Written By: Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal
Since the beginning of twenty-first century the Middle Eastern nations have been encountering various subverting challenges. Militancy, domestic turmoil, struggles for regional hegemony, politics of intervention, sectarian animosity and Great Powers' interference have immensely destabilized the entire region. The oil and gas resources improved the living style of the people and provided the ruling elite to invest in state building instead of nation building. Consequently, almost every Middle Eastern state is victim of political instability. They are suffering from indigenous political movements to insurgencies of varying level. The tribal mindset and subjective-cum-parochial political culture are obstructing the nation building and self-governing processes in these nations. Instead of concentrating on nation building, improving the governance system and regional prosperity, the Gulf Cooperation Council has spent over $1 trillion on mostly high-end Western military equipment since the turn of the millennium. The gigantic investment in the arms procurement not only deepens the security dilemma and increases arms race, but also causes war between/among neighbors.
The current Middle Eastern crisis mirrors exactly the regional realpolitik disaster. Hypothetically speaking, the client state struggle to act as a regional power displeased the status quo favored nations. The status quo nations aligned against the revisionist states. The struggle for dominance has literally turned much of the region into the battlefield. Indeed, it’s neither sectarian conflict nor ideological competition. It’s simply realpolitik or quest for supremacy. The following discussion is an attempt to answer three interlinked questions, i.e., What are the causes of current Middle East imbroglio? Is it reshaping the Middle Eastern strategic environment? How should Pakistan respond to the Arab states conflict?
Qatar’s outsized and independent role in the regional politics frustrated its Arab neighbors. On June 5, 2017 Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and United Arab Emirates cut off diplomatic relations and attempted to impose an economic boycott of Qatar – a tiny-yet-wealthy peninsular Middle Eastern state. Three Arab states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE – cut air, sea, and land links and ordered Qatari diplomats and citizens to leave their countries within two weeks. Egypt, however, refrained from calling back its nearly 250,000 nationals working in Qatar. In addition, Yemen, Maldives and the pro-UAE faction that controls the east of Libya quickly followed suit.
The Saudi-led coalition’s collective decision to siege Qatar was officially justified as part of these nations’ 'apparently' fight against terrorism. They accused Qatar for supporting terrorist groups including Daesh (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar formerly declared the allegations baseless. The UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash stated: “This is a foreign policy that has gone wild. We need to put everything in check.” Many analysts opined that Saudi Arabia-led coalition was disturbed due to Doha’s closeness to Tehran, Islamist movements and supporting political Islam. Raymond Barrett, author of Dubai Dreams: Inside the Kingdom of Bling, opined: “Qatar has been ostracized by its “brotherly” neighbors, as the language of regional diplomacy has it, for not kowtowing to the collective vision for the Middle East now largely shared by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel.” Nevertheless, the punitive diplomatic measures were attempted to germinate political, societal and economic crisis for Qatar.
The feud between Riyadh and Doha has been simmering for years. The critical review of Qatar’s foreign policy reveals that since mid-1980s, Doha has been endeavoring to break away from Riyadh ascendancy to chalk out an independent foreign policy. It had established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, a Saudi adversary, in 1988. Saudi and Qatari soldiers clashed at the border in 1992. In the 1994 Yemen civil war, Qatar and Saudi Arabia backed opposing sides. From late 1990s, Doha has increased its struggle to get itself on the map as an independent state instead of a vassal state of Saudi Arabia. The 2011 Arab Spring furthered mistrust among Arab nations. Doha’s activist foreign policy irritated its neighboring states. For instance, Riyadh and Doha supported opposing political parties in Tunisia. Consequently, Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini ambassadors were withdrawn from Doha in 2014. Below are a few factors, which collectively culminated in the current Middle East crisis.
First, the Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Egyptians are immensely against Islamist political parties. The political Islam is neither acceptable to Kings/Sheikhs nor dictators because it questions their legitimacy to rule their people. It’s an open secret that Qatar’s ruling elite supports political Islam or Islamist political parties such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, has been living in Qatar since 1960s. Qatar’s television station Al Jazeera programs during and after the Arab Spring in 2011 (Arab Spring which resulted in the forceful exit of a few dictators and rulers from the Arab states) alarmed these states. Egypt and Saudi Arabia pressurized Doha to freeze all bank accounts and expel Brotherhood and Hamas leaders residing in Qatar. Doha, however, adopted denial approach.
Second, these countries are equally disturbed by Doha’s increasing influence far and wide due to its vast coffers. Its regional as well as international clout has improved in the recent years. It was rightly pointed out: “If foreign governments had to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian group Hamas, Chechen separatists or even the Taliban, they often went through Qatar.” In reality, Qatar ceased to act as a vassal state of Saudi Arabia in the regional politics. It took independent decisions on various occasions, especially cultivating close bilateral relations with Iran and sponsoring grassroot Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood branches across the Arab world. Doha supports these movements for spreading its influence and extending its geopolitical leverage in the Middle East.
Third, Abu Dhabi is very much concerned about the increasing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region. The Muslim Brotherhood-led grassroot movements have the potential to challenge the status quo in the UAE’s poorer Emirates. Importantly, the local Muslim Brotherhood branches have maintained a support base in these Emirates for decades. Hence, naturally, Qatar’s political and financial support to Muslim Brotherhood is against the national security of United Arab Emirates. Moreover, both Abu Dhabi and Doha are entangled in proxy war in Libya since the demise of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The former opposes latter’s present backing to Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition (“Libya Dawn”) government in Tripoli against internationally recognized Tobruk-based Libyan government. Emirates is determined to counter Qatar’s influence in war-torn state particularly to quash Muslim Brotherhood’s sanctuaries in Libya.
Fourth, the Saudis did not appreciate Qatar’s decision to pay $1bn ransom to al-Qaeda affiliates and Iran-backed militiamen in Iraq for the release of 26 members of a Qatari falcon-hunting party, including nine members of Al Thani ruling family. The falcon-hunting party was captured in southern Iraq in December 2015. The Iranian-backed Shia militia held the party hostage for 16 months. According to Financial Times report: “Qatar paid $700 million to Iran and Shiite militias supported by the regime. An additional sum of between $200 million and $300 million was paid to Syria, most of it to al-Qaeda-affiliated group Tahrir al-Sham.” Thus, Qatari officials paid $1 billion in ransom for the release of falconry party. The bulk of the funds allegedly made their way to the Iranian officials and affiliated Shiite militias. Perhaps, a billion-dollar ransom would be enough to buy a lot of explosives to boost proxy wars in the region. In a joint statement Saudi Arabia and its allies also announced the placing of 59 individuals and 12 organizations on a “terror list”. The terror list includes Qatari and Qatar-based businessmen, government officials, members of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family, exiled Egyptian cleric Yusuf Al Qaradawi, etc.
Fifth, Saudis distrust Qatar's support to Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi. The former accused the latter for secretly helping to fight the Iranian-linked Houthi rebels in Yemen. Doha’s support to Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip and is a rival of the Palestinian Authority, is also not acceptable to Riyadh and its Arab allies. Moreover, Qatar’s sponsored ‘Four Towns’ agreement in Syria on March 29, 2017, negotiated with Iran and Hezbollah was criticized as forced displacements by Saudi-led coalition.
Sixth, Bahrain's ruling elite is convinced that Qatar finances groups associated with Iran to subvert and spread chaos in Bahrain. On June 16, 2017, Bahraini authorities revealed recordings of phone conversations between Hamad bin Khalifa al-Attiyah, the special adviser to the former Emir Qatar, and Bahraini opposition cleric Hassan Ali Mohammed Jumaa Sultan (key leaders of al-Wefaq Party), where both conspired to provoke chaos in Bahrain in 2011.
Seventh, the increasing cooperation between Iran and Qatar is not acceptable to Saudi Arabia. Whereas, Qatar seems determined in sustaining its economic relations with Iran because both share exploration rights of world’s largest gas field – 9,700 sq-km expanse that holds at least 43 trillion cubic metres of gas reserves deep in the Gulf waters. The tension between Riyadh and Tehran has increased in the recent months. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview in May 2017, with Middle East Broadcasting Corp, stated that the battle with the Islamic republic would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia”. Iranian Defence Minister General Hossein Dehghan responded that in “such stupidity” nothing would be “left in Saudi Arabia except Mecca and Medina.” Nevertheless, the Saudi Arab and UAE isolating moves would draw Qatar closer to Iran. Tehran certainly seizes the opportunity and assists Doha.
Eighth, the Saudis and their allies were agitated by the incendiary comments by Qatar’s Emir Tamim at a military graduation ceremony on May 23, 2017. They claimed that Emir Tamim “expressed support for Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Israel – while suggesting that U.S. President Donald Trump may not last in power.” He also described Hamas as “the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and called Iran “a big power in the stabilization of the region.” Doha officially denied authenticity of Emir Tamim speech and claimed that the Qatar News Agency website had been hacked and false statements were posted on it.
Ninth, the autocratic Arab ruling elite desires to tame journalistic independence or close down Qatar’s television station Al Jazeera. They accused it of promoting terrorist groups in Yemen and sparking divisions in Saudi Arabia. Egyptian authorities accused it of being the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The general perception was that Saudi Arab might repeat its Yemeni strategy (2015 Operation Decisive Storm; the Saudi and UAE-led intervention in Yemen) after isolating Qatar diplomatically and economically. The trends indicate that the probability of Saudi Arab military adventurism is remote. Turkey’s decision to send 3000 soldiers, Iran’s announcement of support and above all the U.S. military air base in Al Udeid, Qatar (employed for U.S.-led strikes on ISIS in Syria and Iraq) would deter Saudi military action against Qatar. Kuwait and Oman would also discourage Saudis from any such military action. In April 2017, Oman and Iran conducted joint naval exercise (search and rescue) in the territorial waters of the Sea of Oman. On June 19, 2017 the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs of the UAE, Anwar Gargash stated: “We bet on time, we do not want to escalate the situation, we want to isolate it.” Hence, military offensive is not on the agenda of the Saudi-led coalition of five Arab countries.
Although the UAE severed its ties with Qatar, yet the emirate of Dubai seems uncomfortable due to tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates investment in Dubai and latter’s port Jebel Ali merchandise with Qatar, which is one of the largest containers shipping line in the Middle East. To check the dissenting voice in the UAE, the government has banned people from publishing expressions of sympathy towards Qatar. The UAE Attorney-General Hamad Saif al-Shamsi said to the Gulf News: “Strict and firm action will be taken against anyone who shows sympathy or any form of bias towards Qatar, or against anyone who objects to the position of the United Arab Emirates, whether it be through the means of social media, or any type of written, visual or verbal form.” The violator could be imprisoned for 15 years and pay a minimum fine of at least 500,000 dirhams (£105,446 or $136,115).
Turkey and Kuwait had endeavored to lower the temperature. They offered their good offices to facilitate peace talks. Importantly, Ankara’s immediate offer for mediation among the Arab states lacks acceptability because it had already declared Qatar its ally in the region. In 2014, it set up its first Middle Eastern military base in Qatar with some 150 troops. On June 7, 2017 Turkish parliament approved an agreement to increase the contingent of Turkish forces deployed at the Turkish base in Qatar. Secondly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the Saudi-UAE effort to isolate Qatar. Third, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani showed strong support for the Turkish government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during and after July 2016 failed military coup attempt in Turkey. Fourth, since the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013, the relations between Ankara and Cairo have been distressing. It is because Turkey like Qatar had “provided support for the Egyptian revolution and condemned the military coup that brought the country's current leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, into power.”
The preceding discussion reveals that three sub-regional blocs in the Middle East are in the process of formulation. Iran, Yemen, Syria and Iraq constitute one bloc. The non-state organizations associated with this bloc are Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah and the Houthis. Saudi Arabia steward the second bloc, which included Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. The third bloc contains Turkey, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and the forces instrumental in the Arab Spring. The first and third bloc policies converge. Tehran was quick, therefore, to let Doha know it was ready to help in any way it could. “Iran kept its airspace and ports open to Qatar, and half a dozen of Iranian cargo planes have delivered supplies to the blockaded Qataris.” Whereas; the second bloc is determined to contain the influence of both Shia Islam as well as political Islam in the Middle East.
In reality, the tussle among the Middle Eastern states is in the advantage of transnational terrorist organizations and the Great Powers. The current crisis further destabilizes a region already grappling with three civil wars and jihadist insurgencies on several fronts. It emboldens Islamic State (Daesh), al-Qaeda etc. to attack on the law enforcement agencies and secure their sanctuaries in the region. On June 7, 2017 Islamic State attacked on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. It killed 12 and 46 were wounded. The terrorist attacks are likely to further aggravate tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Great Powers’ interference systematically increases in the regional politics. These not only sell their obsolete weapons to the Arab nations but also exploit their differences for curbing their sovereign decision making in the global affairs. Americans and Russians Middle Eastern policies have been contributing in widening the regional fault lines. Moscow maintains strategic relations with Tehran, whereas Washington backs Riyadh against Iran.
Remarkably, Trump Administration failed to articulate a coordinated Washington position on the current Middle Eastern crisis. Is it a deliberate approach? President Donald Trump in his speech in Riyadh on May 20, 2017 explicitly encouraged Saudi Arabia and its likeminded states against Iran. He categorically alleged Iran as the world’s sponsor of terrorism: “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” On June 6, 2017 he also praised Saudi-led alliance actions against terrorist groups and their sympathizers. He tweeted: “During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” Precisely, President Trump endorsed the siege of Qatar and professed it the beginning of the end of terrorism.
Importantly, the American establishment cannot ignore Qatar entirely because it is home to some 10,000 American troops at the Al Udeid Air Base. At the same time, increasing cooperation between Doha and Tehran is intolerable for Washington. The punitive measures against Qatar are not viewed in the interest of United States. Therefore, senior Trump Administration members acted cautiously. They called for dialogue to end the crisis. Consequently, President Trump caved into the establishment approach and offered to host a meeting in White House to resolve Arab states crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson called on Qatar “to be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors.” He added: “We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar.” In addition, on June 14, 2017 the U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and his Qatari counterpart Khalid al-Attiyah signed a letter of agreement for a $12-billion sale of U.S.-manufactured F-15 fighters. Pentagon statement pointed out: “The $12-billion sale will give Qatar a state-of-the-art capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the United States and Qatar.” Precisely, Washington is profiting from selling lethal arms to both Riyadh and Doha.
Qatar seems under siege from its neighbors. They cut transport links, making it difficult to import and export goods including water and perishable food items. Turkey and Iran’s political, diplomatic, economic and military assistance prevent Qatar from complete regional isolation. The support of these countries, however, cannot ensure the continuity of economic growth of the tiny Arab state. The neighbors’ siege has serious socio-economic repercussions and thereby the panic is noticeable in several sectors including shipping, food, airlines, banking, stocks, etc. According to CAPA Center for Aviation report: “Losing Saudi, Bahrain, and UAE airspace would effectively ground Qatar Airways.” Similarly, losing Dubai port Jebel Ali not only delays shipments but also increases the cost of container transportation. The Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain banks are delaying letters of credit and other deals with Qatari banks. This could instigate investors to pull out from Qatari banks. Precisely, Qatar’s economy is suffering from tangible detrimental shocks of diplomatic crisis. Notwithstanding, Doha is encountering immense economic difficulties, but seem determined to continue defying neighboring Arab states interference in its foreign policy. On June 13, 2017, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani categorically stated: “Whatever relates to our foreign affairs ... no one has the right to discuss.” Precisely, Doha despite economic and diplomatic pressure seems determined to maintain its independent foreign policy in the Middle East.
Pakistan announced to continue its diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar. Simultaneously, “The Prime Minister reaffirmed the strong commitment of the people and the government of Pakistan to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Kingdom, and the safety of Harmain al Sharifain.” Actually, Islamabad needs to maintain cordial bilateral relations with all the Middle Eastern nations. Indeed, it’s difficult. The problematic probability is that Saudi Arab-led coalition may adopt a ‘you are with us or you are against us’ approach. In 2015, Pakistan’s parliament recommendation to adopt neutrality in Yemen conflict annoyed Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria reiterated the spirit of Parliament’s recommendation again on June 13, 2017: “Pakistan believes in unity among Muslim countries. We have made consistent efforts for its promotion.” Is neutrality in the interest of Pakistan?
The warlike situation in the Middle East obviously undercuts the prospects of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project in particular and China’s One Belt, One Road initiative in general. Therefore, Islamabad needs to be proactive in resolving the prevalent Arab crisis. The National Assembly (Pakistan) called upon “all countries to show restraint and resolve all differences through dialogue. This house also calls upon the government to take concrete steps towards forging unity amongst the Muslim Ummah in the region.” On June 12, 2017 while responding to the demand of the House, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accompanied by senior ministers and Chief of Army Staff, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Riyadh for a quick resolution of the crisis. Instead of using multilateral approach i.e., using the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for bringing about peace and stability in the Middle East, Pakistani leadership adopted bilateral approach to mediate between the conflicting parties. Nevertheless, the latter’s approach for finding a diplomatic solution to the Qatar crisis has not achieved any breakthrough so far.
To conclude, from Riyadh to Doha and from Cairo to Tehran, Islamabad has genuinely friendly and stable ties with all sides. Sustaining cordial relations with the Saudi-led coalition of five Arab countries is imperative. Simultaneously, the continuity of friendly relations with Qatar, Iran, Turkey is in the national interest of Pakistan. Therefore, siding with any one party would be counterproductive. Hence, Islamabad can only act as a neutral interlocutor in rescuing the region from current imbroglio, instead of getting embroiled in the Middle Eastern conflict. Hence, it is in Pakistan’s interest to convince the conflicting parties to climb down from their maximalist demands and reach a broadly acceptable compromise for the sake of peace in the Middle East.
The writer is Associate Professor at School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.