Two years later, Qatar has shrugged off Saudi embargo

Published on Friday, 7 June 2019 19:31
Written by Bobby Ghosh

Bloomberg Opinion

Two years ago today, the tottering edifice known as the Gulf Cooperation Council collapsed in a heap when three of its members-Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain-announced an embargo on a fourth, Qatar. The troika, joined by Egypt, claimed to be punishing the rulers in Doha for an array of sins, including their relationships with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Their calculation: An embargo would shake Qatar’s economy and weaken its ruling Al Thani family, forcing them, among other things, to fall in line with the Saudi-led Arab phalanx against Iran.

The embargo has conspicuously failed. Powered by some of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, the Qatari economy quickly shook off the straitjacket, even earning a word of praise from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. By holding out against external pressure, the Al Thanis have grown, if anything, stronger: Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani enjoys the status of a resistance hero, complete with a Che-like iconic image-dubbed “Tamim the Glorious”-that is plastered all over Doha.

Not only has Qatar deepened its relations with Iran, which shipped emergency food supplies to Doha, it has done so without compromising ties with the U.S.-which maintains the vast Central Command forward HQ in the Al Udeid airbase. What’s more, Qatar has grown closer to another Saudi bete noire: Turkey, which also has a military base south of Doha.

If Qatar looks to have moved on from the breakdown in relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, the troika seems comfortable with leaving their neighbor outside the tent. Each side has made it clear that a return to the pre-embargo status quo is not necessary, or even desirable.

This is tricky for Kuwait and Oman, the two other GCC members, which have preserved ties with Qatar, despite the troika’s displeasure. But here, too, a modus vivendi seems to have been reached: There is no pressure on the Kuwaitis and Omanis to drop their neutrality and join one of the two camps.

The only country seriously inconvenienced by the GCC split is the U.S. Indeed, the White House would like to see the GCC countries, along with Egypt and Jordan, form an “Arab NATO” to man the watchtowers against Iran’s Islamic Republic.

But if that is now out of the question, the U.S. could yet make a virtue of the rupture in the Arabian Peninsula. If President Donald Trump is genuinely interested in talking to the Iranians, with or without the preconditions enumerated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then he’s better off having the Qataris (as well as the Omanis and Kuwaitis) standing apart. Given Iran’s distrust of American intentions-stoked even more by Trump’s own constantly changing rhetoric-Washington could benefit from having several backchannels to Tehran.

For the Qataris, playing the go-between would underscore their indispensability. This is why Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, visited Tehran last month, after Iran announced it was resuming the enrichment of uranium.

But there is competition for the role of peace broker. Oman, which served that purpose during the Obama years, is an obvious contender. Iraq has offered itself as a mediator, too. Somewhat out of left field is Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is soon to visit Tehran. In the end, thought, Qatar may not care who ends up playing the peacemaker: It benefits from any effort to prevent war in its neighborhood.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns on Friday, 7 June 2019 19:31. Updated: Friday, 7 June 2019 19:33.