As is well known, the current crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was caused by the decision of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt, followed later by a few others, to cut off diplomatic relations as well as trade and transport links with Qatar. Well-wishers of the GCC, which had escaped the ravages of what started as the Arab Spring in 2011, have reason to be deeply disappointed.
The crisis is getting worse by the day primarily for two reasons. First, Qatar’s adversaries seem determined to punish it whatever be the cost thereof in terms of regional stability, peace, and the suffering caused to people in the GCC and elsewhere. Second, Washington, which alone has the clout to intervene and, if need be, impose a settlement in its own interest, appears to be incapable of coherent and rational action under President Trump who has signalled a policy contradicting that of his own Secretaries of State and Defense. Without indulging in untenable counterfactual thinking, anyone could have seen that had Obama been in the White House, Secretary Kerry would have undertaken shuttle diplomacy and ended the current crisis within days. That such a settlement might have been cosmetic and that the underlying causes and complaints might have remained is a different matter. In diplomacy, one is not always looking for a permanent cure. The first priority is to put out the raging fire.
A major diplomatic error has been committed by whosoever thought of sending an ultimatum. A public ultimatum prevents a settlement since ‘face saving’ becomes more difficult. It seems that it is the US Department of State which first came out publicly asking for a list of complaints in writing. On June 20, the Department’s spokesperson Heather Nauert bluntly questioned the motives of Saudi Arabia and UAE for their boycott of Doha, saying it was “mystified” as the Gulf states had not released their grievances regarding Qatar. But earlier, on June 16, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir had said that a list of ‘demands’ was under preparation.
The fault of the US Department of State is that it failed to figure out that demands written and public can complicate mediation. It should have advised Saudi Arabia not to go public with its concrete demands. Here, it is important to note that Trump, by reducing the State Department’s budget, has virtually decimated it. The Secretary of State lacks senior aides with professional experience to advise him.
The following is an unofficial translation of the demands put out by Al Jazeera:
List of demands by Saudi Arabia, other Arab nations
- Scale down diplomatic ties with Iran and close the Iranian diplomatic missions in Qatar, expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and cut off military and intelligence cooperation with Iran. Trade and commerce with Iran must comply with US and international sanctions in a manner that does not jeopardize the security of the GCC.
- Immediately shut down the Turkish military base, which is currently under construction, and halt military cooperation with Turkey inside of Qatar.
This is counter revolution 2.0. This is the second phase of the attack on the Arab Spring and what’s left of it, which is very little.
- Sever ties to all “terrorist, sectarian and ideological organizations,” specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIL, Al Qaeda, Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front) and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare these entities as terror groups as per the list announced by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt, and concur with all future updates of this list.
- Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups or organisations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, US, and other countries.
- Hand over “terrorist figures”, fugitives and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements and finances.
- Shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations.
- End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.
- Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.
- Align Qatar’s military, political, social and economic policies with other Gulf and Arab countries as per the 2014 agreement reached with Saudi Arabia.
- Cease contact with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over files detailing Qatar’s prior contact with and support for opposition groups, and submit details of their personal information and the support Qatar has provided them.
- Shut down all news outlets funded directly and indirectly by Qatar, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al Jadeed, Mekameleen and Middle East Eye, etc.
- Agree to all the demands within 10 days of the list being submitted to Qatar, or the list will become invalid.
- Consent to monthly compliance audits in the first year after agreeing to the demands, followed by quarterly audits in the second year, and annual audits in the following 10 years.
Upon reading the list, it is difficult not to recall another ultimatum, couched in equally arrogant style, delivered way back in 1914 by the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Serbia. That ultimatum was couched in a language calculated to ensure rejection. Three days after the deadline of July 25 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia triggering the First World War.
Fortunately, we need not fear any immediate outbreak of hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. UAE has made it clear that there is no scope for discussion and that if Qatar does not do what it is asked to do there would be a ‘parting of ways’.
What are the implications of the words “parting of ways”? The GCC will get weaker with Qatar out; and Oman and Kuwait will be offended that their mediation efforts were spurned. The Turkish military base in Qatar will get fortified. Qatar and Iran will get closer. Iran’s regional clout will increase.
There is another potential peril. If Iran’s clout increases, how will Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman respond? He took the lead in starting Operation Decisive Storm by invading Yemen in March 2015. It has been far from decisive and Riyadh is chasing a mirage of military victory at an atrocious cost in human lives and human misery.
What complicates the situation further is the unpredictable President Trump. He wants to undo as much of the Obama legacy as possible and is keen to cancel the nuclear deal with Iran. He says that Iran is the source of international terrorism. The troubling question is whether, unwittingly or not, the US President and the Saudi Crown Prince will start a war against Iran and set fire to the rather inflammable region?
Barbara Tuchman in her seminal book The March of Folly wrote:
A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
Let us pray and hope for good sense to prevail. It is unrealistic and rather naïve to expect Qatar to surrender. Any attempt at engineering a coup in Qatar is unlikely to succeed. It is not beyond diplomacy to work out a face-saving formula and end the present crisis after which the GCC can work it out among themselves over a period of time on the basis of a discreet and unpublicized give-and-take. The demand for the shutting down of Al Jazeera is not getting much approbation internationally, to put it mildly.
Egypt’s involvement has only made finding a solution more difficult. This crisis is best resolved within the GCC for which Kuwait and Oman have exerted themselves. If that does not work out, Washington should discharge its responsibilities as early as possible. The fire brigade does not wait for the fire to spread before initiating action.