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Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Arab split: Qatar’s isolation by its neighbours exacerbates Middle East tensions (The Times of India - 7 June 2017)

     With Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cutting off ties with Qatar, the Arab world has plunged into further turmoil. Yemen, Libya’s eastern-based government and the Maldives too have joined the ban against Qatar which sees a severing of diplomatic ties with Doha apart from blocking off land, air and sea routes to the gas-rich nation. The immediate provocation for the move appears to be statements purportedly made by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, supporting Muslim Brotherhood and criticising the Sunni coalition against Iran. However, tensions have been brewing over Qatar’s actions within the Gulf Cooperation Council for years.
     Qatar’s position within the coalition of Gulf Arab nations has been different from other members. Although Doha sees itself as a neutral mediator, its support for groups representing political Islam such as the Palestinian Hamas and the Brotherhood has riled Riyadh. Plus, Qatar is seen as soft on Iran with which it shares the world’s largest gas field. That Qatar’s isolation by its powerful neighbours comes just weeks after US President Donald Trump used his Saudi visit to squarely blame Iran for fuelling extremism in the region may not be a coincidence. Riyadh could be using this opportunity to curb dissent within the Sunni flock and get them to line up behind it.
     The ban against Qatar will certainly hurt the Qatari economy, which will impact the many Indians working there. Most of Qatar’s food supplies are imported via Saudi Arabia and Doha has emerged as an international aviation hub. These are bound to be affected. However, signs are that Qatar is looking to negotiate its way out of the blockade, having stated that the statements attributed to Sheikh Thani were the handiwork of hackers. If the US is not in its corner, Qatar has few options.
     This is a pity as Shia-Sunni sectarian strife will only provide a fillip to terror groups such as Islamic State. What’s needed is for Arab countries to work out a compact with Iran. Given US interests in the region, this is precisely what Washington ought to be facilitating. As far as India is concerned, New Delhi has done well to state this is an internal matter for the Gulf countries to handle. Its only focus should be to provide assistance – if required – to Indians in Qatar.

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