image: 
Thumbnail images: 

Introduction

In July 2017, the GCC countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, alongside Egypt, imposed sanctions and cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar, stating that the country was supporting terrorist organizations and also interfering in the internal affairs of other countries in the West Asian region. These countries accused Qatar of promoting an ambitious foreign policy by providing refuge to Muslim Brotherhood members, extending ties with Iran and promoting the Al Jazeera channel that is seen as partial towards Qatar. This crisis created a rift between the countries in the region, leading to international repercussions including trade and migration; a stalemate that has continued for two years ever since. Qatar however refused to cave into the requests of these countries and decided to maintain its sovereignty, mainly by forging strategic partnerships with countries such as Turkey in banking, real estate and the health sectors. This boost in economic ties has also allowed Qatar in the wake of economic and trade crunches to reach out to other countries including India for food supplies.

 

However, geopolitical tensions in the Arab Gulf region seemsto have entered a new phase with the limited engagement of narratives now being witnessed particularly in the information space.Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)have given permission to their football teamsto travel to Qatar to participate in the Arab tournamentsagainst their Qatari counterparts; thereby bringing to focus a possible plan for rapprochement in the region.Saudi Arabia and the UAE had earlier refused to participate in the 2017 Arab Gulf Cup in Qatar, but agreed only when the event was moved to Kuwait. In January 2019, Qatar and Saudi Arabia played at the Asian Football Federation Cup and in May 2019, Qatar’s Prime Minister attended an emergency summit in Saudi Arabia to discuss Iran-US tensions.This year, in the last week of November, the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) football clubs of the Saudi-led bloc (UAE and Bahrain) accepted to participate in the 24th edition of the Arabian Gulf Cup in Qatar. Another surprising movewas the arrival of a delegationfrom Qatar’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Oman as part of the GCC Ministers meet. Even more unforeseen was the recent announcement of Saudi ruler’s invitation to the Qatari emir, to be part of the GCC summit to be held in Riyadh, in December.

 

However, it is important to understand that a number of factors have been playing into the region’s geopolitical tensions and contributing to a reassertion of political strategies, which according to scholars would have at any time resulted in a change in the trajectory of the Qatari crisis. The real question is, whether these symbolic gestures, though significant,would bring about any change or not.

 

Indicators that Predict a Possible Thaw

 

Geopolitical conflicts

 

Kuwait has been playing a key role in the crisis management including mediating between countries and offering solutions for peace talks. Both Kuwait and Oman have from the beginning taken a neutral stance in the conflict and were instrumental in urging the Saudi-led bloc to accept the football match as a goodwill gesture. Other signs of rapprochement have been the official visits by the Kuwaiti officials to Saudi Arabia to discuss further issues on ending the crisis.

 

There has also been a noticeable change in the UAE’s policy in Yemen with their engagement turning from direct to indirect. Saudi Arabia’s renegotiation in the Yemen war has prompted the UAE to pull out its troops from the country in an attempt to ease tensions with Houthi supporters such as Iran and the threat of strikes on oil targets in the region. There has been considerable Western pressure on the UAE to withdraw its troops in the midst of an economic slowdown that is being felt in the federation. The Saudi-backed government in Yemen and the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is supported by the UAE, may close a deal on Aden to end a power struggle that recently fractured an Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in the region. This may even lead to the Saudis taking power in the city temporarily. However, the UAE still benefits from access to south Yemen’s facilities and territories through this deal.

 

Another issue that has led to a rethink in policies towards Qatar has been the pressure by Western allies, mainly the United States (US), and a greater call for Arab unity and solidarity in the wake of extremism in the region and a stand-off between the US and Iran. The withdrawal of the US from the nuclear treaty with Iran and re-imposition of economic sanctions on the country have affected the security dynamics in the Gulf region. There seems to be a re-engagement of relations between some GCC countries and Iran in the midst of these sanctions. There appears to be a deferredrealization in Saudi Arabia that the self-inflicted crisis in the GCC is counterproductive; and that the Gulf is more powerful together than divided.

 

Oil as a geopolitical factor

 

In the midst of such geopolitical tensions, and the attack on Saudi’s biggest oil processing facility this year, Saudi Arabia prepares for the share sale of its oil giant Aramco. The successfully carried out attack on Saudi’s largest oil facility at Abqaiq, eastern part of Saudi Arabia, shook international oil markets and left Saudi’s important oil reserves vulnerable to external threats.Aramco(Arabian-American oil company)supplies 13% of the world’s oil, producing 11.6m barrels a day from its reserves, which are estimated to be almost 230b barrels. Saudi Arabia’s plan to sell shares of Aramco is part of a wider economic overhaul aimed at new ventures towards raising revenue and to balance Saudi Arabia’s budget deficits.This attack however, threatened the geopolitical peace and escalated tensions with Iran, in turn stressing upon Gulf unity and cooperation, including among all the six members. 

 

This need for cooperation has therefore brought Qatar strategically back into the geopolitical dynamics of the region. Qatar’s natural gas investment has been a contributing factor to renewed Gulf interests. It is known that Qatar supplied the UAE natural gas via the Dolphin pipeline throughout the blockade. Furthermore, itsmassive US$4.4 billion investment in Egypt had begun promoting its strategic relevance in the region. In this regard, Qatar may now be seen as a potential mediator for its neighbours, including in terms of its relations with Iran. 

 

Rise of Qatar

 

Qatar’s independent foreign policy has projected the country’s rise from poverty and relative anonymity to becoming a prosperous regional power and global mediator for international peace; also propelled by its wealth and vision of the ruling family. In recent years, Qatar has achieved Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates of up to 17% due to the abundance of natural gas reserves and an open climate for foreign investments. Qatar seems to be economically the most resilient state in the Gulf with its international prowessremaining unfazed in the midst of the crisis. Qatar has protected itself largely from external threats by maintainingits presence and ties with the American military and cordial relations with different kinds of rival groups in Iran, Libya, Syria and Egypt. In the wake of the embargo, Qatar reached out to nearby countries such as Turkey, which emerged as one of the top partners, sending food and additional troops to Qatar. Recently, it was announced that Turkey-Qatar trade has hit US$1.3 billion this year alone. Other initiatives focused upon by Qatar include the development of highly influential media, education and culture, tourism, and sports. The promotion of international sporting activities such as the 2022 World Cup has also reinforced a sense of progress and pride.

 

Qatar has been taking advantage of international opportunities including the recent Gulf crisis to create the image of itself as an indispensable player in the international security environment. Also, the rulers are aware that foreign policy success often benefits the Qatari leadership on the domestic front. The Gulf countries’ willingness to escalate this ‘discourse war’ and rein in Qatar’s foreign policy ambitions exemplifies Qatar’s rising implicit cultural and political influence in the region.

 

Conclusion

 

Analyzing the above-mentioned factors, an end to the crisis seems to be in sight and an imminent solution may be witnessed anytime in the region. However, not everything is satisfactory as both the reasons and expected outcomes in relation to the crisisstill need to be managed in order to avoid a recurrence of the conflict. These expectations remain unchanged with no solution in hindsight. These include the restrictions imposed on Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s unwillingness to deal with the news network and its reporting on the Gulf countries. Another issue of contention is Qatar’s continuing friendly relations with Iran and Turkey, and it not fulfilling its obligations resulting from a 2014 pact signed in Riyadh to resolve an earlier crisis (which included the same demands as the 2017 crisis) between Qatar and the Gulf countries.Simultaneously, discussions have to be held to decide whether Qatar’s land border with Saudi Arabia will be opened for the upcoming World Cup matches. The issue of Qatar’s re-entry as a member of OPEC (Oil Producing and Exporting Countries) and its relevance as a major player in the natural gas arena still needs to be debated. Also, the presence of the Prime Ministerand not the Qatari Emir at the recent GCC summit contributes to Qatar’s rise to power and the lack of acknowledgement of the other Gulf countries of its resilience during the embargo.

 

However, for countries like India that have maintained a steady relationship with all GCC countries including Qatar, during the crisis, a predicted thaw is a long-term relief. This will prepare India to better deal with migrant flows to and from India and the Gulf, and conduct uninterrupted economic relations,including pursuance of LNG cooperation with Qatar.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.