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Qatar’s obstinacy will have dire consequences

The crisis with Doha must be contained because any further deterioration will come at a heavy cost for the people of Qatar and the entire Gulf region — citizens and expatriates alike.

Doha’s obstinacy could also lead to dangerous repercussions in the ongoing conflicts in the Arab world, with implications for Europe and the rest of the world, including the influx of more refugees — possibly even terrorists — through Libya and Syria.

This week’s astonishing developments make it clear that containing the crisis may not be enough because Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab countries are demanding a fundamental change in Qatari policy.

Qatar’s relationship with Iran is under scrutiny as well as its support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Doha will have to make some firm decisions and with little room for equivocation, not because it is caving into Saudi and UAE pressure but because it is in Qatar’s interest to soften its discourse and strengthen its commitment to regional stability.

Qatar needs to dispel the longstanding impression that it plays hidden and even subversive roles in the Middle East, because this reputation holds back its ambitions and interests.

To avoid falling into the trap targeting inter-Gulf relations, it is important for all sides to show prudence and be vigilant about the consequences of allowing the crisis to evolve into a permanent estrangement, given the harm this would inflict on the Gulf’s economic, political and security priorities.

Even US interests can be harmed, which explains the Trump administration’s scramble to address the rift and restore unity in the long run. Meanwhile, the US president has taken to Twitter to send preliminary messages to all those concerned, suggesting that while US bases in the Gulf are crucial, locations are available in more than one place if needed.

Kuwaiti mediation efforts led by the country’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad, a veteran statesman seasoned in Gulf and Arab relations, are key. His visits to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar to meet the countries’ leaders were aimed at creating a climate that could prevent the crisis from snowballing. 

While resuming these meetings is unlikely at present, efforts continue to prevent a spiralling deterioration of inter-Gulf relations.

Oman is also involved, as usual behind the scenes. A message was reportedly sent privately by Foreign Minister Yusuf Al-Alawi to Doha a day after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Yemen severed ties with Qatar.

Oman’s role may serve to calm Doha and urge it to think strategically rather than reactively, because Qatar stands to be harmed most by the consequences.

From the GCC viewpoint, there is an existential crisis stemming from Qatar’s vision for ties with Tehran, with the Brotherhood in Egypt and their affiliates in the UAE and beyond, and with groups in Syria and Iraq that have links to terrorism. All this deviates from Arab and Gulf policy.

Raghida Dergham

The measures taken against Qatar have a high cost in light of the economic embargo and political isolation, both in the short and long term, and will impact its development plans and projects, including construction of the 2022 World Cup infrastructure.

The UN has steered away from the crisis, waiting for more clarity. But its concerns over Libya are taking on an urgent character given the rivalry between Qatar and the UAE in a fragile country on the cusp of full-scale civil war. 

Such a war is a terrifying prospect for Europeans, who fear a major influx of refugees and migrants and a dramatic spike in the rate of terror attacks at a time when Europe is already dealing with security breaches.

Western diplomats are reporting a personal role being undertaken by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Libya, who is keen to push the peace process forward based on key amendments to the Sukhairat Agreement.

They speak of reassuring Egyptian, Algerian and Tunisian cooperation, but also of fears that Emirati-Qatari differences in Libya could escalate with dangerous implications. 

Guterres may thus play a role in calming Emirati and Qatari nerves to prevent an escalation in Libya that would be costly for the country and for its Arab and European neighbors.

Many in the Trump administration, especially the former generals now in civilian posts, are strong advocates of the surge doctrine, the mindset of making a strong and determined push to radically influence the target, either to change its approach or contain it if it decides to resist. 

This mindset seems to be behind current US policy on Iran, and it seems to be a clear feature of Gulf measures against Qatar.

According to high-level US sources, the matter is not black or white because US relations with Doha are mature, Qatar is home to a major American base, and the US needs Qatar. But curbing terrorism, they say, is crucial.

Egypt wanted to be at the forefront, not only because of radical differences with Qatar over the Brotherhood, but also because Cairo wants to highlight its special relationship with Trump and comply with his call to fight terror.

It is possible the confrontation with Qatar may further expand — though military measures remain off the table — to the extent that it risks becoming a problem as complex as Yemen, with consequences for the entire people of the Gulf, including expats.

According to the New York Times, Michael D’Andrea has been appointed to lead a new initiative against Iran in the CIA. He was called “the dark prince,” and his appointment is being seen as an indication of the Trump administration’s hard line on Tehran.

The US military does not want to involve its personnel in any hard-line position on the ground with Iran. 

This despite Trump’s escalation against it especially during the Riyadh Summit, branding it the world’s top terrorist state, and despite concerns over its cyberwarfare capabilities.

US military leaders want the Gulf countries that want to confront Iran or curb its incursions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to be in the front row. 

They want Gulf and other Arab countries to take that decision and supply forces and funds, because the US will not but may offer support and advice when necessary.

The American military does not want to preoccupy itself with the Middle East because the existential threat to the US now is Russia. The top brass in Washington want to end the fixation with Moscow’s alleged role in meddling in the US elections. 

They want to address the implications in preparation for reviving dialogue with Russia at the level of military institutions, either as a friend, a foe or a partner in various spheres of overlapping interests in the world. 

The military wants clarity to avoid confrontation and contain existential threats.

Iran is important to the US military in terms of planning Middle East policy. From the GCC viewpoint, there is an existential crisis stemming from Qatar’s vision for ties with Tehran, with the Brotherhood in Egypt and their affiliates in the UAE and beyond, and with groups in Syria and Iraq that have links to terrorism. All this deviates from Arab and Gulf policy.

Qatar can rebut all these allegations and declare a clear roadmap for its vision and policies that would help mend ties with the Gulf and the US. All that has happened so far is a serious and loud warning, from Arab countries and the US, suggesting the siege of Qatar is not a reactive outpouring but a dangerous turning point unless Doha adjusts and changes tack.

The Trump administration can play a constructive role away from incitement and adding fuel to the fire, which will not be easy to contain. 

This is not an electronic game, be it Russian or American, because the fate of the entire Arab world is at stake. 

We can only hope Trump will consult with his rational advisers to contain the deterioration by showing US determination to protect its strategic interests.

• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

— Originally published in Al-Hayat.