Qatar: New dawn or false dawn?

15th March 2021 in
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After over three years, the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia has been Riyadh, and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies, re-opened the border (previously intended to become a nuclear waste-filled canal) and have ended the trade blockade. While this is good news in the short term, in truth it is unlikely to change the undercurrent of bitterness and resentment in the region and does nothing to resolve the prominent and rising tensions with Iran.

The diplomatic, trade and travel embargo imposed on Qatar by the Saudi-led GCC coalition was purportedly implemented as a result of the former’s ongoing support of Iran and alleged funding of terrorist groups. A list of thirteen demands, designed so as to be unacceptable (including closing down premier TV channel Al-Jazeera) was presented as the only thing that would bring Qatar back into the GCC fold. But this intimidation had far from the desired effect: Qatar’s economy was certainly impacted but on nothing like the scale that was expected, due in large part to its continued trade ties with non-GCC states, and its political position with states in ideological opposition to Riyadh, such as Turkey and Iran, was arguably enhanced. While the forthcoming agreement is the result of months of diplomacy, led not least by the USA and Kuwait – and getting all parties to the table is a credible agreement – its deliverables appear to be only a lifting of the blockade in return for no legal action taken by Qatar. No hint that Qatar will have to submit to the unacceptable demands from four years ago. But crucially also, no punishment for Saudi Arabia either, which means that effectively the GCC cabal has got away with imposing punitive measures on a neighbour on a political and ideological basis, moreso than any foundation in fact.

What has thus been created is an end to the active diplomatic crisis, but the continuation (and potentially even worsening) of the passive one. Qatar cannot help but be resentful, not only of the way in which it was ‘ganged up upon’ by its neighbours for what it believes was an entirely unjustified cause, but that the lifting of the blockade is contingent upon taking no legal action against its fellows. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia assuredly still feels that its complaints against Qatar, in terms of both closeness to Iran and funding of terrorism, have not been addressed in terms of preventing Qatar from continuing with both if it so chooses.

So what we have is an agreement borne out of necessity, to attempt to ‘unify’ the Arab nations in the Middle East in light of Israel’s continuing resurgence as a relationship-driven powerhouse and the global challenges posed not least by Covid-19, but one which at heart will satisfy neither party. Both the Saudi and Qatari wings will thus have reason, and licence, to continue with their vendettas by other means, such as use of physical proxies and targeted cyber-attacks against each other, which could just as easily affect any business setting up in either – hence why great care needs to be taken to identify the risks, weaknesses and threats inherent in operating in either market and understanding that these are likely to be worsened by the ongoing political climate.

It is debatable to say how the Iranian crisis of January 2020 would have developed had coronavirus never existed. The assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the accidental self-inflicted shootdown of the Iranian airliner and the attack on military bases all served to raise tensions to arguably their highest ever regional level which coronavirus then placed on the back burner, at least in global consciousness. But with an agreement that changes almost nothing, and with the underlying issues unresolved (with a point of order being raised about whether they ever could be), this latest détente is likely to be nothing more than a false dawn.

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