|#1919||972||July 10, 2018||By Kanchana Ramanujam|
Original Image Source: Google Maps
A Change of Strategy?
Though the Saudi officials took control of the Salwa border crossing only this April, the rivalry between the countries has been decades in the making. Historically, Saudi has used its political clout to isolate Qatar. The following is a timeline of select Doha-Riyadh conflicts:
Way back in 1992, Saudi-Qatar relations went through some uneasy times when two Qatari soldiers died in an alleged attack on the Qatari border post by Saudi forces.3
The Qataris accused the Saudis of being involved in a failed attempt to overthrow the ruling Emir in 1996. The then Emir had overthrown his father in a bloodless coup in 1995 & the Qataris believed that the countercoup was aimed at reinstating the previous Emir.4
Qatar maintains trade relations with Israel.5This became the reason for the Saudi boycott of the OIC summit in Doha in 2000.6
In 2002, Saudi had recalled its ambassador to Doha owing to some objections over content aired on Al Jazeera.7 It was only after six years in 2008 that the Ambassador was reinstated.8
Saudi Arabia, in 2005, protested against a planned bridge linking Qatar to the UAE stating that it would pass through Saudi waters.9
During the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia and its allies, especially the UAE, supported the ruling dispensation, while Qatar backed the popular revolts. Al Jazeera gave the revolts wide coverage. In Egypt, where Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood which won the elections, Saudi supported the military takeover.10
Accusing Qatar of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood-designated a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia and the UAE-, and breaching the GCC security agreement of 2013, Saudi Arabia (as also UAE & Bahrain) suspended ties with Qatar and recalled their ambassadors. It was only in eight months later, in November 2014, that the three countries agreed to return their ambassadors.11
Riyadh cutting off all diplomatic ties with Doha on June 5, 2017 and, along with Bahrain, UAE, & Egypt, enforcing a land, air, and sea embargo on Qatar was the lowest point in this strained relationship. 12
Is the announcement of the Salwa Project a new strategy of the reformist Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, of using psychological warfare to unnerve the Qatari population and in turn, browbeat the emir into submission, or would Saudi go ahead with its strong-arm tactics?
Qatar’s ‘Strategic Hedging’& Growing Influence
Ever since the alleged Saudi counter-coup in 1996 which the Qataris succeeded in thwarting, Doha has been following a policy referred to as ‘strategic hedging’-cultivating and maintaining relations with rival players/forces in the region. Qatar maintains relations with radical forces in Syria, and Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban, Iran, the US, & the UK! In fact, even the Israelis maintained a commercial office in Qatar until 2009 when it was shut down to protest against the Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip. The Al Udeid Air Base in Doha is the HQ of US Air Forces Central Command and is crucial to operations in that region. It shelters 10,000 military personnel from the US, UK, etc.13
Much to the worry of Saudi, Qatar has been able convert its income from LNG into influence. In 2008, an agreement negotiated in Doha put an end to an 18-month-long crisis in Lebanon.14 During the 2011 military intervention in Libya, Qatar not only sent six Mirage fighters to Crete to assist NATO in enforcing a no fly zone over Libya, but also assisted the Libyan rebels with training, arms, and money.15
To ease peace talks between the US and the Taliban, Qatar permitted the latter to open an office in Doha in 2012.16
Qatar has also mediated in various disputes in the region like the ones in Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea, and Sudan.17
With a sovereign wealth of around US$70-100 bn18 , it has literally purchased influence – in Britain, it owns Canary Wharf, Harrods, Chelsea Barracks, the Shard, and significant parts of Sainbury’s and Heathrow Airport19, it has invested heavily in the German automobile manufacturers Volkswagen, & Porsche, Spanish soccer team, Chinese oil refineries, Agricultural Bank of China, Brazilian bank, French luxury fashion-house Balmain.20 In 2013, Qatar announced a 4-year US$14.8 mn donation to Brookings.21 It also donated US$1 mn to the Clinton Foundation when Hillary Clinton was the US Secretary of State.22
Qatar’s most significant ‘investment’, however, remains Al Jazeera-the most watched TV network in the Middle East.23 A memo published by WikiLeaks in 2010 stated that the US government thinks Al Jazeera is being used as a propaganda tool by the Qatari government in advancing its foreign policy goals. To quote a diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Qatar published by WikiLeaks “Al Jazeera, the most watched satellite television station in the Middle East, is heavily subsidised by the Qatari government and has proved itself a useful tool for the station’s political masters. The station’s coverage of events in the Middle East is relatively free and open, though it refrains from criticising Qatar and its government. Al Jazeera’s ability to influence public opinion throughout the region is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikely to relinquish. Moreover, the network can also be used as a chip to improve relations.”24
With its aggressive coverage of the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera was widely viewed as the driving force behind its spread.25 This soft power of the tiny Qatar has the mighty Saudi Arabia worried.
India has vital economic, energy, & security stakes in the Middle East.26Any such development in the Middle East will have a concomitant effect on oil prices all over the world. Talking specifically of Qatar, India imports, in value terms, have declined since 2017 as a result of international oil & gas prices taking a hit. 27
What does the Future Hold?
With the ambitious Vision 203032, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia-Mohammad bin Salman-seeks to establish Saudi as the ‘heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds’, but it seems, Qatar’s growing influence in not just the region, but also around the globe, has made Riyadh uneasy.
Will Saudi go ahead and turn Qatar into an island or is it just an empty threat? As things stand, it looks unlikely that Qatar would yield to Saudi pressure. Despite all the boycott and embargo, Qatari economy has done pretty well. According to an IMF press release33, Qatar’s performance remained ‘resilient’ & the effects of the crisis - ‘manageable’. It has even termed Qatar’s near-term growth outlook ‘broadly positive’. In light of this, would Saudi (as also Bahrain, UAE, & Egypt) use the FIFA World Cup 2022 as a face-saver and end the embargo as a good-will measure? Would Riyadh also acknowledge Doha’s hard (economic) & soft powers and come up with its own equivalent of Al Jazeera? While comtemplating on the interrogatives, let's not forget the irony - 'Al Jazeera' means 'the island' in Arabic!
20 http://nation alpost.com/opinion/peter-goodspeed-qatars-foreign-policy-is-filled-with-contradictions-as-it-maintains-ties-with-the-u-s-israel-iran-and-islamists
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS or of the Government of India.