The Gulf divided

This report from the UK think tank Chatham House looks at the impact of the Qatar crisis on the Gulf.

Since June 2017, Qatar has been subject to a boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt (the Arab Quartet). This has created a deep and lasting rift with ripple effects across the Middle East and Horn of Africa. It has also divided the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), hitherto one of the only functioning regional organizations in the Arab world, which has in effect been suspended because three of its members are boycotting Qatar. The dispute has reached a stalemate, but not the ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ often held to be necessary for a conflict to be resolved. Instead, the leaders of the countries concerned appear content to live with this new rift – and in some ways are drawing strength from it, by using a new external enemy to bolster nationalist sentiment.

The main reason for the rift is that the countries of the Arab Quartet object to Qatar’s support for political Islamist movements across the Middle East, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the Quartet has raised the stakes with a list of 13, wide-ranging demands for Qatar to change its policies – including that Qatar should close down highly influential state-funded broadcaster, Al Jazeera. This demand has helped Qatar to contend that it is being punished for supporting pro-democracy movements and free media, rather than acknowledge that some of the Quartet’s criticisms may be justified. Rivalries between Gulf monarchies are not new, but this crisis has had a greater impact because of the unprecedented international reach that the Gulf monarchies now have, through their active foreign policies, trade and investment links, and sovereign wealth fund activity.

Even if the trade embargo is resolved, deep divisions and mistrust among Gulf countries are now likely to be a long-standing feature of wider regional politics. This adds further complications to a region that is already dealing with simultaneous civil wars, mounting tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and several insurgencies. Rather than regarding the GCC as their primary regional alliance, the Gulf countries are now pursuing new alignments. The new regional alignments will reflect shifting, issue-based coalitions rather than hard alliances, reflecting the complexity of the current regional conflicts. There is an international consensus that the Gulf crisis should be resolved through dialogue, but few international actors have done much to press for this goal.

The US – the key external actor – has taken a confused and inconsistent approach, leading to some cynicism in the region, where there is a widespread narrative that Western powers seek to ‘divide and rule’ the Arab world, and their profits from arms sales are noted. This paper lays out in some detail the reasons for the dispute, and suggests some elements of a possible future resolution.

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