Summary: the Qatar vs four dispute appears trivial and absurd but has real consequences – human, political, economic, defence.
The dispute between Qatar and the four (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt) which began in May 2017 shows no signs of abating. As we commented in our posting of 11 June four have little or no support from the outside world – Egypt is to some extent a sleeping partner. The dispute is widely regarded as pointless and meaningless.
Al Jazeera and other pro-Qatari media miss no opportunity of criticising the four, and have devalued themselves in the process. As an example their coverage of the Saudi row with Canada, where it is admittedly difficult to find much to say in favour of the Saudi position, is comprehensive and damning. According to pro-Qatari reports when the Amir of Qatar visited London last month “Saudi Twitter robots – known as bots – were in overdrive… Thousands of tweets were sent out using the #OpposeQatarVisit hashtag… a large number of the profiles using the hashtag were likely bots, designed to spread fake news about Qatar…”
Propaganda for the four is often cruder, pretty much at the schoolroom abuse level, for example in an article in the Saudi Gazette on various Qatari allegations “It is amazing how people can lie to your face, knowing that you can see through their lies”, or another article “The absurdity of Qatar’s rant” published in al-Arabi al-Jadid and quoted in translation in the Jerusalem Post; Qatari officials who have described protests in Iraq as fuelled by foreign powers “were alluding of course, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia… these accusations are extremely hypocritical. It is Qatar, after all, that stood behind the revolutions that swept almost every country in the Middle East, from Tunisia, to Egypt and Yemen. Doha graciously provided funding to any organization or movement that sought to undermine one of its neighbors’ regimes.”
Propaganda apart, the dispute has had harmful effects on the real world in a number of ways. One obvious effect has been to complicate the lives of reportedly more than 600 families with mixed Saudi/Qatari nationality. There are contradictory reports about arrangements for Qatari citizens to make the pilgrimage to Mecca later this month.
Saudi Arabia has announced its intention of building a canal along the Saudi/Qatar border, 1 km inside Saudi territory. 60 km long, it would cost 2.8 billion rials ($750 million). Described as a massive political setback for Qatar, it is also claimed to “bring in a considerable portion of sea trade and water tourism” as well as marinas, five-star hotels and other tourist attractions”, plus a couple of nuclear power stations, claims which are viewed sceptically if not debunked by outside commentators.
According to one report Rex Tillerson, then US Secretary of State, intervened last summer to stop a secret Saudi-led, UAE-backed plan to invade and essentially conquer Qatar. Frustrated by his attempts to mediate and end the blockade of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE lobbied for his removal.
A Reuters report yesterday 8 August on the Saudi/Canada row includes the quarrel with Qatar in a list of “assertive political and diplomatic initiatives” by Saudi Arabia which threaten to undermine Riyadh’s foreign investment drive.
Last month Qatar brought a case to the International Court of Justice (not as alleged in some reports the International Criminal Court) accusing the UAE of breaching the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), to which both countries are signatories. No doubt the case will take months or years, quite possibly outlasting the political dispute. So far the ICJ has issued a series of cautiously worded press releases. One issued on 23 July “indicates provisional measures to protect certain rights claimed by Qatar and orders the Parties to refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute”, naturally welcomed by both sides as a victory, and another of 1 August fixes time limits in 2019 for “initial pleadings”..
In a separate case the ICJ is considering an appeal by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE against a decision of 29 June by the International Civil Aviation Organisation about restrictions on air travel imposed by the four as part of the blockade.
Perhaps the weightiest consequence of the dispute is its effect on defence against the Iranian ballistic missile threat. Qatar is geographically in the front line and is home to the biggest US military base in the region. Like the other Gulf states it has invested heavily in missile defences, including both radar and Patriot missiles.
The problem is considered in a Brookings report of 20 June. Believing that effective defence requires an integrated system within the GCC the US had “all the necessary building blocks… in place” by the end of the Obama administration. But the Qatar vs the four dispute “seems to be a key impediment to progress… According to press reports, U.S.-led efforts are seeking to resolve the rift between GCC states with the objective of holding a U.S.-GCC summit in Washington this September, though it is uncertain whether the summit will actually take place.” Legislation before Congress also calls for missile defence integration.