By James M. Dorsey
A list of 13 conditions for lifting the Saudi-UAE led embargo of Qatar handed to the Gulf state this week by Kuwaiti mediators offers a first taste of newly-promoted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s foreign policy approach that if endorsed by the international community would call into question fundamental principles governing international relations.
The demand, that if accepted by Qatar would turn the Gulf state into a Saudi vassal, were unlikely to facilitate a quick resolution of the three-week-old Gulf crisis. In fact, they may complicate a resolution that would allow all parties to claim victory and save face.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reportedly given Qatar ten days to comply with their demands, according to the list that was reviewed by The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal. Gulf states have yet to comment on the list. It was also not clear what steps the two states might take if Qatar rejected the demands.
Qatar has insisted that it would not accept any demands that compromised its sovereignty or amounted to interference in its internal affairs. It has also denied various Saudi and UAE allegations against it. The Gulf state said further that it would only negotiate an end to the crisis once the embargo had been lifted.
The demands go far beyond the declared aim of Qatar’s protractors that it halts its support of jihadists and Islamists. Acceptance of the demands would not only compromise its political sovereignty but could also jeopardize its economic independence if Iran were to retaliate for Qatari compliance. Compliance would further create a dangerous precedent for freedom of the press and expression.
The Saudi-UAE demands appeared to fall far short of a call by the US State Department that the conditions for lifting the Saudi-UAE diplomatic and economic embargo of Qatar be “reasonable and actionable.”
The United States and other democracies would likely find it difficult to support shuttering of Qatari-funded media, including the Al Jazeera television network. Al Jazeera revolutionized the Arab media landscape by introducing more free-wheeling, critical news reporting and debate that has irked autocratic Arab leaders for more than two decades.
The network drew the ire of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for its support of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that brought Islamist forces, including the controversial Muslim Brotherhood, to the fore. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have gone to great length to roll back the fallout of the revolts.
Similarly, the two Gulf state’s demand that Qatar reduce the level of, if not break off, its diplomatic relations with Iran could endanger the Gulf state’s economy that is dependent on its oil and gas exports. Qatar shares with Iran ownership of the world’s largest gas field and cannot afford an open conflict with the Islamic republic.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are demanding that Qatar shut down diplomatic posts in Iran, expel members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, and only conduct trade and commerce with Iran in compliance with US sanctions that are not internationally binding.
The demands put Qatar in a separate category from others in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, including the UAE, Kuwait and Oman, that maintain diplomatic relations with Iran. The UAE, which has a territorial dispute with Iran over three islands in the Gulf, is home to a large Iranian community and serves as an important economic hub for the Islamic republic.
Similarly, acceptance of a demand that Qatar close a military base of NATO member Turkey in the Gulf state would also undermine the Gulf state’s sovereignty. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said his country had no plan to close its base in Qatar.
Other NATO members have military bases in the Gulf, including the United States’ largest military facility in the Middle East in Qatar, and British and French bases in the UAE. Turkey, like Qatar, supported the 2011 revolts as well as the Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are further demanding that Qatar cut ties to a host of organizations ranging from jihadists like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has denied contacts with the jihadists but has been open about its relations with non-violent Islamists, including the Brotherhood and Palestinian group Hamas.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week suggested that banning the Brotherhood was all but impossible. Speaking to the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Mr. Tillerson cautioned that designating the Brotherhood, with an estimated membership of 5 million, as a terrorist organization would “complicate matters” with America’s relations with foreign governments.
“There are elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that have become parts of governments. Those elements… have done so by renouncing violence and terrorism,” Mr. Tillerson said. He said groups affiliated with the Brotherhood that commit violence had already been added to the US terrorism list.
In a sign that compliance with the demands would not restore confidence among Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE together with Egypt and Bahrain insisted that Qatar expel their citizens, including those who had adopted Qatari nationality, and no longer offer their nationals citizenship as a way of ensuring that the Gulf state not meddle in their internal affairs. They also demand that Qatar be audited for a period of ten years.
In a bid to garner US support for their demands, Saudi Arabia and the UAE insisted that Qatar stop funding groups designated as terrorist by the United States, extradite people wanted by the kingdom, the Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt on charges of terrorism, and provide details of its funding of Saudi and other Arab dissidents.
Qatar’s distractors differ with the Gulf state as well as the United States on which groups and individuals classify as terrorists. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, the United States has not. Bahrain’s Sunni minority government relies on support of members of the Brotherhood.
Things get even more complicated when it comes to Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood that controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization by the US, the EU and Israel but not the United Nations, the arbitrator of which designations are internationally binding.
Egypt, financially dependent on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this week came to Hamas’ aid by supplying Gaza’s only power plant with fuel. The plant was shut in April because of a dispute between Hamas and the Palestine Authority (PA) on the West Bank headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. The Egyptian supply came as Israel reduced its supply of electricity to Gaza at the request of the PA.
The Egyptian move also came as a Hamas delegation visited Cairo not only for talks with authorities but also with Mohammed Dahlan, a Abu Dhabi-based, UAE backed former Palestinian security chief who has ambitions to succeed Mr. Abbas as the leader of the Palestinians. Mr. Dahlan advises UAE strongman Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed on issues of national security. A deal between Hamas and Mr. Dahlan, who is at odds with Mr. Abbas and cannot return to the West Bank, would offer him a way back into Palestine.
In sum, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s demands constitute an effort to rewrite the rules of international relations that uphold the sovereignty of nations and their right to graft their own policies. They effectively would put Qatar under guardianship and undermine the principle of freedom of expression and the media.
The demands complicate efforts by the United States and others to resolve the Gulf crisis. They reopen an unresolved debate about the definition of terrorism and the ability of countries to adopt independent decisions on policies regarding media, citizenship, diplomatic relations, and economics. In short, at stake in the Gulf crisis is far more than the fate of a tiny Gulf state.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.