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Gulf widens between Qatar and its neighbors

by Bülent Aras

U.S. President Barack Obama visited Saudi Arabia at a critical moment for the country. Its recent decision to withdraw its ambassador from Qatar has revealed the gravity of the crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), composed of Saudia Arabia’s most immediate neighbors. Gulf politics is shifting toward a new balance in the wake of the Saudi-United Arab Emirates rapprochement and the recent attempt to isolate Qatar.

The UAE and Bahrain have joined Saudi Arabia in downgrading relations with Qatar. This is an unusual move, considering the Persian Gulf states’ tradition of treating political disagreements as a family matter, to be handled behind the scenes. Oman is keeping its distance from the situation, while Kuwait has attempted to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Several factors are driving Saudi Arabia’s moves against Qatar, which include a ban prohibiting Saudi intellectuals from contributing to Qatari newspapers. There is Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood (in Egypt and elsewhere); the speeches by the Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qardawi and the broadcasting policy of Qatar-funded Al Jazeera since the Arab Spring; and the credence given to the view that Qatar is hosting Western institutions with the intent of orchestrating a coup in Saudia Arabia.

That view reflects the Saudis’ tough stance against the Muslim Brotherhood, which they have declared a terrorist organization. The Saudis perceive the Brotherhood’s influence in Arab countries, particularly the Gulf states, as a serious threat to their internal stability and survival.

The voluntary abdication by Qatar’s Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in June 2013, and his replacement as Emir by his son Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, failed to satisfy Saudi expectations of change in Qatari foreign policy. And now the Saudis have made it clear that they have reached the limits of their patience.

But Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward Qatar may generate some difficulties for its own policy. There is considerable transnational movement of goods and services, and billions of dollars of cross-border investment, across the Gulf — economic activity that would be endangered by the GCC’s further disintegration.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not a violent organization, and it has not engaged in illegal activities in the Gulf countries. Other GCC states, eager to avoid escalating political tensions in their own countries, are unlikely to declare it a terrorist organization.

Even Saudi Arabia’s special relationship with Jordan will not push its government to adopt such a declaration. For the time being, harsh policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to be confined to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The problem for the Saudis is that simply “correcting” the Qatari position cannot change the political trajectory within the region — particularly in Syria and Egypt.

Moreover, the Saudis’ imposition of their preferred policies on the GCC, together with the possibility of sanctions on Qatar, risks jeopardizing all that the GCC (which already has fallen into political decline in the wake of the Arab Spring) has achieved the past 33 years.

Although Qatar’s rulers are concerned about the Saudis’ growing antipathy toward them, they have shown no indications of submitting to Saudi demands that they change course.

Given the impact on regional geopolitics of the recent interim nuclear deal between Iran and the West, Saudi Arabia’s alienation of its neighbors is all the more hazardous.

Making matters worse, it is clear that disagreements within the GCC can no longer be resolved behind closed doors, and that member states are unable to air them publicly without risking a diplomatic rupture.

Across the region, minorities are feeling more empowered and citizens are making ever-stronger demands for better government. There is a burgeoning desire for a future that dispenses with traditional policies based on fear and anger.

In this context, Saudi policy seems to be stuck in the past, and the Saudis have chosen to adopt a strategy of self-help in order to isolate itself from problems outside its borders, though it continues to regard itself as the region’s power broker. The sudden rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the UAE resulted not from the attractiveness of Saudi policy, but from their rulers’ shared perception that there is a dearth of political options.

It would, of course, be wiser to address the real problems facing GCC governments, which range from embittered minorities to economies that are unable to create enough jobs for young people. But resolving these issues would require an inclusive and accommodating approach, both domestically and regionally, and Saudi Arabia, in particular, is not prepared to take that route.

The gulf impasse will exacerbate the already-fragile situation in the Middle East. Regional political realities, transnational interaction and the common search for a better future should, eventually, prevail over policies geared for repression, discipline and order.

The GCC should be accustomed to conflicting perspectives on regional design and differing degrees of cooperation across regional actors, and it should draw on these differences as a source of strength. This crisis may create an opportunity to rethink and recalibrate GCC strategies, based on a more realistic view of regional interdependence, common security, and shared decision-making. A new mentality in GCC governance could result in the creation of mechanisms of constructive engagement in the region, while maintaining cooperation with international actors.

Clearly this policy would be more constructive than Saudi Arabia’s desire for a lone-wolf role that merely results in a deadlock within and around the gulf.

Bülent Aras is global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and professor of international relations at Sabanci University. © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)