Six months later, lessons from a failed siege

Six months into the GCC crisis, Qatar has effectively neutralised the impact of the siege against it.

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    Qatar has withstood the siege impacts essentially by pursuing several parallel policies, writes Khouri [AP]
    Qatar has withstood the siege impacts essentially by pursuing several parallel policies, writes Khouri [AP]

    This week marks six months since four Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposed a siege on Qatar, accused it of endangering their security by supporting terrorists and aligning with Iran, and demanded specific policy changes or else face harsher pressures. Despite serious high-level Kuwaiti, American, and European mediation, the situation remains unresolved and stalemated - yet several important outcomes are already evident.

    One is about the limits of economic, diplomatic, and military power, even in the hands of powerful countries like Saudi Arabia, the United States, Germany and its European partners, and others, who have tried but failed to achieve their desired outcomes. 

    Another is about the ability of determined small countries like Qatar to mobilise their own public opinion in order to withstand the immense pressures they face - a lesson that was also repeated in Lebanon in November when Saudi Arabia pressured that country. A third is that the ever-changing Middle Eastern landscape of regional and global powers allows countries like Qatar to survive by quickly adjusting their strategic linkages and economic-logistical networks, given the independent actions of powers like Turkey and Iran, and smaller states like Oman - such structural reconfigurations of the strategic military, economic, and transport relationships between Arab and non-Arab Middle Eastern powers are perhaps the most important outcome of the last six months. A fourth is the weakness of Arab groupings like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose utility and relevance have both been badly exposed as being extremely thin, and perhaps irrelevant.

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    The most important underlying lesson from this stalemate is that the Saudi Arabia and the UAE are determined to use military, economic, and political pressures around the entire Middle East in order to achieve results that are … well, that are still unclear to most observers. The initial 13 demands on Qatar by the Saudi-UAE duo (the other siege-supporting countries are supporting secondary actors) addressed issues they felt threatened their national well-being. Observers have widely viewed the accusations against Qatar variously as exaggerated, untrue, unreasonable, or equally applicable to most of the six GCC states (the most prominent demands were to close the Al Jazeera television network, curtail ties with Iran, end support for terrorists, and cut ties with Islamist groups). They went nowhere and were widely ridiculed, including effectively being called unreasonable by the US government.

    Weeks later, in July, these demands were followed up by a list of six more reasonable principles that the siege-states wanted Qatar to accept, on not supporting or funding terrorists, and non-interference in neighbours' affairs. Doha replied that it was open to dialogue at any time to resolve the issues in question, but not under siege, threats, or infringements of its sovereignty. Yet dialogue seems off the table for now, and if we are to believe the comments made by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his latest mediation attempt, it is because the key Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is not interested in dialogue.

    A Qatari exit from the GCC would be problematic for the Saudis and Emiratis in two ways: first, Qatar has shown that it is able to adjust its strategic, economic, and logistical relationships very quickly, and thus to neutralise most of the impacts of the siege; and second, the Saudi-Emirati failure in Qatar creates negative backlashes for them, as potential commercial or political partners around the world may think twice about entering into agreements with countries that can so quickly and harshly turn against their own long-time regional partners.

     

    The GCC summit that is currently taking place in Kuwait, with all six members invited, is unlikely to make any headway in resolving the conflict, as it has already been cut short by a day. The conflict also apparently will not be resolved by Qatar folding under the pressures of the siege, or by Saudi-Emirati reversal of positions due to the failed siege.

    Mohammad Bin Salman has recently called the Qatar feud a "very, very small" issue, indicating that the Saudi-Emirati leaders are willing to maintain the pressure on Qatar for years if need be, and will shed no tears if Qatar leaves or is thrown out of the GCC. Qatar for its part is making numerous rapid adjustments that negate most impacts of the siege, and considerably strengthen both its regional strategic alliances and its domestic economic production capacity.

    A Qatari exit from the GCC would be problematic for the Saudis and Emiratis in two ways: first, Qatar has shown that it is able to adjust its strategic, economic, and logistical relationships very quickly, and thus to neutralise most of the impacts of the siege; and second, the Saudi-Emirati failure in Qatar creates negative backlashes for them, as potential commercial or political partners around the world may think twice about entering into agreements with countries that can so quickly and harshly turn against their own long-time regional partners.

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    The past six months also revealed that the Saudi-Emirati accusations and actions against Qatar are just one element in a wider regional strategy that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have unleashed in the past three years in Yemen, Qatar, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and other Arab lands. They seem to be using their substantial military and economic might to attempt to reconfigure regional political-military ties in a manner that achieves three concentric goals: reduce Iran's links with various Arab parties that could threaten the GCC states, weaken the power of Islamist and other opposition groups in Arab lands, and strengthen conservative and autocratic Arab leaders that are willing to coordinate with the United States and Israel. Within this wider context, Qatar is merely a symbol of Saudi-Emirati muscle-flexing and message-sending - most of which to date seems to have been unsuccessful.

    The siege states repeatedly say they will pressure Qatar until it comes back into line with their policies. In response, the Qatar foreign minister said in Washington, DC, recently, "We see a pattern of irresponsibility and a reckless leadership in the region which is just trying to bully countries into submission."

    An important development of the past six months has been Washington's apparent disagreement with the Saudi-Emirati accusations. One sign of this was the new Qatar-USA treaty to work together to fight terrorism financing. Another was the US Department of State's approval within weeks of the siege on Qatar to sell Doha 36 F-15 fighter-jets worth $12bn, with a related $1bn support programme. 

    Qatar has also expanded its military cooperation with Turkey which already operates a base in the country, signed military agreements with Russia on air defences and military supplies, and expects to buy French advanced jet fighters. So a military attack against Qatar is unlikely, while Saudi attempts to promote a cousin of the Qatari emir as a replacement for him have also proved to be amateurish at best, causing Riyadh to say that regime change is not one of its goals.

    Qatar has withstood the siege impacts essentially by pursuing several parallel policies: drawing on its extensive foreign currency reserves and investments to bolster its banks, quickly reconfiguring critical trade relationships, expanding its foreign sources of essentials such as food, consumer goods, construction materials, and medicine, developing strategic new relationships that allow it to use nearby maritime ports for its trade, and making adjustments in other areas like air transport. It is also increasing strategic investments abroad in food and other manufacturing, air transport, and maritime ports.

    Qatar's economy was hardest hit in the past six months in the banking, real estate, and stock market sectors, but by late November it seems to have weathered the worst of the pressures and resumed pre-siege import levels. An important new development was a trilateral agreement signed in November among Turkey, Iran, and Qatar to speed up imports by air and sea. The results of such adjustments include a 90 percent increase of Turkish exports to Qatar in the first four months of the siege, and a 29 percent increase in Turkish exports to Qatar in the first nine months of this year. Iranian exports to Qatar increased 119 percent in October over a year ago, following a full restoration of diplomatic relations in August. 

    Qatar's October exports increased 11.9 percent from last year, and its trade surplus expanded 12.9 percent. Official data also shows a 7.4 percent rise in Qatar's industrial output since September 2016, comprising both gas and manufacturing increases, including 23.5 percent higher food manufacturing.

    Qatar is also fighting back against the siege-states by raising cases against them in international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court, the World Trade Organization, and international air transport organizations.

    Six months into this crisis, Qatar has effectively neutralised the impact of the siege against it, while Saudi-Emirati policies around the region continue to assert a willingness to use hard power decisively - though so far ineffectively - to achieve their own national security goals. We are in the early stages of a historic transformation of GCC-based power relationships that require a few years to settle into a new pattern, though some important lessons on this pattern of change have been learned in the past six months.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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