Qatar Censured by GCC Allies

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Three members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—have withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar. The decision came after the three countries decided they could no longer tolerate Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood and what they see as Qatar’s interference in the internal affairs of the other GCC member states. While the move is largely symbolic at this point, it can have long term effects in a region that is already suffering from the throes of domestic and international instability.

Reporting on the withdrawal of the envoys from Qatar, the Al Jazeera news network (which is based in Qatar and has also been criticized for its coverage of the clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), pointed out the exceptional nature of the move: “The three countries said the move was necessary ‘to protect their security and stability.’ According to a report published by Saudi state media on Wednesday, the decision to withdraw diplomatic envoys was made because Qatar did not implement a security pact about non-interference in the internal affairs of the other states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)….The move is thought to be unprecedented in the three-decade history of the GCC, a pro-Western alliance of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Oman.”

So far, Qatar has resisted any tit-for-tat responses, but as Doha News’ Peter Kovessy notes the withdrawal of the envoys might not even be the most important aspect of this recent development: “While symbolically embarrassing, analysts say the decision is of little practical significance. The key question is whether this move is simply a show of disapproval for Qatar’s foreign policy, or a signal of intensifying tensions that could lead to, for example, Saudi Arabia tightening its land border or closing its airspace….Today’s announcement came on the heels of what Gulf media described as a ‘stormy’ meeting among GCC foreign ministers on Tuesday evening. What’s puzzling is that the issues alluded to are not new, making the timing of the move a mystery.”

Meanwhile, according to the Arabian Money news site, there have already been economic repercussions across the region due to the disagreement: “Gulf stocks took a surprise tumble on Wednesday after an announcement by the governments of the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar because Doha had failed to implement an agreement not to interfere in each others’ internal affairs. The QE Index plunged two per cent, the DFM lost 0.9 per cent, Bahrain slipped 0.2 per cent and the Tadawul ended down 0.5 per cent.”

In an op-ed for the National (UAE), H A Hellyer suggests that the “Withdrawal of Qatari ambassadors points to deep frustration” within the GCC, adding that Qatar’s options within the Council are limited and that it is highly unlikely that Qatar’s leaders will be able to turn the remaining GCC members to its side: “Since its inception, the GCC has been dominated by Saudi Arabia. If Qatar seeks to outmaneuver Riyadh, it will require allies. That is not likely – Abu Dhabi and Manama are clearly aligned with the Saudi position, and Oman does not appear to be interested in supporting Doha against Riyadh. Kuwait said it would not withdraw its ambassador in Doha partly to be play a mediating role, and so it will not intervene in favor of Qatar’s position. Qatar is, it seems, on its own within the GCC….Within Doha itself, there is a discussion about how the country should proceed in the post-Arab uprising world, particularly given the fortunes of the Brotherhood in Egypt, and the political standing of the Brotherhood in Libya and Syria.”

Among the reasons given for the drastic diplomatic measures, Arab News’ (Saudi Arabia) Hani Hazaimeh cites Qatar’s meddling in the internal affairs of the GCC countries: “A Saudi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Arab News on Wednesday that the decision to withdraw the ambassadors does not mean the three countries would cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. It was instead a way to protest Qatar’s failure to meet the obligations stipulated in the security pact….The decision would be reassessed provided Qatar complies with the defense security agreement, the official said.”

In another very critical piece posted on Asharq Alawsat by Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya television, Qatar is characterized as a ‘noisy neighbor’ and ‘a continual source of disturbance’: “The drama with Qatar is long-winded and has been ongoing for about 20 years now….In its attempt to hijack revolutions, Qatar suffered massive political and financial losses in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, as parties bankrolled did not manage to maintain their authority in these countries. This is why Qatar changed its policy and began to finance the civil and armed opposition. The most dangerous Qatari adventure is its persistence in funding the Muslim Brotherhood and their group against the new regime in Egypt. Even with three television channels, Qatar could not shake the Egyptian people’s support of army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s regime!”

Others wonder whether the current dispute will become wider and whether the GCC will be able to withstand the bad blood among its member states. On this last point, Theodore Karasik warns in a recent op-ed for Al Arabiya that “As of today, all the movement to create a GCC Union and to rally the monarchies around each other in defense and preservation of the old order of the Gulf region seems to be crumbling….Overall, this event is a real test for Emir Tamim. The emir will need to make some real decisions….What we could see next is a return to the days of the early 1990s when the Saudi-Qatari border was the site of occasional shoot-outs and road blockages….Qatar may also choose to use tribal disputes across the Gulf region, particularly the al-Murrah who have been pawns before between Riyadh and Doha.”

An editorial by The National (UAE) suggests it is now up to Doha to try and defuse the tensions by making known its intention to play by the rules of the other GCC member states: “There are many unknowns in this situation, including the positions of other world players, notably the United States, which has a substantial military and communications presence in the Gulf, and the internal machinations in Doha under the new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who assumed office last June after the abdication of his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa….perception is important in this case, and Qatar has to show that it understands the concerns of its neighbors. These concerns pertain to security, a fundamental principle behind the formation of the GCC in the first place. The ball is now firmly in Doha’s court. Whether Qatar will continue to be the outlier in the Gulf, or whether it will sign the non-interference security accord, will have significant reverberations for many years to come.”

Not everyone believes the GCC has reached a dead-end, nor do they believe that the current dispute should necessarily become more than a temporary disagreement among like-minded countries. That, at least, is Naser al-Tamimi’s argument, who suggests that it is in everyone’s interest to move away from brinkmanship: “Away from the language of escalation, the situation should be regarded as a dispute within the ‘family’ because it’s not in the interest of any one in the GCC to rock the boat these days….It is essential that the current political escalation does not affect the movement of people, goods or money. There are billions of cross-border investments at stake here….Riyadh’s policy must be flexible and patient, and work hard to allay the fears of the other Gulf States even if that requires some time. There is also the position toward Egypt. Qatar is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain favor the current regime. This contradiction could be turned to constructive policies that would benefit everyone.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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