Qatar: plain sailing

Summary: no resolution of the Qatar vs. four dispute – propaganda continues. Qatar surviving well. US talks up the need for unity. Active foreign policy continues.

The dispute between Qatar and the four – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – which began in May 2017 and which we last considered in our posting of 31 October is no nearer resolution. Egypt may have become something of a sleeping partner though the Egyptian Foreign Minister reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment last month. If King Salman’s invitation to the GCC summit was an olive branch, it was as we commented on 10 December ignored. The Qatari economy has continued to survive well in spite of the boycott by the four. A New York Times report is headed “That Punishing Blockade? ‘We’ve Moved On,’ Qatar Says” and mentions Qatari milk, Qatari tissues and Qatari cucumbers. In November Qatar Airways added a total of eight weekly flights to its services to Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan. More welcome to President Trump, Reuters reports that the Qatar Investment Authority announced during Pompeo’s visit its intention to raise investments in the US in sectors such as real estate to $45 billion in the next two years.

The Emir of Qatar’s yacht Katara

The propaganda war continues, but with reduced intensity; for example Al Jazeera last month published what it claimed was evidence that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain were behind an attempted coup against the Qatari government in 1996. Bahrain has given three opposition members life sentences on charges of spying for Qatar, and Qatar has condemned in a tweet “that its name was mentioned in Bahrain’s internal conflicts.”

On 1 January Qatar left OPEC. The energy minister had said that the move was a “technical and strategic” change and was not politically motivated. That makes sense in that Qatar is no longer a major oil exporter (as opposed to gas exporter), but the move nevertheless has some political colour as a move away from an organisation dominated by Saudi Arabia. According to the New York Times the minister also said Qatar was unwilling “to put efforts and resources and time in an organization that we are a very small player in, and I don’t have a say in what happens.” The headquarters of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum is in Doha (the Secretary-General is a former Russian diplomat

On 8 January retired General Anthony Zinni, the Trump administration’s envoy working to resolve the dispute, resigned from his role saying he felt he had reached a dead-end; “I did not think my services were needed.” According to State Department colleagues there was no bad blood. Yesterday 13 January Mike Pompeo co-chaired with Qatari ministers the opening in Doha of the second US/Qatari Strategic Dialogue (the first was held in Washington in January 2018). This was part of an 8 to 15 January Middle East tour to Amman, Baghdad, Erbil, Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat and Kuwait (Kuwait has reportedly been dropped; how the trip is funded is a question for Washington-watchers – the State Department has had to announce that website updates are limited because of a lapse in appropriations“).

State Department reports on the trip so far say his discussions in Qatar included “the importance of a united GCC“, though there is no mention of that in the summaries of talks in Cairo, Manama or Abu Dhabi or in the forecast of the agenda for Riyadh. According to a joint US/Qatari statement the two governments expressed concern about the impact of the Gulf crisis, and Qatar emphasised its appreciation of US support for the Amir of Kuwait in resolving the dispute. In advance of his Riyadh meetings Pompeo said yesterday 13 January that he had raised the rift with officials in Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE. “It’s … not at all clear that the rift is any closer to being resolved today than it was yesterday and I regret that.” His emphasis throughout has been on the need for solidarity against Iran, but there is no mention of any sticks or carrots which might move the parties away from their entrenched positions.

Qatar continues to pursue active foreign policy initiatives, though with less pizzazz than five years ago. For example on 26 January it airlifted 24 armoured vehicles to Mali, in a move it said would help the countries of the African Sahel region combat terrorism. (Karim Wade, son of a former president of Senegal, is in “exile” in Qatar after serving a six-year prison sentence for corruption.) According to an Egypt Independent report Qatar has proposed building an airport in Gaza and awaits a response from Israel; Israel had counter-proposed that it should be on the Israeli side of the border which Qatar rejected. A fourth round of US talks with the Taleban due this week in Qatar has been called off because of disagreement about the involvement of Afghan officials (more detail from an Afghan media source at link. Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan is to visit Qatar on 22 January; according to a Pakistani media report Qatar has promised to employ over 100,000 Pakistanis during the 2022 football World Cup, and according to a Nepali media report Qatar has proposed to build a $1.2 million mega airport in Nepal.

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