Saudi Arabia and its allies – including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – last month offered to end the blockade in return for Qatar’s compliance on 13 points, including to shut down the Al Jazeera Media Network, to scale back ties with Iran and to close a Turkish military base. Qatar has rejected the demands as an attempt to limit its sovereignty, while human rights agencies have accused the Saudi-led group of attempting to curtail press freedom in the region.
A 10-day deadline for compliance was extended for 48 hours on Sunday after a fresh dismissal of the demands from Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who has instead offered “a proper condition for dialogue” to resolve the crisis.
The resulting impasse could drag on for months, analysts say, and deal a severe blow to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations in the longer term.
“At this point, the crisis is stuck at a standoff with neither side backing down, at least not publicly,” Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center with expertise on transitional justice in the Arab world, told Al Jazeera.
“Qatar has made it very clear that it will not negotiate matters it considers to be central to its sovereignty. The Saudi-Bahraini-UAE alliance have stated that the 13 demands are ‘non-negotiable’. The list of demands are not only unrealistic, but many of them are vague. Moreover, calls for Qatar to align itself militarily, economically, politically and socially with the GCC … presents a particular obstacle to any resolution to the crisis. [This] is designed to be rejected.”
The current crisis began just days after US President Donald Trump completed his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia in late May, during which he singled out Iran as the mastermind of “conflict and terror” throughout the region.
Shortly after that visit, hackers targeted Qatar’s state-run news agency, attributing false comments to Qatar’s emir that expressed support for Iran and Israel. Tensions culminated on the morning of June 5 as Bahrain cut ties with Qatar, quickly followed by Saudi, the UAE and Egypt. Flights were suspended, borders were closed and Qataris were given two weeks to leave the affected countries.
Other states, including Yemen, the Maldives and Libya’s eastern-based government, also jumped into the fray, severing ties with Qatar amid accusations from the Saudi-led group that it was supporting regional “terrorism”. One of the issues at the core of the dispute is Qatar’s perceived backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been described as an existential threat to the Saudi state.
Qatar has rejected the “terrorism” allegations, and US officials have confirmed there are no plans to relocate the massive American military base south of Doha. Confusing matters, however, Trump repeatedly tweeted in support of the blockade, noting: “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
The problem is that the passion and rhetoric has become so great that the dispute increasingly is being viewed in zero-sum terms.
“The crisis emerged in the first place in part because the Saudi/Emirati bloc believed it wouldn’t face serious consequences for its actions from the current US administration or the broader international community,” Abdullah Al-Arian, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, told Al Jazeera.
“While there has been little support for the actions against Qatar, as long as the pressure to bring the blockade to an end remains limited, it is likely to drag on for some time, resulting in a kind of inter-GCC cold war that will render the organisation defunct,” he added. “Instead, Saudi and the UAE will consolidate their coalition around client states such as Bahrain and Egypt, while Qatar will continue to pursue stronger relations with other regional powers like Turkey and possibly Iran.”
A stronger relationship between Qatar and Iran, who share the world’s largest natural gas field, would not bode well for Saudi Arabia, Iran’s long-time rival, noted Sultan Barakat, the director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute.
Prolonging the crisis would, therefore, be a “huge miscalculation” on the part of the Saudi-led group – but with Qatar appearing poised to formally reject the list of the demands, further economic pressure could be on the horizon, he said.
“They will be looking for additional measures to isolate Qatar even further … What is likely is that they start demanding companies and international firms that deal with them and Qatar to choose between the two markets,” Barakat told Al Jazeera. “It’s likely also that they will exert further pressure on the currency to try to devalue the Qatari riyal. But all of this is going to really add to the escalation and won’t be constructive to either party in the long term.”
Despite speculation about possible military intervention, such a scenario is highly unlikely considering the presence of American and Turkish troops in Qatar. The UAE has also stated that the group’s actions against Qatar would not include a military component.
At this point, resolving the standoff – which the UAE has warned could last for years – “will require all sides to find a way of backing down gracefully and saving face”, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Rice University Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East who has written extensively on Gulf politics.
“The problem is that the passion and rhetoric has become so great that the dispute increasingly is being viewed in zero-sum terms, particularly on the Saudi/Emirati side,” Ulrichsen told Al Jazeera. “This makes it more difficult for the Saudis and Emiratis to make concessions, while for Qatar, the feeling of having their backs pinned to the wall also militates against being seen to give in to pressure.”
While Qatar could potentially submit a counterproposal on a few of the Saudi-led group’s demands, such as handing over dissidents – provided there is a guarantee that their ensuing treatment would comply with international law – most of the demands are non-starters, Barakat noted.
Regardless of the outcome, something in the GCC has been broken that may not be fixable, analysts say.
“GCC relations will never be the same. There is a serious lack of trust,” Aboueldahab said, adding that the current Saudi-UAE-Bahraini alliance is far from static. “Alliances constantly shift. Even now, the Saudis and Emiratis do not always see eye-to-eye on Yemen, for example. So the lack of trust resulting from this current crisis does not only affect relations between Qatar and the rest of the GCC; it heavily impacts relations between the GCC countries as a region.”
Smaller countries such as Qatar, Kuwait and Oman “will be much more wary about full integration as they move forward”, Barakat added, “because if you can roll it all back and reverse it within a minute, it’s a very dangerous thing to do … What [the GCC] stands for has been badly damaged.”
Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole