If Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hoped the shock of their sudden economic and diplomatic blockade of Qatar would produce a rapid capitulation, it is not panning out that way.
With the dispute entering its third week, both sides have dug in and are bidding for support from outside powers, above all the US, but also Iran, Turkey, Russia and Pakistan. Much will depend on which way the US eventually leans as it weighs addressing concerns over Qatar’s permissive approach to Muslim groups and US geopolitical interests. US President Donald Trump has tweeted a message very different from his administration’s during a crisis that carries significant implications for regional stability and US military capabilities.
Here are four scenarios for what may happen next, ranging from a relatively painless deal to a Saudi-led invasion of Qatar.
A QUICK DEAL
Moving speedily to a negotiated settlement is likely to be harder than during an earlier attempt by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to bring Qatar to heel in 2014. The so-called Riyadh Agreement, reached about a month after diplomatic ties were cut, was never published.
However, it was portrayed by the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states as a commitment by Qatar to end its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, groups whose ideologies alarm many of the region’s ruling monarchies.
To repeat the feat, Kuwaiti mediators will have to overcome a feeling among Qatar’s estranged GCC partners that Doha reneged on the last accord.
Any agreement would, in the Saudi and UAE view, need to verifiably end Qatar’s support for political Islamists, as well as internationally designated terrorists. It would also need to rein in Doha’s stable of media outlets, including the satellite news channel al-Jazeera.
“This goes beyond al-Jazeera to a range of media that include more nationalist, critical and democratic views,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident academic at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They complicate life for countries like Saudi and Yemen, and for the difficult transitions they are trying to achieve.”
Media within the four nations leading the charge against Qatar — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE — are tightly controlled.
Without a swift resolution, Qatar’s isolation could lead to exactly the opposite regional realignment to the one Saudi Arabia seeks, pushing Qatar into greater dependency on Iran and Turkey.
That is a more plausible outcome than in 2014, in part because younger, more aggressive leaders are in charge in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, making them less willing to compromise, said Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in the department of defense studies at Kings College, London.
At the same time, Washington’s position remains uncertain and Qatar’s royal family sees no need to capitulate, he said.
“Really what the Saudis are trying to achieve is a return to the 1980s, when people in the Gulf felt their first loyalty was to Saudi Arabia, because of the holy mosques, regardless of what passports they held,” Krieg said.
More particularly, it wants a unified policy toward Iran, its chief regional rival.
Instead of unifying, the GCC risks tearing itself apart, Krieg said.
Qatari officials appear confident they can weather the economic impact of the closure of their only land border, although the disruptions to energy and construction companies working in Qatar, as well as banks servicing its US$335 billion sovereign wealth fund, could be significant.
The emirate’s links to Turkey and Iran are deepening as it seeks new sources of food and other goods. It is also transshipping goods in Oman instead of Dubai, which is part of the UAE. Those shifts could become permanent.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash has called for “cooler heads” in Qatar, but said its neighbors were not seeking regime change. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE believe the emir’s father, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, still exercises undue influence on policymaking. If a coup were attempted, it would not be Doha’s first.
Hamad seized power from his own father in 1995, who in turn had come to power through a 1972 coup. Hamad also faced a failed attempt at a counter-coup in 1996. During the trial of those involved, two top government officials testified that Bahrain had organized the attempt, with Saudi Arabia’s approval.
Both governments denied involvement.
“A lot of the pressure Qatar is coming under now is because the Saudis and Emiratis think the father is somehow still pulling the strings,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Texas.
Making a putsch stick today would be harder.
Qatar’s small military is loyal to the monarchy, said Krieg, while there is no longer a credible alternative to the emir.
In addition, Qataris have become spectacularly rich under their current rulers. Per capita gross domestic product adjusted for purchasing parity has risen to US$130,000, the highest in the world, from about US$55,000 in 1995.
Support for the royal family appears to be solid as people rally around the leadership, rather than blame it for the effects of the blockade.
The only way that regime change could take place “is through invasion, a proper war,” Krieg said.
Several factors make this appear unlikely for now, not least the US reliance on its air base and command center in Qatar to conduct the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The UAE ambassador to Washington has proposed the US should move the base, making it easier to apply pressure on Qatar.
However, there are ways tensions could escalate to the point where military action becomes a real possibility. Turkey’s accelerated authorization for the deployment of as many as 3,000 troops to Qatar and Iran’s blaming of Saudi Arabia for recent terrorist attacks by the Islamic State group have already raised the stakes.
Qatar has yet to retaliate against the economic siege. If it chose to, it has a major weapon in its arsenal.
The only pipeline linking Qatar’s huge offshore natural gas field to its neighbors, run by the Dolphin Energy Ltd consortium, provides 56.6 million cubic meters of gas per day to the UAE and Oman. They use the fuel to generate electricity, keeping lights and air conditioning running in the summer heat. Qatar could cut the gas off.
Should the alliance resort to force, there would be little Qatar could do to resist. Its military is tiny next to those of its neighbors and US Central Command is not there to defend its host.
“People here seem to think nothing will happen, but it will be much harder than last time,” said Luciano Zaccara, assistant professor at the Gulf Studies program of Qatar University.
“These kinds of rulers fear that if they do something that’s seen as surrendering, they’ll lose all of their legitimacy, not just as a regional leader, but in the country,” he said.
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