Barring Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf States have successfully managed to avoid major political and diplomatic catastrophes since their grouping together in the Gulf Co-operation Council in 1981. But on June 5th, the official ordering of expulsion of Qatar by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt set shockwaves throughout the world. Any public expression of sympathy towards Qatar has been criminalized by UAE; Qatari citizens have been given two weeks to leave the neighbouring Gulf states; all land, sea, and air traffic has been placed on hold.
The explanation for the sudden expulsion of Qatar was its worrisome ties with Islamist terrorist groups. The neighbouring Arab nations found this to be a concerning destabilizing force, and claimed that the decision was a necessary security measure. The foreign ministry of Qatar responded by saying the accusations are ill-founded and unjust, lacking factual basis, and is in violation of Qatar’s state sovereignty. Shortly after the coordinated expulsion, Qatar’s stock market plummeted and oil prices rose.
To the disdain of Saudi Arabia, Qatar is a tiny, but mighty nation. It is one of the world’s richest countries, is the largest producer of liquefied natural gas, and is in possession of an airline hub. It also has strong ties with Iran, and supports the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. With its capital, Doha’s, friendly treatment of senior figures from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has long been treated by its neighbours with apprehension. The Financial Times has reportedly found that Qatar has paid over $1 billion to Iran and al-Qaeda for the release of Qatari royal hostages. Though this action alone does not prove Qatar’s linkage to terrorist organizations, a ransom of that scale could cover the price of a lot of powerful explosives. Most notably, it is Qatar’s recognition of Iran as a considerable regional power and Islamist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah that served as a catalyst for such a drastic punishment.
Despite the hit, Qatar’s markets have since stabilized. Its oil and gas reserves are the cornerstone of its economy, and since most of these exports flow to Asia, they have not suffered major blows. Qatar’s scarce trade with its neighbouring Gulf states has allowed their economy to still stay afloat despite the harsh isolation. Qatar’s foreign minister, Ali Sherif al-Emadi has come forward with saying that Qatar remains in an extremely comfortable economic position. Shortly after it was isolated by its neighbours, the nation suffered some shortage of dairy and poultry products, but within two weeks its markets were again fully stocked with all the necessary food items.
All of this is not to say that Qatar should not be concerned with the severed diplomatic ties. The cut off has left foreign investors cautious, undermining the credibility of Qatar’s banks, which now may find it harder to get the necessary financing. Qatar Airways, one the world’s most profitable airlines, has suffered major financial blows after its banning from the Gulf airspace. The diplomatic spat has divided the Gulf Co-Operation Council, and may drive Qatar deeper into an alliance with Iran. And if Qatar does that, Gulf states threaten to hit it with even harsher economic sanctions, which makes for a worrying future.
Where do all these tensions leave the west? In an immediate response to the sudden diplomatic fallout, the president of the United States Donald Trump tweeted “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” But though Trump is physically separated by thousands of kilometres from the Gulf states, the repercussions faced by United States fallout may strike deeper than appears at first glance. Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia places American credibility into question, suggesting that under his leadership nations can abandon their allies without much afterthought. In addition to this, Qatar harbors two major American command posts, as well as a $60 million command centre for attacks on the Islamic State. Considering the deep military ties with Qatar, the American military officials are inclined to avoid any political tension with the state. Qatar even has ties with American academic institutions, as it assists with funding to build Middle Eastern campuses for six universities. The United States, thus, has long been careful to remain impartial towards the regional spats in the Persian Gulf. Immediately after the cut off, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis tried to soothe the diplomatic tensions. Trump’s twitter endorsement Saudi Arabia’s actions is not a result of a coordinated decision of American policy makers.
The political future of the Gulf region is thus open to speculation. The expulsion of Qatar undoubtedly uproots decades of diplomatic relations. It is difficult to predict whether any party will emerge as a winner. Suspended tourism harms all Gulf states equally, and endeavours for the Gulf Co-Operation Council to create united economic and political policies have been wrecked. This deep-rooted conflict is likely to leave the region in its current state of simmering tensions for many years to come.
By: Mary Zelenova