Doha Will Go Its Own Way
Last June Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a land, sea, and air blockade on Qatar for its alleged support of terrorist groups and being too close to Iran. They thought that by imposing this blockade they could pressure Qatar to set aside its own ambitious foreign policy and fall in line with its bigger neighbors. During the siege period, new military, security, economic, commercial, media and other agreements were signed by Qatar. Qatar’s economy is also witnessing an impressive 5.5% growth.
Qatar’s economic fundamentals remain sound as illustrated by its high financial ratings from major ratings agencies. Economists also believe that Qatar, due to its strong fundamentals, will outperform its peers in the GCC region this year in view of its economic diversification. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s economy will contract due to oil production cuts and spending rationalization by the government. Doha’s hydrocarbon exports have continued uninterrupted and new sea trade routes have been established. Now Qatar is aiming to achieve a higher degree of self-sufficiency in the food sector which was heavily impacted by the blockade as Qatar imports most of its food.
In fact the blockade of Qatar has proved to be ineffective and it even could be described as counterproductive. Now that Doha has been able to absorb the initial shock of the siege and it has re-oriented itself to accommodate the new facts on the ground, Qatar will be much bolder in pursuing its independent foreign policy goals. Rarely has any state changed its character so completely in such short a period of time as Qatar has. Historically content to play a role dictated by its small size, Qatar was a traditional, risk-averse Gulf monarchy. Then the bloodless coup in 1995 brought to power an emerging elite with an ambitious vision for the future.
Heavily funded by gas exports and protected by the United States Qatar diversified its foreign relations and even included untouchables in the Arab world like Iran and Israel in its diplomacy. Instead of submitting to the demands of the Gulf States to distance itself from Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has only deepened its alliances with Iran and Turkey and is supporting brotherhood affiliate Hamas. For quite a while Qatar has been a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political Islam. Recently Turkey sent additional troops to its base in Doha and Iranian shipping lines have now switched their transport services to Qatar, instead of the UAE and Oman.
Since the beginning of its new assertive foreign policy after 1995, the Qatari regional role didn’t follow simple alliance structures, but it mediated and interacted in regional issues. It adopted a very delicate posture towards foreign relations in regards to regional and international actors, a balancing act which has played an important role in raising Qatar’s international profile as a regional power broker. On the one hand, Qatar financially supported Islamists movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and on the other hand it enjoys cordial relationships with Europe and the U.S. Now to add more weight to its foreign policy aspirations Qatar is also very eager to expand its arms arsenal through recently acquired Chinese-made short range ballistic missiles SY-400. Qatar has also spent tens of billions of dollars on new fighter jets, tanks and warships. Qatar will no longer depend only on the US and Turkey for its protection. It wishes to become a middle level military power in the region so that it can pursue its foreign policy without fearing any military attacks.
This tussle between Qatar and its Arab neighbors could spark a much larger conflict as neither side is willing to compromise. This continuing crisis in the Gulf could have detrimental effects on the rest of the Middle East because more Arab states could be destabilized as they are pressured to choose sides. Iranian and Turkish influence would certainly increase in the region. This power game will definitely lead to a state of polarization at a regional level and will result in an expansion of proxy wars. Another significant impact will be felt by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which is already divided into two camps, one led by Saudi Arabia and includes UAE and Bahrain and the other includes Qatar with tacit support by Oman and Kuwait. This ongoing crisis will make the GCC a totally ineffectual institution like the Arab League. The GCC, as an organization, will be marginalised, dysfunctional, and irrelevant as a result. Once the dream of the GCC having a common currency and a united military will be next to impossible. In a time of global integration this kind of regional disintegration will severely cost everyone.