Qatar has emerged as the latest pariah state in the Middle East; its crimes? According to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it has been a sponsor of entities they deem to be terrorist organizations, including HAMAS and the Muslim Brotherhood. The powerful Gulf emirate is also accused of being too friendly with Iran, an unpardonable sin for the Sunni Arab nations. The Saudis and the UAE, joined by Bahrain, Egypt, Somalia and others, have cut ties with Qatar and instigated a blockade of the country by land, sea, and air. All Qatari nationals have been ordered out of the boycotting countries within 14 days and the region has become less stable with the uncertainty of a diplomatic solution, if at all, in the near future.
Qatar has the world’s highest per capita income, at approximately $130,000 USD for a population of 2.7 million. The tiny emirate’s income is almost entirely from energy; its petroleum reserves and natural gas cache account for 13% of the global supply. It is also a strategic asset for the United States, which maintains an air force base in the emirate. From 2003 to 2009, in the aftermath of the second Gulf War with Iraq, the Pentagon placed its CENTCOM (central command) in Qatar. Currently, 11,000 US troops are stationed there.
The current tensions among the Gulf States is hardly a new phenomenon; conflicts among Bahrain, Qatar and the various sheikhdoms that currently comprise the United Arab Emirates were mediated by Great Britain in the 19th Century, with the burgeoning empire serving as protector of the various territories, in some cases until 1971. Of course, keeping the peace among the states served the British strategic interests as they fortified their imperial priorities and as petroleum became a viable reality as an energy source. At the same time, the current isolation of Qatar is because of the country’s refusal to hold the party line among Gulf states to oppose Iran and endorse an escalation of hostilities with the Persian power.
So-called Arab unity has been an elusive commodity. The last serious effort to do so was attempted by Gamal Abdel Nasser when he was head of Egypt. He tried desperately to keep the Arab world out of the Cold War, asserting the need to maintain a non-aligned policy as “third world” nations. The one outlier was Iraq, heavily wedded to British influence from its leadership and the fact that it was a creation of the Mandate era. When Iraq signed the Baghdad Pact in 1955, the Cold War’s version of NATO in the Middle East, Nasser did leverage his considerable influence to encourage a coup d’état, proving to be successful in 1958 when King Feisal II and Prime Minister Nuri al-Said were both deposed and executed.
At the behest of the Saudis, and with more than just a tacit blessing from the White House, the Gulf States were hoping to be the core of, not an Arab, but a “Sunni NATO,” a conglomerate of Muslim countries, bonded by sectarian commonality, established to combat the alleged “Shia” threat posed by Iran and its allies in the Middle East. Given the relative size of the Gulf States, most of the proverbial “heavy lifting” would be borne by countries with larger armies and an actual history of military experiences like Egypt and Pakistan. Of course, Qatar has shown it is not interested in such an arrangement, preferring to take a neutral posture rather than frame the Saudi-Iranian conflict along differences of denomination. This is one of the reasons why Qatar is now facing the ire of the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
But Qatar is not the only nation to be resisting a Sunni NATO. Pakistan has thus far resisted sending troops to the Gulf in support of Saudi Arabia, either in the current tension with Qatar or previously, when the Saudis formally requested Islamabad to deploy armed forces to Yemen as Riyadh conducts operations that many analysts contend are tantamount to war crimes. For Pakistan to defy a Saudi request comes with a certain level of peril. The country is heavily dependent on aid from Riyadh, which amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars annually along with petroleum subsidies. In addition, over 3 million Pakistanis work in the GCC, over half in Saudi Arabia alone. The remittances they send to their families in Pakistan constitute a much-needed multi-billion dollar influx to the South Asian country’s GDP. Defiance of directives from Riyadh or Abu Dhabi is always regarded with consternation that Saudi Arabia or the UAE could deport Pakistani expatriates as a retaliatory measure, severely impacting livelihoods and the Pakistani economy.
Then there is Turkey, which has authorized the dispatch of 20,000 troops to Qatar, in support of the Gulf nation’s like-minded posture of neutrality regarding Iran. President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan has offered his stature and resources to help mediate a negotiated reduction in tensions among the various parties. In the interim, Ankara has embarked upon a campaign reminiscent of the 1948 Berlin Airlift to send food supplies to Qatar, a country that exports 90% of its food needs, of which 40% enters the nation through its land border with Saudi Arabia, currently blocked by Riyadh to all transportation.
Heresy is a term mostly confined to religious debates. But in the current Middle East conflicts, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have declared Qatar to be a heretic for breaching the GCC unity against archenemy Iran. Suspicions abound that they felt emboldened, or even urged, to act by President Trump, given the timing being shortly after his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. If that indeed were the case, it would be a terrible misjudgment, both by the Gulf States and the US. Qatar is far too critical a country for its geostrategic and energy credentials for war to be in the cards. Cooler heads will invariably prevail; but with most things involving the Persian Gulf, the climate doesn’t allow for the temperature to come down quickly enough for comfort.