TSG IntelBrief: A Rupture in the Gulf
June 6, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen severed diplomatic and travel ties with Qatar, a major escalation of simmering tensions.
• At the heart of the matter, the Saudi-led bloc has long objected to Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and its relatively positive relations with Iran.
• Though U.S. President Donald Trump had hoped his recent trip to Riyadh would lead to a unified Gulf Sunni Arab front against Iran and terror groups such as the Islamic State, such unity now appears unlikely.
• Faced with regional concerns ranging from terrorism and security to economics and ecological challenges, the already volatile Middle East region can ill afford such a serious split in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The already shaky relations between several members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have significantly deteriorated, causing the worst tensions in the Gulf in decades. On June 5, Saudi Arabia announced it was severing diplomatic ties with Qatar; in short order, the move was followed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, and the Maldives. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain ordered all Qatari residents and visitors to leave within two weeks, and banned travel by their citizens to Qatar. On top of this, the Riyadh-led bloc banned all Qatari aircraft from their respective airspaces, a huge move affecting major airlines and airports across the region. The disruption to travel will be significant in the near-term.
Riyadh also closed its land border crossing with Qatar, through which Qatar gets 40 percent of its food. The news sparked reports of people in Qatar rushing to stockpile food and water; the closure would not have to last long to have noticeable impacts, economic and otherwise. A report by the BBC noted that Iranian state media remarked that Tehran could initiate food imports to Qatar within hours if needed, a sign of how interconnected the countries remain despite the push by Riyadh—and now Washington—to create a homogenous Sunni bloc against Iran. Qatar and Iran maintain relatively decent relations since they share control over a massive natural gas reserve known as the North Field.
Fellow GCC members Oman and Kuwait did not join in severing ties with Qatar; Oman has long played a mediating role in the region, and has good relations with Iran in particular. The complete rupture in relations between the powerful Arab Gulf countries was met with outrage in Tehran, which sees this as only the latest in a U.S-Saudi campaign to isolate Iran. Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, said the uproar was merely “the preliminary result of the sword dance,” a reference to President Trump’s visit to Riyadh where he participated in a traditional Saudi sword dance and also gave a speech aimed straight at Tehran’s leaders.
The intent of President Trump’s visit to Riyadh—his first foreign trip since taking office—was to signal in very open terms that Washington would back Riyadh and its allies in their opposition to Iran. Achieving the goal of a Sunni Gulf Arab front united against Iran—as well as against groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda—seems increasingly unlikely, as the leading countries in that front are now fighting each other diplomatically, economically, and in a barrage of media less than two weeks after President Trump’s visit. This latest rift, which is far more serious than a 2014 episode which saw several countries withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar and call for Qatar to close Western think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and RAND Corporation, escalated from simmering tensions to crisis two weeks ago over reports of Qatar’s emir criticizing Saudi Arabia that appeared on Qatar state media. Qatar stated the reports were fabricated and were planted as part of a cybercrime against Doha. The alleged hack was also accompanied by a well-coordinated campaign in the Arab world alleging that Qatar was pro-Israel, while another campaign was pushed in the West that Qatar funds terrorism. Qatar has asked for U.S. help in investigating the reported hack, but the damage has already been done.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis both stated the rupture in relations would not negatively impact the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. air campaign in Syria and Iraq is based out of the Al Adeid Air Base in Qatar, while the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in neighboring Bahrain. Though these operations will not be affected by the infighting, the overall atmosphere in the region has devolved to the point as to ensure that no unified movement against terrorism and violent radicalization—which both Riyadh and Doha have been accused (and accused each other) of tolerating or supporting—will find traction.
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