often pernicious roles in the Middle East that increasingly appear out of step with the U.S. and its allies. Rather than helping to clear the path toward common objectives, their actions frequently create more obstacles. 

Like Turkey, Qatar is destined to play an important role in the region by dint of geography. They can prove to be valuable partners or they can act as regional arsonists and create a number of complications. The U.S. should carefully work to bring about a change in their behavior. If from time to time the strategy to do so requires more sticks than carrots, then the U.S. shouldn’t hesitate to alter its diplomatic approach.

Matthew RJ Brodsky is a senior Middle East analyst at Wikistrat and former policy director at the Jewish Policy Center, a group that backs strong American defense capability, U.S.-Israel security cooperation, and missile defense. He can be followed on Twitter: @RJBrodsky 

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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