What’s at stake in the Gulf equation?
The crisis that began last week with some Gulf countries cutting diplomatic relations with Qatar has not stopped or de-escalated yet. Despite calls from superpowers and attempts by states like Kuwait and Turkey, the Gulf countries that launched the blockade against Qatar have not changed their policies as of today. This situation has convinced some observers of regional politics that the crisis may escalate into a major confrontation in the region. The repercussions of such an escalation for regional politics as well as international security and economy will be hard to control.
Thus, regardless of the reason behind this crisis, it is important to understand that it is taking place at a critical juncture in Middle Eastern history. Aside from the escalation of the crisis, the time, effort and resources that will be spent to resolve this crisis in the coming days and weeks will be an important distraction from very urgent problems in the region as a whole. It will provide an important window of opportunity for the Bashar Assad regime to make itself forgotten under the cloud of the crisis in the Gulf. The crisis will have no winners but many losers.
Although observers of the region knew about the competition and tension between Qatar and other Gulf countries, many had not expected a sudden escalation. In particular, in a period when the U.S. launched its Raqqa operation in Syria, when a major offensive is taking place in Mosul, and more importantly, when there have been rumors of increasing U.S. attention on Iran, not many people had predicted such a strong escalation.
It is hard to understand at this point why these countries picked this time. Questions and analyses of the intentions of these countries have not been satisfactorily responded to yet. Of course, this was a rather unfortunate decision considering different dynamics and the presence of multiple civil wars and conflicts in the region. This crisis, if not contained in a very short period of time, will result in serious problems about the future of the Arab world in general and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in particular.
While trying to “punish” Qatar for its alleged relations with Iran, these countries can alienate Qatar totally and lead to its “shift of axis.” Thus, it can lead to a reorientation of the foreign policy of different countries watching the crisis warily. Furthermore, the crisis may result in a long-term fault line in the Arab world that can be manipulated and used by other parties.
Although diplomatic attempts may resolve the conflict at the political level, at the public level, it will be harder to fix the damage if these countries continue to blockade Qatar, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia also contributed to theories in regards to the timing of the decision. In fact, while some people were wondering if there is connection between President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and this sudden escalation, President Trump’s later tweets about the Qatar crisis convinced many about a direct connection. Soon after, multiple statements by the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State, in regards to the crisis, and the difference in tone and content of their statements from the tweets of the president resulted in major confusion about the U.S. position on the crisis.
As mentioned in a previous article, this confusion has always been very destructive for the leadership of the U.S. in the world. Thus, this inconsistency raised a serious problem for American foreign policy decision-making. Such a major crisis with very significant sanctions may also distract attention from the fight against Daesh, which the U.S. has considered as a threat that needs to be destroyed immediately. This concern has been raised in multiple instances by the U.S. security establishment since the beginning of the crisis. However, so far it has had limited impact on the behavior of the Gulf countries.
It is important to remember that this crisis at such a critical time may bring too many unintended consequences for the region and impact international security priorities. Thus, at the end of the day it will be a crisis with no clear winners. With the continuation of the crisis and its extension, this damage will also increase.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on June 12, 2017.