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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Diplomatic mayhem (The Hindu- 6 June 2017)

     The Saudi-led bid to isolate Qatar could have far-reaching economic-political consequences

     The dramatic decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen to suspend diplomatic ties with Qatar could have far-reaching economic and geopolitical consequences. Tensions were brewing within the Gulf Cooperation Council for the past six years ever since Qatar started actively supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamist movement that the Saudis and their close allies see as a threat to stability in West Asia. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain had temporarily withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar over this. But a suspension of diplomatic ties as well as air and sea travel to and from Qatar is unprecedented. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on Monday asked Qatari diplomats to leave their countries within 48 hours and Qatari citizens within 14 days. Saudi Arabia blames Qatar for “harbouring a multitude of terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to create instability in the region”. But such allegations can be raised against most Gulf countries. It is an open secret that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar back their proxy militant groups throughout West Asia. Take the case of Syria, where the Saudis back Salafi groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, while the Qataris bankroll the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both share the same goal: to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In Yemen, Qatar is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been bombing the country for over two years.

     It is not immediately clear what drove Riyadh to take this extreme step. Emboldened by President Donald Trump’s open embrace and anti-Iran agenda, the kingdom could be making a renewed attempt to rally Sunni countries under its leadership against Tehran. Qatar has historically played off both sides of the Saudi-Iran rivalry. Even as it joined the occasional GCC outbursts against Tehran, it maintained sound economic and diplomatic ties. Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who had a phone conversation with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani last week, is reportedly critical of the Saudi-led efforts to drive up an anti-Iran agenda. It is to be seen whether Saudi Arabia has overplayed its hand. If Qatar continues to resist the GCC line, it could trigger a wider crisis in the region. Qatar is an economic powerhouse in the Gulf and hosts the headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command. The air war command for the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is also in Qatar. So any prolonged attempt to isolate the country would not only have economic consequences — oil prices fluctuated soon after the decision was announced — but also complicate the fight against the IS yet more. What West Asia requires is a united front against terror and lowering of Saudi-Iran tensions. Opening new fronts in the rivalry will only destabilise the region further.

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