GCC-member Qatar has been confronted by a concerted diplomatic and economic effort from its former Arab allies, led by Saudi Arabia, UAE, and non-GCC member, Egypt. The official cause of this rift appears to be statements made by the Emir of Qatar criticizing growing U.S.-Saudi military cooperation and their anti-Iran positions. The Qatar News Agency quoted the Emir as saying, “There is no wisdom in harboring hostility towards Iran.”
Qatar quickly denounced the statement, suggesting that the Qatar News Agency had fallen victim to a cyberattack. This claim did not prevent the GCC countries and Egypt from coming together to jointly accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism and destabilizing the region.
The crisis has been brewing for some time. In 2014, another diplomatic breakdown between the same players led to the withdrawal of ambassadors from Doha. During that time, Doha was accused of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and giving refuge to its leaders after the fall of Egypt’s President Mursi in July 2013.
The MB had already been officially declared a terrorist organization by most of the GCC members. One of the main reasons for this is that the MB is opposed to hereditary monarchial rule, which directly attacks most of the leadership in the GCC region. Following the dispute in 2014, after all ambassadors returned to Doha, Qatar promised that Doha would never allow the MB to operate from its territory. Qatar failed with this promise however, as leaders of the MB, Hamas, and even former family members of dictator Saddam Hussein have been roaming freely through the 5-star hotels in Doha.
So while the crisis had been subdued during this period, relations had remained fragile. The negative effects of the Arab Spring, in which Qatar and its main media center, Al Jazeera, had been openly supportive of protesters in Egypt, Libya and Syria, became clear. Shi’a leader Iran became a military force to reckon with, as Iranian military and IRGC militias actively took part in the civil war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The growing influence of Iran in the GCC region and its role in several proxy wars further heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia-Egypt-UAE and Qatar.
The majority of GCC members, especially Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, have been very critical about the intermediate position Qatar was taking with regards to the Iranian threat. Qatar’s open position towards discussions with Iran are regarded as destabilizing. This was not a very problematic issue during the Obama Administration, as no real superpower support for a combined anti-Iran Sunni Arab military strategy was in place. The election of president Trump and his hard political-military views on terrorism and Iran, however, have tilted the scale. During Trump’s historical visit to Saudi Arabia, and his attendance of the antiterrorism meeting in Riyadh, the U.S. openly put its weight behind the Saudi Arabian Sunni military alliance IMAFT. Related: Kurdish Oil: The Two Biggest Threats
Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia agreed that Iran should be addressed and countered as a center of extremism and terrorism, and all Sunni countries should support that strategy in full. However, no direct attacks were made by Saudi Arabia or Trump on Qatar’s position in the whole matter.
Nevertheless, media sources were already actively putting pressure on Doha. Saudi newspaper Okaz published just before the Trump visit to Saudi Arabia a report about a secret meeting between the Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, who was officially visiting Baghdad at the time, and the Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasim Sulaimani. In the article, Doha was accused of destabilizing the anti-Iran approach. This was reported despite Doha’s signing of the anti-Iran Riyadh Declaration issued after the Arab-Islamic-America summit. With the anti-Doha media storm continuing shortly after the declaration was issued.
Doha also holds a portion of the blame here however, having been vying for a stronger regional position, hence its involvement with and support of anti-government groups in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen. At the same time, it has put its weight behind the Turkish AK Party of president Erdogan and groups such as Hamas in Gaza. Additionally, Doha doesn’t necessarily view Saudi Arabia as a harmless neighbor. The Kingdom has been involved in several crises in Doha. Most notably, the political turmoil within Qatar following the bloodless coup in 1995 when former Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani (1995-2013) ousted his father Sheikh Khalifa Bin Thani while he was out the country. From that point onward, the former Emir Hamad has been actively trying to pull Qatar out of the shadow of Saudi Arabia. His son, the current Emir, is doing the same.
As always in the region, oil and gas have been playing a role in the ongoing conflict between the two countries. During the 1990s, Qatar had accused Saudi Arabia and others of attempting to block the export of LNG to GCC countries. The same issue could once again be coming to the surface, as the hydrocarbon future of both countries is currently under pressure. A more active Saudi Arabia is now pursuing the leadership in OPEC, while based on its discussions with Russia, and even countries such as Iraq, a political power position inside the so-called gas OPEC or GECF, which is based in Doha, is a real option. Qatar’s power position within the global gas sector could be under pressure.
Doha has become a thorn in the side of most GCC countries and Egypt. Qatar’s interference in internal politics of most other Arab countries, while remaining relatively quiet about Iran, is seen as a direct attack on all. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been the main targets of attacks by Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera satellite channel, even featuring harsh critiques and hosting Saudi dissidents on talk shows. At the same time, current Qatari policies in the region are in conflict with Saudi-UAE or Egyptian interests. Long-time tensions are finally coming to surface.
The diplomatic and economic spat is pushing the region into very unstable territory. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are combining their efforts to push Qatar into a corner. Riyadh’s objectives are clear; Qatar must come back into the Arab IMAFT fold, remove all support for Islamic terrorist groups or opposition parties and end its discussions with the Iranians. However, Egypt’s longstanding feud with Qatar, based on their full support for the removal of president Husni Mubarak and continuing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, will not end without a fight.
Furthermore, there is another conflict on the horizon. Qatar is not only holding the main U.S. military base in the Gulf region, it has also allowed Turkey to set up a military base there. Turkish president Erdogan has put his total weight behind Doha, stating that Turkish military forces will protect the Qataris. The Turkish Parliament approved a measure allowing Turkey to deploy up to 3,000 troops to its base in Qatar, where 100 are currently stationed. Turkey’s state-dominated media, which has few pro-Saudi voices, has championed the defense of Qatar, an ally, as a nationalist cause. A military confrontation between a Saudi-Egyptian led military force and Qatari armed forces could now feature the military of Turkey, a NATO member. An internal Persian/Arab Gulf conflict could potentially spiral into a supra-regional military confrontation. Currently, the Turkish military option is not really viable as there is not a significant Turkish force on the ground in Qatar. Additionally, Iranian assistance for Doha is unlikely, as the U.S. military in Doha will never allow an Iranian expeditionary force to land on the peninsula. It would be an extremely dangerous military gamble for Turkey and/or Iran to support Doha in case of a confrontation.
At the same time, the Turkish regional strategy could deteriorate if Erdogan’s gamble with his support of Qatar backfires. Even though Erdogan, during a meeting with Bahrain's foreign minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, stated that Turkey's military base in Qatar is meant to contribute to the security of the entire Gulf region and is not aimed at any specific Gulf state, his support of Qatar is possibly a bridge too far for most of his Gulf Arab friends. A recent statement made by Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkish foreign minister, which claimed that “Turkey would continue its efforts to resolve the dispute, as Qatar faces isolation imposed by fellow Arab states over its alleged support for "terrorism", has put yet more oil on the fire. Related: Putin’s Newest Oil Play: Russia Gains Foothold In Iraqi Oil Patch
The Turkish AK Party’s recent move to ratify two treaties on the deployment of troops to Qatar and training the country's security forces has also caused anger. Reacting to strong condemnations from the Gulf, Ankara indicated that the ratification of the military treaties should not be seen as an anti-Saudi move at all. Officially Ankara is still trying to keep good relations with both sides, but at present, this seems very unlikely. Even Turkish analysts agree that the move is surely pro-Qatari. In the last few months, Turkey has stepped up its efforts to improve its relationship with Russia and Iran, not only to support its ongoing military operations in Syria but also on a commercial basis, as Iran is a vast market for Turkish products and Tehran delivers gas to Turkey. The full support of Ankara for Qatar falls within these developments. Ankara has prioritized its geopolitical perspective, as one analyst stated, showing that the military base in Qatar is of the utmost importance to Erdogan. Turkish newspaper Hurriyet has already stated that after the arrival of Turkish soldiers in Doha, Turkish fighter jets and ships will also be sent.
The other Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are looking at these developments with ire and possible military apprehension. The Turks seem to have decided to support the more revisionist approach of Iran and Qatar, confronting the status quo power approach of support for Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the region. Qatar, as the minor power, and Turkey are having the same power projections in the Middle East. Both have dreams to build up a regional Sunni power base, directly challenging Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s claims. The ongoing power struggle is very dangerous, as it coincides with the existing Iranian power grab in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. A potential clash is no longer a far-fetched scenario.
At the same time, analysts have stated that Turkey’s support for Qatar at present is based on the multibillion spending spree of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, QIA. Some have stated that Ankara´s position can be explained by the volume of Qatar´s investments, which are slated to be around $1.5 billion (1.3 billion euros). At the same time, Turkish companies have won contracts worth more than $13 billion (11.5 billion euros) for the immense World Cup 2022 construction projects in Qatar.
Looking at reality, the main investor in Turkey from the region is the UAE, while Saudi Arabia is stepping up its investments and support, both in the anti-Qatar camp. Politically, Turkey and Qatar have been in the same league since the start of the Arab Spring, both supporting anti-Assad groups in Syria, while fully supporting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. If one issue could combine both countries, it is the anti-Egypt or anti-President Sisi position taken since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt by the military. It seems that, after the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Turkey has felt that it is time to flex its muscles. Ankara seems to be sending a message to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and even Cairo, that they should reassess the position of Turkey in the region. The deal with Qatar is a direct sign that Turkey is going to have a military role in the region, even if the others will not like it.
While Erdogan’s strong power politics seem to work, at least when looking at Turkish and Qatari (social) media, the other Arab countries are not impressed at all. Looking at all available options or possible outcomes, a removal of the regime in Qatar or combined military action against Doha, will leave Ankara with a long list of broken relations, which are not going to be easily mended.
Erdogan’s gamble could backfire heavily if Qatar’s ruling elite is changed or a change in power is reached. Turkey not only has very close ties with Qatar in the energy sector, but also with the other Arab countries. Turkey’s main gas suppliers are currently Russia, Iran and Qatar. This power play could result in a possible halting of Qatari LNG supplies, leaving the Turkish market with a huge demand gap. Other possible routes are very hard to find, even though Russia could increase its gas supplies to Ankara further. Iranian supplies have been offered but looking at former deliveries, Iran’s gas supplies are not exactly reliable. Ankara’s choice to back Qatar has also ended the future policy of importing Egyptian or Israeli LNG or pipeline gas.
Further, Erdogan’s backing of Qatar will threaten the possible Saudi-Emirati investments planned for the coming years. Turkish companies in the two countries will also be feeling the heat. Turkish defense companies, already holding several JVs in the UAE, have been looking lately to enter Saudi Arabia in order to grab part of the multibillion investment spree under Saudi Vision 2030 and assist in the set-up of Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI). These will be put on ice for a very long time, Saudi observers have already stated. Turkish defense companies were hit hard in May after the decision made by Riyadh to cancel an arms deal with Turkey involving four warships worth $2 billion. Some have stated that this happened due to the Saudi $110 billion arms deal with the United States. The warships were reportedly purchased in a 2004 deal and were being produced by Turkish shipbuilder STM in Tuzla, Istanbul. More of the same should be expected in the coming months.
While Ankara has been warning the anti-Qatar group, Arab countries are not sitting idle. In a reaction to Erdogan’s support for Doha, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt have all made positive statements or even expressed full support for an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has even allowed social media in the Kingdom to support Kurdish calls for independence, indirectly hitting Erdogan’s main vulnerability. After that, Masoud Barzani, president of the defacto independent region of Iraqi Kurdistan, declared a referendum on independence to be held on September 25, a decision that Turkey has been condemning. Turkey’s PM, Binali Yildirim, called the declaration a ‘serious mistake”. Iraqi officials were shocked, but U.S. officials have remained silent.
Barzani’s call for a direct attack on Turkey’s support for Doha has the potential to increase instability in Iraqi Kurdistan which could potentially be a nightmare scenario for Ankara. Even though Kurdish groups are not in cooperation, and sometimes even fighting one another, Ankara can expect an upsurge in violence in its own backyard.
There is however already one victim of the current situation. The proposed Arab Sunni military force, the IMAFT, or as some called it, the Arab NATO, has been weakened severely. Doha has put a bomb under the stability pact, effectively putting Iran back on its throne in the region. Qatar will have to back down, but due to its relentless support of MB and openness to Iran, the cohesion of IMAFT has been irreparably damaged. Main Arab military powers Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE, backed by Bahrain, are still targeting an anti-Iran front. Other members, however, have shown their true colors. Turkey, also a member of IMAFT, and holding the strongest military power in the region (excluding Israel), has chosen Doha. Kuwait and Oman are again trying to mediate, even holding discussions with Tehran.
It seems that Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s dream of a strong military force to counter IS and Iran in the region is falling apart. Even if the Qatar crisis is resolved, and signs are not yet positive, a new geopolitical and military constellation is building up, not stabilizing but destabilizing the region further.
One thing is for sure – this dispute is shaping the future of the region.
By Cyril Widdershoven for Oilprice.com
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