ISSSP Reflections No. 54, June 13, 2017
Author: Shreya Upadhyay
In what has been termed as a step to “fight terrorism”, the three Global Corporation Council (GCC) countries– Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain- and Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Maldives recently announced their decisions to sever ties with Qatar accusing it for fomenting terrorist and sectarian groups, including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. This article looks at the following: What is the US’ Response to the Crisis? Can this this lead to leadership change in Qatar? What role can India play in the recent Gulf Crisis?
Trump’s Response to Gulf Crisis
Two weeks back, Trump’s speech in the Middle East demanded that Muslim states fight terror. The recent developments an therefore be termed as the first fallout of what is being referred to as ‘Trump doctrine’. Still in its nascent stage, the doctrine espouses the US’ involvement in the war against extremist ideology and organisations in the region and those who back them. In this war, it seeks the support of Saudi and its allies, termed as the Arab NATO. The third and arguably the most pivotal aspect of the doctrine is confronting Iran—“the axis of evil”. The analysts have read it as an anti-Iran Sunni alliance bolstered by Israel’s participation.
Trump during the visit firmly placed the US as a strategic ally of the Saudi Arabia. This was reversing Barack Obama’s policy of avoiding Middle East conflicts and a redialing of the Bush era. The US-Saudi alliance has picked up with more than $400 billion defence and other trade deals in the coming ten years. For Saudis, who viewed Obama’s policies towards the region and especially Iran as a nightmare, Trump’s presence is a welcome step. With US support, Saudi Arabia is confident to flex its muscles in the region and take on Iran.
However, for the United States it’s a sticky situation with Trump storm tweeting his praise on Saudi Arabia and allies for severing ties with Qatar and also taking credit for it while 11,000 US troops are housed in the island, considered one of the most crucial stations in fight against the ISIS, with B-52 bombers carrying out air strikes from the Al Udeid Base against ISIS supply warehouses in Iraq and Syria.
Towards Qatar’s Leadership Change?
Qatar’s maverick attitude in the region has always been an irritant for Saudi Arabia. However, in 2013 when the former emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, handed over power to his son Sheikh Tamim, known to be close to Saudi royal court, many in the Gulf thought that this would lead to policies more in sync with that of the region. However, Qatar, with a total population of less than 3 million and a modest military force of 11,800 wants good working relations with all. It shares good ties with Iran, Israel as well as the US. Its ‘modern’ Wahhabist ideology is portrayed as accommodative and relatively open. In being the voice of reform, it backed Arab Spring and Moslem Brotherhood much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia and allies. Qatar has also been bold in its support to Hamas and Hezbollah calling them “legitimate resistance movements”, which are often viewed by many, including the US, as terrorist organisations. Qatari media organisation Al Jazeera is also seen with skepticism by Arab governments and has been criticized often for its take on Moslem Brotherhood and Arab spring.
Just after Trump’s visit, Qatari media published remarks apparently given by emir Sheikh Tamim, with a pro-Iran stand and cautioning the Saudi kingdom to not become too dependent on Trump. While Qatar denied making these comments emphatically stating that its news agency had been hacked, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the allies launched the diplomatic attack on the island nation.
Credibility of Qatar royal family to rule has also been vilified in the media that made public a letter signed by the 200 descendants of ibn Abdul Wahhab demanding the renaming of a Qatar mosque named after the 18th-century cleric even though most Qataris practice Wahhabism. There has been a questioning of the right of the royal family to rule the nation. It can therefore be said that pressure is being mounted on Qatar to change its posture to suit that of others in the region.
Back in 2014, Gulf states had withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar in an eight- month long diplomatic crisis. That had resulted in Qatar closing the al-Jazeera Mubashir of al-Jazeera network. However, this time the sanctions are much more crippling. The small country has been isolated with land, sea and air routes closed off. That will have repercussions on movement of people. Qatar imports almost 90 per cent food from outside, making it vulnerable to food and water insecurity. If the crisis continues there can be issues procuring infrastructure and construction material. Qatar’s shipping industry and ports, as well as its flagship air carrier, could face significant problems. Its banking system could come under major strain if foreign deposits are withdrawn.
Should India Be Worried?
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj termed the development as an internal matter of the GCC and played down its impact stating that India has good ties with all regional rivals.
However, the region plays a strategic role for India. As much as 65 per cent oil comes from the region. New Delhi is the second largest buyer of Qatari liquefied natural gas (LNG), after Japan. India’s Petronet LNG imports 8.5 million tonnes LNG from Doha every year. As many as 6.5 million diasporic population is settled in the region with over half a million in Qatar alone sending almost $4billion dollars in remittances. India’s corporate sector too is increasingly pursuing business opportunities in Qatar. Companies, particularly in construction/infrastructure and IT, have operations in Qatar, L&T, Punj Lloyd, Shapoorji Pallonji, Voltas, to name a few.
The present Indian government has been working towards forging good strategic ties with the countries in the region. Not only trade and people, the recent years have seen enhanced counter-terrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia and UAE. Cooperation has been going on intelligence sharing and sending back people with Islamic State’s links. Modi visited Qatar and hosted the Emir in New Delhi last year. However, the present situation brings out dilemma for New Delhi to act. In principal, it wants all parties at the negotiating table and would not want to take sides. Till now neither side has even tried using India as a leverage. However, this might not be the case in case the political crisis deepens.
About the Author
Shreya Upadhyay, Consultant at ISSSP, NIAS. She can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>