Four months after first flaring up, the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates shows no signs of abating.
Indeed, new issues of contention keep opening up in this cold war that started when the four allies imposed a trade and diplomatic embargo on Qatar, accusing it of destabilizing the region and supporting terrorism, including through incitement by its Al Jazeera satellite station. Saudi Arabia closed Qatar’s only land border, and Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE severed air links.
On June 23, Riyadh and its allies issued a 10-day ultimatum for ending the blockade that included 13 demands, among them closing Al Jazeera; scaling back ties with Tehran; and ending contact with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the pressure has not subdued Qatar and analysts believe the stalemate could continue for some time.
“The fact that it has gone on for so long shows the Saudis are not winning,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, a specialist on the Gulf at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies.
“Qatar has been able to stand on its hind legs and keep this from totally defeating it.” But, he added: “There’s a long way to go.”
Qatar’s staying power is attributed by analysts to factors including funding effective lobbying efforts in the West; Washington’s need to keep working relations with it on a sound footing due to its hosting a crucial US airbase; and the soundness of its economy, which is based largely on natural gas exports that are continuing.
However, notes Brandon Friedman, a scholar at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Doha might be vulnerable if Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to significantly escalate the crisis by pulling their holdings from Qatari banks.
In recent days, the conflict has expressed itself in a rivalry over who will become UNESCO’s next secretary-general with the field of candidates including Egypt’s Moushira Khattab, a former minister under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and Qatar’s Hamad Bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, a former minister of information and culture. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, though not members of the UNESCO board, are lobbying in favor of Khattab to prevent a Qatari victory.
Saudi says Qatar must implement “promises made” over extremist groups (credit: REUTERS)
Far more serious is the burgeoning dispute surrounding Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 soccer World Cup.
“This is a huge flagship issue for Qatar. The Saudis and their allies would like nothing better than to take it away,” said Teitelbaum.
The Saudis and their allies have started a lobbying campaign against the Cup being held in Doha, which is expected to focus on allegations of corruption in Qatar’s bidding for the venue. It is also expected to highlight alleged Qatari human rights abuses against workers on the project.
A senior Emirati security official, Lt.-Gen. Dhahi Khalfan of Dubai, tweeted recently that the Gulf crisis will end if Doha gives up on hosting the World Cup.
Meanwhile, a study carried out by the management consultant firm Cornerstone Global made available to the BBC cast doubt on Qatar’s ability to host the competition due to “increased political risk” stemming, in part, from the blockade.
Qatari officials perceive a Saudi hand behind the study, but the founder of Cornerstone Global, Ghanem Nuseibeh, denied that the report was funded by any of the countries mounting the blockade.
Qatari officials, meanwhile, say there is “no risk” that the event will be canceled.
In Friedman’s view, “both sides seem to be settling in for the long haul” in terms of their conflict, but he dismisses the idea that it is interminable, saying there is a possible scenario that could alleviate it in the future, namely “a geopolitical situation that would remind them that they need each other.”
This, he said, could take the form of a confrontation between Iran and the Arab Gulf states.
According to Friedman, one of the reasons the enmity between Qatar and the four allies is persisting is that neither side wants to incur the blow to its honor from backing down. “Honor and shame is something we have to be mindful of, especially with the royal families of the Gulf,” he said. “This feud has not played out behind closed doors, it is being waged with the biggest public relations and propaganda efforts in the western media. This makes it harder for either side to find a face-saving formula.”