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What next for Qatar and the GCC?

Following the decision by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar, will Doha reassess its foreign policy to ensure it can continue playing the vital role of mediator in thorny regional issues?

The decision made by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar was not a typical occurrence. This move was a precedent in intra-Gulf relations, and reveals the true nature and dimensions of the present conflicts in the Arab region as well as the shift in the established equations and balance of power. Will the effects of this decision go beyond the countries in question — i.e., the Gulf states — to reach the neighboring countries?

Will this decision affect the Levant, namely the Syrian and Lebanese arenas, which are suffering from a conflict — or rather war — that is not unrelated to the decision of the three countries? Indeed, the direct causes triggering the decision are limited to the Gulf area. The three countries, as per their joint statement, accuse Doha of failing to uphold the Riyadh Agreement signed on Nov. 23, 2013. By signing the agreement, the nations vowed not to support “hostile media” and any party that resorts to direct security work or political actions, to threaten the “security and stability of the GCC states, be it an organization or an individual.” The agreement also insists on noninterference in the internal affairs of any Gulf state. Indeed, the real subject of discord that left the countries fuming was Qatar’s support for jihadist and Islamic groups, working in different arenas, from the Maghreb to the Levant — i.e., from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. These groups are now directly targeting the Gulf states, declaring hostility to the ruling regimes and using terrorism to threaten their stability. The recent events in Bahrain and each party’s reaction to them give further proof to the current situation, and to the one that might occur if the tensions are not actively and rigorously contained.

The small state of Qatar has been trying for two decades to distinguish itself from the traditional Arab diplomacy led by Saudi Arabia. Tensions exacerbated on many occasions to the point of explicit disagreement or direct clash. An unforgettable example of that would be the media campaign led by Al-Jazeera — known for its allegiance to the small emirate — following the Iraq War, against the “polytheist US forces,” urging them to leave the “Arab land.” The campaign ended, as we know, with Qatar hosting the two largest US military bases in the Gulf.

The other example that raised concerns and questions is Qatar’s involvement in the Lebanese file through the Iranian-Syrian gate in 2008, drawing on several factors: the faltering Cedar Revolution, the dismantling of its international safety net when the mandates of both Presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac expired — in addition to the waning influence of the March 14 movement in Lebanon due to performance failure — and above all security threats and the political assassination of a number of the movement’s leaders and prominent figures.

Qatar assumed the “mediator” role with the axis that was politically accused of standing behind these assassinations and that stood at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia and the moderate Arabs. The efforts resulted in a settlement — the Doha Agreement — that practically consolidated the said axis’ significant comeback to Lebanese political life. In 2008, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman was elected in the presence of Qatar’s emir, in an extremely symbolic event, especially because the Doha Agreement was the most significant Lebanese settlement since the Taif Accords in 1990 that ended the civil war, sealed by Saudi Arabia.

During the last two decades, Qatar’s diplomacy was characterized by a tendency to employ brinkmanship. Was it its eagerness to distinguish itself from Saudi Arabia that pushed it to adopt this high-risk policy? Not only did it get involved in the regional affairs from the gate of the Iranian-backed resistance axis but it has also entered the scenes of the Arab revolutions by supporting Islamic movements, especially the ones known for their hostility to the Gulf regimes. In this context, Al Jazeera was harshly criticized for contributing, since 2001, to magnifying the phenomenon of bin Laden. Today, the starkest example of its playing on the chords of political Islam is its unwavering support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — despite former President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster — a support that went as far as declaring an open and explicit fallout with the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime. 

Also true is the fact that Turkey, represented by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), formed a partner for Islamist movements that saw in these organizations a sure ally and a natural expansion of its clout in their Arab backyard. And there is no doubt that a number of these organizations find support among certain categories of society, but their experience in power failed and their monopolization of power gave rise to opposing forces that managed to control them, as was the case in Tunisia, or oust them, as was the case in Egypt.

But most important, Qatar’s continuous spearheading of these movements raises numerous questions, especially now that these Islamic movements have lost a great deal of their legitimacy due to the absence of real reform programs and mostly their resorting to violence — if not terrorism — while still enjoying media coverage.

On the Levantine scene, the most prominent subject remains the Syrian war and its sectarian dimensions. During the first period, Qatar played a key role in supporting the rebels. Some said that Qatar’s assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of other parties further sectarianized a revolution that started and remained peaceful for more than a few months.

The Syrian regime, with the help of Russia and Iran, managed to use the “Islamist nature of the revolution” to confuse the international community. Today, it is common knowledge that the war in Syria has morphed into another aspect of the war against Iran. Qatar’s role in Syria deteriorated. One reason for this deterioration is its partner Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s domestic problems, which pushed Saudi Arabia to jump into the front seat in this confrontation, especially in light of the so-called “policy of US openness to Iran” and the fear that this openness might be on the account of the Arab interests.

Saudi support for the Syrian revolution is different from that of Qatar, especially regarding the distance taken from the jihadist organizations and the threat they pose to the Gulf states. Today’s question: Is Qatar trying to push the “distinction policy” on the Lebanese and Syrian scenes to the brink and push toward the total isolation from the Gulf states, especially since the decision taken by the three countries laid all the cards on the table? Or will Qatar simply reposition to play — from time to time — the mediator role with the Iranians, such as the role it played to free the two Turkish pilots who were abducted in Lebanese regions controlled by Hezbollah? In light of the current split and the Sunni-Shiite conflict, a mediator might be exactly what the region is in dire need of; however, that requires a restart and the elaboration of new processes. 

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