Why the Qatar crisis will not end soon

Here an English version of my last for Al-Hurra


Qatar crisis after a year photo


It has been a year since the start of the Qatar diplomatic crisis, when the Saudi-led coalition imposed a trade embargo on the country.  For Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, however, it is a reminder of the dangerous impacts of Qatar’s love affair with cultish Islamism. The dispute with Qatar may not be the most dramatic in our region, which is already saturated with bloodshed and misery, but it represents a crucial battle for the post-Arab Spring order, one that will shape the Gulf states and the region for generations.

The conflict may seem perplexing. Amidst the fog of misinformation, lobbying, leaks, and rumors, it is hard to understand why the dispute has not been resolved yet. However, there appear to be three important elements behind its continuation:

First, a question of identity

For years, the Gulf States have preferred the “khaleeji” identity – a collective identity under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). They hoped common cultural values, social integration, and inter-marriage would harmonize the Gulf State societies and yield a united political vision. But just like its bigger brother, the Arab league, the GCC has proved to be a fragile union. Social and cultural commonalities alone do not necessarily lead to a successful political unity. In fact, the dispute with Qatar has exposed how conflicting, and often confused, national identities can sow the seeds of divisions.

While Qatar has opted to merge cultish Brotherhood Islam with its own national identity, the United Arab Emirates has adopted a bolder reformative religious discourse that openly opposes Islamism as an ideology. The Qatar crisis reflects how individual Gulf identities (Saudi, Emiratis, Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Omani, and Qatari) are still evolving, struggling to weave religion within their distinctive national identities. This struggle may take years to resolve.

Second, a battle for public image

Although both sides of the conflict have used mainstream and social media to pursue their agendas, the Qataris have arguably been ahead of their opponents. The Saudi-led coalition has started to catch up, but is still way behind Qatar in the battle to win hearts and minds, especially in various Western capitals.

A quick scan of the Western media’s published reports and opinion pieces on the crisis clearly shows that the majority of them favor Qatar’s position.

Explaining such a discrepancy is not easy. Perhaps Qatar has indirectly benefitted from the plethora of Western reporters and pundits who have developed a strong anti-Saudi Arabia stance, especially since the collapse of the Arab Spring revolts.

Since 2011, the Qataris fully understood modern warfare and made a strategic decision: For their tiny state to win, they had to align themselves with anti-state forces in the region, particularly the Islamist ones, and portray their regime as a supporter of freedom and rights.

Furthermore, Qatar has developed a dual approach. In the Western media Qatar portrays itself as a victim facing an unfair blockade from its neighbors. In the Arabic media, however, Qatar represents itself as the defiant underdog, an image that appeals to the Arab public, particularly those who are still buying Islamism’s resistance narrative.

On social media, a ghastly war of attrition has erupted between the two sides. Even football was not exempted. For example, pro-Qatar accounts flirted with conspiracy theoryby suggesting Saudi Arabia may be behind Egyptian player Mohamed Salah’s injuries during the Champion League Final to orchestrate an easy win over Egypt in the upcoming World Cup.

This ugly media war has ruptured any remaining bonds between Qatar and its neighbors, and made reconciliation virtually impossible.

Third, the American role

Initially, U.S. President Donald Trump accused the government of Qatar of funding extremism. Last month, however, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo,advocated a more conciliatory tone, and told Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir that the dispute needs to end.

Steven A. Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has explained the U.S.’s apparent U-turn by linking Trump’s desire for Gulf unity with his new approach on Iran. Indeed, a united Gulf stance may sound desirable in confronting Iran, but it does not exist in reality. In contrast to the enthusiastic reception from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to America’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and reinstate sanctions against Iran, Qatar has taken a more cautious stance.The quest for Gulf unity has proved to be more elusive than many in Washington initially assumed. The endless lobbying of both sides in Washington has neither solved the crisis nor helped the U.S. achieve its goals.

On the first anniversary of the Qatari crisis, the distance between Doha and Riyadh is getting wider and wider. Qatar has survived the boycott, and scored a few points in the media war, but as I have written previously, Qatar has failed to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the UAE  and failed to weaken the resolve of its opponents. In contrast, the Saudi coalition has adapted and recalibrated its tactics to the evolving new geostrategic realities.

In the presence of such a stalemate, the U.S. needs to focus on a more modest approach towards Gulf peace, but not necessarily unity. De-escalation and joint cooperation against Iran are more important to the U.S. than an unhappy marriage between rival Gulf States.

You can read the piece in Arabic here



About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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