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Jun 10, 2017 | 13:31 GMT

4 mins read

Picking Sides in the Gulf Dispute

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar's foreign minister, talks with journalists in Doha. The country's dispute with Saudi Arabia has forced states in and beyond the region to pick a side.
(KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has spread quickly beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The spat came to a head June 5, when GCC members Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates were joined by Egypt in severing diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar, which is also a member of the political and economic alliance. In the days since, countries in and beyond the region have begun reassessing their diplomatic relationships with each party in the dispute to decide whose side to take.

Weighing the Options

For the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, pressuring Qatar is a common cause. Like their close ally Saudi Arabia, these states blame Qatar for fomenting regional instability and resent the criticism of their governments and political systems that emanates from Qatari media outlets. They are also nervous about Iran's influence in the region. Other countries had little choice in the matter. Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi's administration, for example, was obliged to join Saudi Arabia's campaign against Qatar because of Riyadh's support in Yemen's civil war. Meanwhile, the Tobruk-based government in Libya, the House of Representatives, opted to side against Qatar, considering its firm alliances with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt and Doha's support for the Islamist militias that oppose it at home. Various Muslim-majority nations in Africa have also prioritized their ties with Riyadh by shunning Doha.

The choice is not as clear for other nations, however. Sudan, whose economic ties to Qatar have deepened in recent years, can't afford to cut the country out at Saudi Arabia's insistence. And Pakistan will likewise continue to resist Riyadh's coercion as it strives to maintain neutrality between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Among the GCC's other two members, the situation is even more challenging. Kuwait and Oman pride themselves on their impartiality and reputations as mediators in regional disputes. They also resent Saudi Arabia's efforts to control the GCC, though they haven't registered their dissatisfaction as overtly as has Qatar. The states, which both have hosted talks over the crisis in Yemen, have done their best to soothe tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But since the Kuwaiti emir spent a busy day advocating for diplomacy in visits to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar on June 6, the conflict has only escalated. Oman didn't have much success persuading Doha to stand down the previous day, either.

Digging In for a Fight

Qatar has withstood mounting international pressure in part because of the support it receives elsewhere. The country's military ties with Turkey, for example, have not only enabled Doha to diversify its security partnerships but also provided it with reinforcement in the current conflict. The Turkish parliament even fast-tracked legislation June 7 to send more troops to Qatar, where Ankara is planning to build a base. And though Turkey has productive relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well, the foreign policy objectives it shares with Qatar, including support for regional Islamist groups, give it more incentive to back Doha. Qatar's efforts to stand up to Saudi Arabia's authority, moreover, aligns with Ankara's ambition to limit Riyadh and become the dominant Sunni power in the region.

Farther afield, Russia is another valuable source of support for Qatar. The countries' business ties have blossomed over the last few years, particularly since Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani assumed power in 2013. Doha has funneled roughly $2.5 billion to Moscow and recently acquired a sizable share of Russia's largest oil firm, Rosneft. Russia, like Turkey, still must keep its ties with the rest of the Gulf states as it navigates the crisis in the GCC. Nevertheless, its backing will give Qatar extra muscle in the diplomatic dispute while affording Moscow the opportunity to influence a situation that could jeopardize U.S. relations with the Gulf bloc in the long term.

Washington is in a tight spot over the dispute in the GCC.

After all, it needs functional defense ties with each of the bloc's member states. Both sides of the conflict are confident that they have its full support. But by helping Saudi Arabia and Qatar alike, the United States could prolong the disagreement. Washington can't afford to risk precipitating the GCC's breakup given its deep intelligence, security and military ties with the bloc.

Qatar, however, is in a position to ride out the crisis, thanks to its diverse foreign policy and economic partnerships. And in the meantime, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will keep escalating their demands. On June 9, the states, along with Egypt and Bahrain, issued a joint list designating 59 individuals and 12 entities with connections to Qatar as terrorists. Qatar promptly dismissed the list as "baseless," suggesting that Doha is digging in for a long fight ahead.

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