– What is the real reason behind the spat between five Arab countries and Qatar? Allegations that Qatar finances extremist groups have been around for some time. Why now?
– Indeed, Qatar has financed and continues to finance a number of extremist groups – some of which are engaged in terrorist activities while the others do not use terrorism but are still members of the Salafi sect. This time, however, Doha’s Arab neighbors have been angered not by its support for ISIS* or Al-Qaeda* (*terrorist groups banned in Russia) although officially it is the reason but because Qatar finances groups that these Arab neighbors hate, first of all, the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE, Egypt and to a certain degree Saudi Arabia are staunch opponents of the group. Next comes Palestine’s Hamas, a spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood but again a group that Gulf countries do not like.
Furthermore, thanks to the recent leak, we found out that on May 23 Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani announced the country recognized not only Hamas but also Hezbollah. Now, Hezbollah is linked to Iran and in that way is viewed as an enemy by all Sunni regimes. Qatar’s support for these groups was a much stronger argument to sever ties for GCC monarchies (except for Oman) than reports of funding extremist groups like ISIS, including in Syria and Iraq.
Generally speaking, terrorist and extremist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq get financing from almost all GCC countries except for, probably, Oman. Understandably, it is mostly NGOs, charities and individuals rather than the authorities who sponsor the groups. You can accuse almost any country of the region in financing radical extremists.
– Do you agree that the real reason is rapprochement between Doha and Tehran?
– This is definitely one of the key reasons behind the diplomatic row. Until now, many knew that Qatar and Iran have a special relationship. The recent leak might have corroborated these allegations.
The tough anti-Iran policy by Saudi Arabia and the UAE was reinforced during Trump’s visit to Riyadh when the US president put his stamp of approval. Now, following Trump’s harsh rhetoric against Iran and his tie-up with Saudi Arabia over Iran, the Qatari Emir’s statements outraged some Arab regimes pushing them to cut ties with Doha.
Interestingly, Qatar is not alone in its attitude towards Iran: Oman has as positive relations with Tehran as Qatar but no one is going to ostracize Oman for that.
It means it has been a number of factors that prompted this diplomatic spat: support for terrorist and radical groups, Qatar’s policy towards Iran, traditional rivalry between Riyadh and Doha, and long-standing confrontational relations with other neighbors. There were similar crises in the past and it is just another escalation. Back in 2014, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE recalled their ambassadors for ten months but the crisis was eventually resolved. It is just a new low but I hope it will not last too long and will be resolved, too.
– What impact will the crisis have on regional stability, chances for Middle East conflicts, in Syria in particular, to be resolved?
– Certainly, the recent escalation will affect the chances to resolve conflicts in the region. It just adds up to the current list of crises. In terms of prospects, so far it has been more about rhetoric than real threats for Qatar. It is a campaign that GCC countries launched to put pressure on Qatar’s ruling elite including from the inside.
I do not think that the pressure will be too high because human ties between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are quite strong and no one wants to make too much trouble for Qataris. We are witnessing a standoff between royal families, politicians but there is no enmity between the people of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
All the horror stories that the people in Qatar would starve because of the economic blockade are not true. So far, the severance of diplomatic and economic ties is not that dangerous. The natural gas industry, the country’s main source of income, has been unaffected by sanctions. Qatar is well known to be sitting on the world’s major gas reserves. There is also oil. Qatar is the world’s biggest LNG producer and exporter. It also produces and exports helium. No one is seeking to extend restrictions to this existentially important industry for Qatar, the source of huge revenues. Qatar supplies Oman and the UAE with natural gas via a pipeline. Qatari supplies account for 40 percent of Dubai’s gas consumption and 60 percent of Egypt’s needs (in case of Egypt it is LNG). No one is considering a shutdown of the valves, it would backfire on the UAE and Oman.
The same is true for Qatar’s commercial banks: 24 percent of bank deposits belong to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. So far, the two nations did not bring up the prospect of withdrawing their cash, a move that would undermine Qatar’s banking sector.
Some US policymakers suggested moving the US military base from Qatar to the UAE or Saudi Arabia but this transfer is highly unlikely. Anyone can look up Google Maps to see the scale of the facilities and deduce the size of the investment that was made. It does not make any sense to quit and start from scratch.
Now, as a history lesson, this base was transferred there in the 1990s from Saudi Arabia following strong protests against ‘American boots that trample the sacred soil of Islam’. I am convinced the Americans will not move their base under any circumstances.
It means the economic blockade is not that big a problem for Qatar. The ban on transit is a much bigger headache. Qatar Airways, one of the best airlines in the world, has been hit hard. Goods transit across the only land border with Saudi Arabia will now shrink, too.
However, you cannot block maritime borders. It will be very difficult to move FIFA World Cup 2022 to a different venue. The big question is whether this time sanctions will force Qatar to change its foreign policy and, most importantly, backpedal on its attempts to challenge Saudi Arabia as the main regional power (which is going through tough times, too, trapped in Yemen)?
It is too early to say that Doha will stop supporting fighting groups in Syria. Riyadh has been as active in its support for attempts to remove Bashar al-Assad. Qatar might want to strike a deal with Russia or the US, for example, on joining the efforts to combat ISIS* or Al-Qaeda* (*terrorist groups banned in Russia).
Apart from that, Moscow expects that Qatar would stop financing other Islamic groups in Syria. It is hard to say for sure whether Qatar can compromise. Truth be told, other GCC countries are also active in supporting radical groups, including in Syria.
Today GCC nations and Egypt demand that Qatar expel members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have found a safe harbor there, shut down Hamas HQ and change its soft tune on Iran and Iran-linked organizations operating in the Arab world, first of all Hezbollah.
It is hard to say whether Qatar will back down and agree to these humiliating demands. If so, it might lose face in front of friendly regimes and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, first of all Turkey. Remember how fast Turkey deployed its military personnel in Qatar in line with the arrangements between the two countries.
I suppose Qatar and GCC countries would eventually mend their ties. We are seeing attempts to mediate peace by many global and regional players like Kuwait, Oman, Turkey, the US and, I guess, Russia, too. There are reports that the initial efforts to restore relations have been successful. US President and Secretary of State are calling for de-escalation. What is their goal – a regime change, something that Saudis would love to see, or just putting pressure on the Emir?
Given our economic interests, Russia supports a peaceful resolution of the GCC crisis. We are dissatisfied with Qatar’s policy in Syria but Qatar’s collapse is not in our interests, either, because it is a country that invests into the Russian economy.
Ideally, Doha opponents would like to see a peaceful transition from the ruling elite to another member of the Al Thani family. It is obvious that they have been putting pressure on the regime from within. Time will tell how the crisis unfolds. In any case, the situation will be resolved and the conflicting parties will move back to cooperation. There is no one who wants to see a breakup of the GCC, and there are no plans to kick Qatar out.
– Could the crisis push Qatar towards a closer cooperation with Russia including in the natural gas industry and eventually a gas cartel involving Russia, Qatar and Iran?
– Gas cooperation between Russia and Qatar has been developing quite well, and there were attempts in the past to establish a joint gas hub. It is not about an OPEC-style organization that takes decisions on output quotas or tries to regulate pricing.
It is more about between coordination, dividing the market to avoid too much competition when dealing with the same consumers. The goal is to avoid situations when Russia, Qatar or Iran would have to fight for the same customer. It does not mean there is no competition but there is cooperation, too.
Many major countries, e.g. Japan, have become dependent on Qatar’s supplies. Any disruption in the nation’s gas industry and its uninterrupted delivery would be a blow to many countries.
I am sure they would do whatever it takes to avert such a scenario.
Credit: TASS / Dmitry Serebryakov