Riyadh has to strive hard now to save its aggressive move from becoming a diplomatic faux pas
Saudi Arabia and its close allies in the Muslim world may have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar hoping that they could mobilise support among the Muslim nations against the tiny Gulf country. The Saudi decision on June 5 came weeks after Riyadh hosted a conference of over 50 Muslim nations where the Saudi King attacked Qatar as a fountainhead of terrorism in the Middle East. U.S. President Donald Trump, who was present at the Riyadh conference, also underscored the Saudi version. Qatar had long needled Saudi Arabia with its relatively independent foreign policy and larger ambitions. Emboldened by the Riyadh conference and support from the American President, Saudi Arabia may have thought it was the right time to act against Qatar.
Saudi Arabia wants Qatar to toe the Riyadh line — cut its ambitious foreign policy to size, take a tougher line against Iran and accept the Saudi leadership in the Gulf. With just 2.2 million people, Qatar shares it’s only land border with Saudi Arabia. When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates turn against Qatar, its economic and diplomatic implications will be huge. Still, things may not be proceeding as the Saudis may have expected when they took the extreme step. Ten days after the bilateral relations were severed and a land and air blockade was imposed on Qatar, Doha is yet to send any signal that it would totally surrender its interests before its larger neighbour.
The Saudi plan to isolate Qatar also did not succeed. Not all countries in the Gulf did toe the Saudi line. Kuwait, which enjoys strong relations with Saudi Arabia, has not only refused to cut diplomatic relationship with Qatar, but also offered to mediate between Riyadh and Doha, clearly stating that it’s not interested in taking sides. Oman, another Gulf country that has historically maintained good relationship with Iran, also refused to cut ties with Qatar. There were concerns that the Saudi blockade would push Qatar into a humanitarian crisis as food supplies for the country largely come via the Saudi land border. But both Iran and Turkey stepped in, providing plainloads of food items. Iran Air, the Islamic Republic’s flagship airline, flew many cargo flights with food and other essential goods.
While Iran has called for a negotiated settlement between the Gulf countries, Turkey has clearly thrown its weight behind Doha. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Saudi move “inhumane”. The most significant reassurance of support for Qatar came from Ankara in two days of the Saudi decision to cut ties. Turkey’s Parliament ratified military deals, allowing the government to deploy troops to a Turkish military base in Qatar. Turkey set up a military base in Qatar as part of a 2014 agreement and the base already houses 200 troops. Now parliament has allowed Ankara to send up to 5,000 troops to Qatar, who, in the event of a security crisis, could defend the al-Thani royal family’s rule.
Another blow to Saudi Arabia came on June 14 when the Qatari defence ministry and the Pentagon announced a $12 billion arms deal under which the U.S. would sell the emirate F-15 fighter jets. Both countries have also decided to hold a joint naval drill. The US’s Central Command is based in Qatar. This suggests, despite President Trump’s vitriol against Qatar, the defence-level cooperation between the emirate and the U.S. remains intact.
What Saudi Arabia can do next? Nothing much. It’s already imposed a diplomatic blockade on Qatar, but failed to drum up support even among the Muslim countries for the move. It can’t attack Qatar to bring in regime change because the country still houses the U.S. troops and Washington would not prefer instability in the emirate. Besides, the presence of thousands of Turkish troops will also make it difficult for Saudi Arabia to raise any security challenge to Qatar. Another option is to stage a palace coup and install a prince who is loyal to Riyadh in Doha. Saudi Arabia has been accused of interfering in Qatar palace politics earlier, but the current ruler, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, appears to be firmly in control. If Qatar continues to defy the kingdom, the Saudis may have to look for an alternative policy.