Monday July 15, 2024

Qatar in the crosshairs

By I Hussain
July 02, 2017

A coalition of several Gulf Cooperation Council countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt, has put Qatar on notice that, unless it complies with a list of 13 demands, it will be subject to continuation of the diplomatic and economic blockade that began earlier in June. As Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the UAE Anwar Gargash tweeted, if Qatar does not accede to these demands there will be a ‘divorce’; and, given the minister’s hawkish tone, it will hardly be an amicable one.

One major demand of the Saudi Arabian coalition is that Qatar shuts down the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network whose Arabic language transmissions have angered governments in the region by airing views they view as tantamount to calls for regime change. In an environment where the media is tightly controlled by governments, Al-Jazeera is widely seen as a Qatari-funded and inspired instrument of subversion. The coverage given to the Arab Spring protests from 2011 onwards rankled monarchies in the region; Egypt also bears a grudge since Al-Jazeera provides a platform to the Muslim Brotherhood which Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi’s government banned in 2013 after he ousted former president Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a military coup.

Other coalition demands require Qatar to sever diplomatic ties and drastically cut back on trade with Iran, close the Turkish military base and end military ties with Turkey, sever ties with “terrorist” organisations – specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda – and pay reparations and compensation for loss of life due to Qatar’s policies. The last of these is probably easiest for Qatar to meet since it has the highest per capita income in the world as a result of its natural gas and oil production; it also has a Sovereign Wealth Fund which has assets exceeding $335 billion. This of course begs the question of how and whether its policies have resulted in loss of life in the coalition countries and who will determine this.

Whether the coalition succeeds in getting Qatar to submit to its demands is dependent on the signals coming from Washington as to how it wishes to resolve the conflict. Currently it is not clear which side the US government is backing, with President Trump earlier voicing support for Saudi actions but the US State Department and the Pentagon providing a counterpoint because of their concern that isolating and punishing Qatar will foment instability that will add to Iranian influence in the region.

What also complicates the situation for the Americans is that Qatar hosts a US airbase with 11,000 American troops stationed there which is being used for air operations against the Islamic State. To add to the mixed messages coming from Washington, the US government just days back approved the sale of $12 billion worth of F-15 fighter planes for Qatar; this a few days after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May in which an arms deal worth $110 billion was inked by the Americans with the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia has been Pakistan’s stalwart friend and benefactor for long and is hosting well over a million Pakistani workers. However, it would be in the Saudis’ interest to consider that the blockade of Qatar could have undesirable consequences for the stability of the Gulf region and may well militate against their strategic interests while driving further wedges between Islamic countries.

The demands made on Qatar are in part reminiscent from the Soviet Union’s cold-war playbook during which it formulated under its leader Leonid Brezhnev (1964-82) the ‘Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty’. The core message of the Brezhnev doctrine, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, was that “the USSR and the community of Socialist nations had the right to intervene if, in their judgment, one of their number was pursuing policies that threaten the essential common interests of the others.”

The Brezhnev doctrine, formulated just weeks after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, was retroactively used to justify the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. It was later used for the first time as a reason for armed intervention in a non-Warsaw pact country when the Soviets marched into Afghanistan in 1979.

The major problem confronting the interventionist policy along the lines that the Saudi coalition is pursuing against Doha is that it violates the Charter of the United Nations (UN) and is therefore illegal under international law (as the Turkish government has already pointed out.) Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter stipulates: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations” (emphasis added).

The exceptions provided to Article 2 (4) by the UN Charter is article 51 which is the right of self-defence by a state against an armed attack and articles 41 and 42 which authorise the UN’s Security Council to empower member countries “to take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security”.

Apart from the blockade being a breach of international law, the fact is that there is also a humanitarian issue across the region since there are numerous reports of families being separated, people forced to leave their jobs, education being disrupted, and the cost of essentials such as food rising on account of the blockade. The rise in food prices especially hurts low-income migrant workers of which there are about 1.5 million in Qatar mainly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. The living and working conditions of many of these workers was already appalling as reported on by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and it now may deteriorate further as a result of the blockade.

Short of a military intervention, which is unlikely, Qatar is not expected to give in to the demands for a subservient foreign policy. If anything,, this entire episode will encourage them to seek closer ties with Iran and Turkey, two countries that openly supported them in the current crisis.

Despite President Trump’s support of the coalition’s efforts to isolate Qatar, the signals from the foreign policy and defence establishments of Western powers indicate that they are exasperated by the Saudi coalition’s move. They see them as a distraction in the war against the Islamic State and in the fight against the Assad regime in Syria. Even Trump has stayed quiet in recent days, perhaps realising that there is a limit to the number of balls that the American military can juggle in the air at the same time. And with US Defence Secretary Mattis favouring a mini-troop surge in Afghanistan for a war that the Americans have been fighting for 16 years and losing, it is all the more important that the Qataris be on board in case talks with the Taliban become necessary (talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were held in Doha in 2015).

Expect then to see then a Washington brokered reconciliation that saves face for both parties through some broadly-worded settlement whose meaning will be elastic enough for both sides to be able to claim victory.

The writer is a group director at the Jang Group.

Email: iqbal.hussain@janggroup.