When the blockade was imposed on Qatar on June 5, 2017, few expected it to last as long as it has. One year on, what started as an expression of frustration with, and attempt to change, Qatar’s independent foreign policy, has, in fact, deepened the political divisions and, if anything, made it more difficult to envisage a return to Gulf unity. Today, nobody can deny that overall the blockade has had a negative impact on all concerned, including Saudi Arabia, which ironically ended up diminishing the very same Gulf security it professes to protect from an expansionist Iran.
It is clear that at the start Qatar hoped for a short blockade and was eager to restore relations, but not at any price. As the weeks and months passed by, it sought to emphasise the silver lining in the crisis, largely as a means of coping with the shock of finding itself isolated by its immediate neighbors. Qatar has demonstrated an impressive ability to turn the crisis into an opportunity in terms of improving food security, social cohesion and economic sustainability, including adapting fiscal policies that helped its currency weather the blockade.
However, a much less recognised geopolitical silver lining is that the crisis has inadvertently helped Qatar keep out of some of the most damaging policies in the Middle East and in this way has paved the way for the country to make a regional comeback.
Qatar is happy to be out of Yemen
Firstly, as soon as the blockade started, Qatar was thrown out of the alliance waging war in Yemen which the Qataris joined reluctantly, largely to please the Saudis.
Another year of war in Yemen has only involved more death and misery, with Saudi’s other blockade bringing the country with its 28 million people to a massive humanitarian catastrophe. Serendipitously, Qatar was extricated from the negative reputational fallout suffered by Saudi and the UAE. This was Doha’s first strategic win in the eyes of a global media and civil society increasingly alarmed at the horrors unfolding in Yemen.
Moreover, with cracks rapidly developing in the Saudi/UAE alliance as a result of having diverging designs for Yemen’s future, Qatar has come out as a more trustworthy party which harbors no preconceived ideas about Yemen’s territorial integrity.
Secondly, there is no doubt that the way the Arab Spring unfolded did tarnish Qatar’s foreign policy reputation. The widespread perception globally that it is now being bullied by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has by and large rehabilitated its image after its controversial interventionist phase. In the “Arab streets”, the Saudis and Emiratis have also lost popularity as they aligned with the Trump administration and gave tacit support for the US embassy move to Jerusalem.
Throughout the blockade, Qatar has taken the moral high ground by largely refraining from petty retaliation, engaging in measured diplomacy, and following international law to the letter, which has further turned public opinion in Qatar’s favour.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly for Gulf security, Qatar’s refusal to abrogate its sovereignty as a condition for ending the blockade has allowed it to have an independent stance on the Iran nuclear deal and not to be compelled into publicly supporting the US withdrawal. This has placed Qatar in an advantageous position with the many likeminded Arab, European and Asian states, (as well as level-headed US politicians) who feel that years of painstaking negotiations should not have been disregarded with such ease and who understand that US President Donald Trump’s position is very much to follow Israel’s lead.
The Saudi-UAE axis could crumble
Despite these silver linings, the path ahead for Qatar is difficult. The real question now is whether a one-year blockade has helped the country make up its mind whether it wants to continue down this path alone. Given its ambition to have social, economical, and political sway, it will find it difficult to realise its full potential while facing the perennial question over the resolution of the crisis. There is a need to think afresh and reconsider what strategies Qatar should pursue in the long term.
One strategy is for Qatar to keep its head down, maintain the current crisis-management mode and build resilience with the hope that the anti-Qatar alliance (with its many fractures) will crumble from within. Trump’s grand alliance with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel may be more fragile than it appears on the surface, given the growing rift between Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Riyadh, the ongoing investigation into Trump’s election campaign, and the corruption scandal swirling around Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has embarked on an incredibly ambitious project to transform his country, but the levers employed for this purpose have undermined the foundations of stability within the Wahhabi religious institution and the House of Al Saud. The image of his country has also fallen in the eyes of many Arabs after his controversial statements directed at Palestinians.
If MBS succeeds in his long-term plan to transform Saudi Arabia, it will one day be thankful that Qatar showed the way through its managed liberalisation, more open form of Wahhabism, and balanced approach to regional politics.
The Iran crisis could be leveraged
Another strategic opportunity is for Qatar to leverage its position vis-a-vis Iran to its advantage. Since the crisis, Qatar did well to steer clear of Iran. But there are always temptations to reach out when feeling isolated, the sense of which is heightened by Trump’s ambiguous signals. The longer the crisis continues, the more plausible it becomes that Qatar will eventually draw closer to Iran, as well as to other Arab states intimidated by growing Saudi assertiveness and Emirati interventionism.
Kuwait and Oman – which share a rational approach towards Iran – are grateful to Qatar for acting as a bulwark against Saudi aggression, fearing that if the blockade had worked, they would have been next in line. Qatar’s continued and necessary cooperation with Iran requires working with a moderate Iran. However, the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal has only emboldened the hardliners. Trump’s myopic perception of Iran does not allow him to see the difference between someone like President Hassan Rouhani and someone like his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Given that the US president has surrounded himself with the likes of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, he is unlikely to develop a nuanced understanding any time soon. To be successful, Qatar should continue to work with the EU to rescue the nuclear deal and in the process, help shore up support for Iran’s moderate government. Qatar can also help Iran take big steps in recognising that expansionist policy in Arab countries is not in its interest – especially seeing the backlash in Iraq and dangerous confrontation with Israel in Syria. All would be better off with an Iran focused on development, gas exploration, and industrialisation.
There is potential for a gas cartel
Looking further ahead, Qatar should not be fazed by the failure of the GCC and seek instead to forge new economic and security alliances for the region that are not necessarily exclusively Arab.The deadlines for renewing deals with South Korea and Japan, which account for almost 40 percent of Qatari gas exports, are approaching fast. This means that the priority for Qatar should be to seek to position itself in the global gas market in such a way that it has an advantage on its main competitors: Australia, the US and others.
To do so, the country should revisit the idea of establishing a gas cartel alongside Russia, Algeria, and Iran. This economic alliance may lead to more concrete security arrangements based on shared economic interests but should also remain open to other nations which support Qatar – such as Turkey. Such arrangements should move beyond merely building resilience. Qatar should think big and seek to establish long-term international confidence in its economy which would ensure that the country stands on a secure foundation.
Sources and photo-credits: Al Jazeera