Gulf Crisis: Rewriting the Political Map?

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No. 114/2017 dated 8 June 2017

Gulf Crisis:
Rewriting the Political Map?
By James M. Dorsey

A rupture in Arab diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar as well as the
Gulf state’s involvement with a Saudi-led, 41-nation Sunni Muslim military
alliance threatens to force non-Arab Muslim nations as well as China to c
hoose sides.


SAUDI ARABIA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), by breaking off
diplomatic relations and seeking to impose an economic boycott of Qatar,
have opened the door to a rewriting of the political map of the Gulf, with
potentially far-reaching consequences for nations across the globe.

The dilemma for non-Arab nations like Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan
is most immediate. Qatar’s expulsion from the 41-nation, Saudi-led, Sunni
Muslim Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism complicates their
strenuous efforts to avoid being sucked into an increasing visceral power
struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So does the fact that the crisis is
likely to be prolonged given that Qatari acceptance of Saudi and UAE
demands would not only humiliate the Gulf state, proud of a history of
charting an independent course for decades, but also turn it into a vassal
of its bigger Gulf brethren.

Political Fallout

The demands are believed to include the muzzling if not closing of Qatar-
backed media such as Al Jazeera, expulsion of leaders of the Muslim
Brotherhood and Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip,
and the limiting of Qatar’s relations with Iran to issues associated with the
fact that it shares the world’s largest gas field with the Islamic republic.

The fallout of the crisis in Asia is likely to be initially more political than
economic. Saudi and UAE isolation of Qatar could push the Gulf state to
draw closer to Iran, Turkey and Russia, a move that would increase regional
polarization and could significantly weaken the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The GCC groups the region’s six monarchies: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar,
Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.

Saudi soft power across the Muslim world is also complicating efforts by
non-Arab Muslim states to remain on the side lines of the escalating Saudi-
Iranian rivalry and an increasingly aggressive UAE-driven campaign against
expressions of political Islam that is now also targeting Qatar.

Decades of Saudi funding in what amounts to the largest public diplomacy in
history has bought the kingdom significant influences in branches of
government in multiple Muslim majority countries.

The timing of the crisis in the Gulf was for Malaysia, for example, particularly unfortunate. It came weeks after Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri
Anifah Aman visited Qatar to further enhance relations with Qatar. Malaysian
defence minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein had earlier announced
that Malaysia and Qatar were elevating their diplomatic ties by forming a
High-Level Committee (HLC) to focus on the structural framework of both
countries' defence institutions.

Responding to the rupture in diplomatic relations and the military suspension,
sources close to the Malaysian foreign ministry said that the government was
advising its agencies to remain neutral in the dispute. Some sources cautioned
however that the defence and interior ministries may adopt a more independent

A Global Boycott?

The dilemma for Pakistan is no less acute. Pakistan’s diplomatic relations with
Saudi Arabia and the UAE initially soured after the Pakistani parliament in 2015
rejected a Saudi request for Pakistani military assistance in Yemen. The
unprecedented decision ultimately left Pakistan with no choice when the kingdom
two years later asked it to allow General Raheel Sharif, who had just retired as
chief of army staff, to take over the command of the Saudi-led military alliance.

Despite insisting that Sharif would use his position to mediate between Saudi
Arabia and Iran, Pakistan has seen violence along its volatile border with Iran
increase, relations with the Islamic republic deteriorate, and prompted calls for
Pakistan to recall Sharif.

Equally worrying for Muslim and non-Muslim countries like China and
Singapore alike are indications that Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies may
want to turn their cutting of air, land and sea links to Qatar into a more
global boycott.

Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Saudi Press Agency reported that the kingdom
would “start immediate legal procedures for understanding with fraternal
and friendly countries and international companies to implement the same
procedure as soon as possible for all means of transport to and from the State
of Qatar for reasons relating to Saudi national security”.

The statement appeared to be referring to Saudi transport links with Qatar
but seemed to hold out the possibility of Saudi Arabia pressuring its public
and private economic and commercial partners to follow suit in cutting ties
with the Gulf state. Leaked emails showed the UAE ambassador in Washington,
Yousef Al Otaiba, campaigning against Qatar and supporting efforts to
persuade US companies not to pursue opportunities in Iran. That approach
could be also applied to Qatar.

Rewriting the Gulf Political Map

The crisis in the Gulf could also complicate implementation of China’s One
Belt, One Road (OBOR) now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
A potential effort to force countries to join the boycott adds to Chinese fears
that Saudi Arabia intends to expand its proxy war with Iran into Balochistan, a
key Pakistani node of OBOR, in a bid to destabilise Iran.

The crisis could also complicate Chinese efforts to keep its Middle East policy
in sync with that of the United States, the major power in the region, if
Washington were to side with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

From the perspective of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the confrontation with Iran
as well as Qatar is an existential battle for survival of absolute monarchies. It
increasingly threatens to become a battle in which they take no prisoners and
adopt a “you are with us or you are against us” approach that would put Muslim
and non-Muslim nations in a bind.

The outcome of the Gulf battle, irrespective of who wins, is likely to rewrite the
political map of the region and force Muslim and non-Muslim nations to take
stock. The map is already changing with Turkey and Iran coming to Qatar’s aid
and Turkish troops being dispatched to the Gulf state. If Qatar survives the battle
with its controversial policies and media assets intact, it will have put the
limitations of Saudi and UAE power on public display. By the same token, a
Qatari defeat would allow Saudi and UAE-inspired sentiment against Iran and
political Islam to reign supreme.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and
co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg, Germany.

Click HERE to read this commentary online.

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