By Eric Vandenbroeck
The Gulf plunged into diplomatic crisis as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the U.A.E. and Egypt broke diplomatic relations and cut all land sea and air contacts with Qatar requesting Qatari citizens to leave.
A question is also if the actions by the above four Arab states really about their concerns regarding Qatar's alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the Gulf Council Countries (GCC) ?
But their differences will go unresolved during the coming months as the spat lays bare the enduring fault lines within the counterterrorism alliance that the United States, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) de facto leader, Saudi Arabia, had hoped would manage the Middle East's many conflicts. As the kingdom tries to assert its authority among its fellow Gulf states by subduing Doha's independent streak, Qatar will fight to keep the unique foreign policy niche it has carved for itself beyond the edges of Saudi Arabia's shadow.
The United States' role in the region will do much to shape the standoff's outcome. On one hand, Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United Arab Emirates, have confidence in the White House's support of their agenda to contain the activities of political and militant Islamists as well as Iran. On the other, the U.S. military has a deep and lasting footprint in Qatar that it will not allow the recent diplomatic row to erase. So, as long as both sides can count on Washington's backing, they can afford to remain steadfast in their positions, underscoring the futility of the White House's attempts to form members of the discordant GCC into an "Arab NATO" capable of managing Iran and neutralizing the jihadist threat.
Turkey, which shares Qatar's support for Islamist groups across the region, will stand by its side in its quarrel with the GCC. In doing so, it will reveal the deep rift between Sunni powers that view Islamists as an existential threat and those that see such groups as an integral segment of Middle Eastern society. For Ankara, the timing of the tiff couldn't be better: After all, it offers Turkey a means of extending its influence in the Gulf as its quiet rivalry with Iran intensifies in Syria and Iraq.
Ankara's more visible confrontation with its Sunni peers, however, will spur Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to ramp up their own involvement in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts in hopes of balancing against Turkey and Iran. And as Qatar turns to Turkey, Iran and Russia for diplomatic and logistical assistance in its dispute with the GCC, Saudi Arabia will become even more convinced of the need to hold a hard line on Doha.
The commercial and diplomatic consequences of the feud will continue to be felt during the coming months as well. Because Qatar relies on the United Arab Emirates' position as a regional transshipment hub, supply chains that include products shipped over land or by air from Qatar, such as helium, face the risk of severe disruption while the squabble persists. Trade of oil and liquefied natural gas will be less affected, since Qatar owns dedicated facilities for direct export and has the ability to adapt to regional port restrictions (albeit at a steeper cost) on oil and LNG shipments. But Qatar will see its financial sector shaken, thanks to the industry's heavy reliance on connections to banking sectors throughout the GCC, especially in the United Arab Emirates. The blow dealt to Qatar Airways by a ban on the use of Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini airspace will also add to the pressure building on Doha to capitulate to the bloc's probable demands.
Chief among those demands are moderating coverage by media outlets like Al Jazeera, severing ties to Islamist groups, and aligning Doha's foreign policy with Riyadh's. Qatar will likely take steps to address the first two items, restraining some independent news organizations while mitigating the presence of Islamist groups within its borders, as it has already discreetly begun doing. But Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may go a step further, requiring that Qatar pull back from its relationship with Iran, expel prominent Islamists and limit its military cooperation with Turkey, a partnership that has unsettled Saudi Arabia in its quest to become the region's leading Sunni power. Doha, of course, does not intend to yield swiftly to any of these demands, which it claims are unfounded. (Not to mention the fact that ties with Iran and Islamist groups are critical to Qatar's economic and foreign policy agendas.) And though external parties such as the United States and Turkey will try to broker a resolution to the conflict, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will work to keep mediation within the GCC family, centering negotiations in Kuwait and Oman.
Two Longtime Rivals Battle by Proxy
As Saudi Arabia uses the White House's backing to try to prop up its leadership role in the region, tension between the kingdom and Iran will grow. The dangers of escalation in their rivalry have already been made clear in battlegrounds across the Middle East this quarter. Iran's ability to equip regional proxies, such as the Houthi rebels that the Saudi-led coalition is fighting in Yemen, continues to cause concern in the kingdom. The same is true of Tehran's influence over local actors in unstable areas nearby, such as Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province and Bahrain, where the Iranian government has offered verbal support for Shiite separatist movements and where Saudi and Bahraini security forces are struggling to identify and arrest militant cells. Riyadh's ongoing security operations in al-Awamiyah Mansoura district, moreover, offer Shiite insurgents in the area a chance to attack Saudi forces. Consequently, the kingdom will remain deeply suspicious of Iran, watching carefully for any attempt by Tehran to stoke unrest in majority-Shiite portions of the Arabian Peninsula, and using its fears as justification to step up its own support for militants targeting Iranian interests.
This blame game will only intensify in the coming months. Over the past few months, Tehran has leveled unprecedented accusations against Saudi Arabia of fomenting instability within Iran's borders. The Iranian government will continue to point the finger at Saudi Arabia for any threats to Iranian stability that arise, regardless of whether any evidence exists to support its allegations. The claims being thrown back and forth could lead to an uptick in raids against militant groups that may, in turn, spur further unrest. Hotspots to monitor for signs of this volatile spiral include places Iran has already targeted in counterterrorism raids, such as its northwestern Kurdish regions bordering Iraq; areas in the country's south with large Sunni populations; and the restive southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan. In fact, Iran already claims to have proof of Saudi meddling among local militant communities in these regions.
The clash of the two titans will play out on political battlefields as well. For example, Saudi Arabia has not forgotten the challenges it faces at home amid its struggle for dominance in the Middle East at large. In the coming months, Riyadh is expected to announce the location of its highly anticipated initial public offering of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., as well as the results of an ongoing review of the country's oil reserves.
Despite his best efforts, though, countries like Qatar, Lebanon and Egypt will work to avoid being dragged into Riyadh's escalating confrontation with Tehran. Balancing between the two, however, will not be so easy for countries with sizable Shiite and Sunni populations and positive relationships with both powers, such as Pakistan and Iraq.
Much to the relief of its Saudi ally, the United States will keep sanctions in place against Iran's ballistic missile program this quarter while continuing to target individuals and companies linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Both Washington and Tehran will strive to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in place, but the lasting friction between the two will narrow Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's policy options. In the wake of the Islamic State's twin attacks in Tehran on June 7, the IRGC will seize the opportunity to secure more resources and expand its activities overseas. Though recently re-elected, Rouhani will have a tough time using his renewed mandate to reduce the group's writ, a goal he has tried to pursue before. As a result, the president will not be able to moderate Iran's communications with Saudi Arabia or the United States.
This isn't necessarily unusual for Iran; the country's second-term presidents historically have had trouble asserting their agendas and keeping the IRGC and its hard-line political allies in line. As Rouhani strives to make good on his campaign promises of social and economic reform, the gap between him and the rest of the Iranian government (which is appointed rather than elected) will doubtless widen, and the barriers to reform posed by the IRGC may prove insurmountable.