Entering Stalemate


Qatar’s detractors are unsure how to proceed now that Doha has absorbed the initial shock of their campaign against it

By Abdel Bari Atwan


The Gulf crisis has entered a phase of ‘stalemate’ in recent days.


Kuwait’s mediation has been all but suspended, and the likelihood of a military intervention has abated, if only temporarily. The economic blockade measures adopted by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain against Qatar have yielded the opposite result to that intended and worked to Doha’s advantage. They have cast Qatar as a victim of bullying and target of aggression, and this has created a wave of overwhelming popular Arab sympathy for the country, especially in the social media.


Qatar’s diplomatic and media response, on both the Arab and international fronts, have enabled it to absorb the initial shock and turn the crisis in its favour. This is because it pursued the course of calming matters down and avoiding escalation: it presented itself as a victim that is defending itself, eager to cooperate positively with the Kuwaiti mediation and find an acceptable way for the crisis and its fallout to be contained.


The gravest mistake committed by the four-way  anti-Qatar alliance composed of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt was to adopt punitive measures that had a damaging psychological and practical impact on the Qatari people, especially during the holy month of Ramadan in particular. These include the expulsion of Qatari citizens from the four countries, giving them only 14 days notice without regard for the serious consequences of this decision. There is a world of difference between expelling families and expelling ambassadors. Diplomats can depart within a few days or hours: families cannot, especially given the close bonds of intermarriage and business ties that connect many citizens of the supposedly ‘fraternal’ Gulf Cooperation Council.


Qatar, by contrast, adopted a smarter approach. It did not treat residents from the four countries in kind, but pledged that they could remain in Qatar on the same terms as previously and were welcome to stay, but were free to leave if they chose. This appears to have embarrassed the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini authorities into easing their harsh treatment of Qatari residents married to locals, which had caused an outcry after causing the forced break-up of families. The three countries were suddenly awaked to the need to mitigate the most inhumane dimensions of their campaign against Qatar. But all blockades or embargoes are inhumane, whether their victims are rich or poor.


But this ‘stalemate’ may not last long, and more serious developments could unfold over the coming few days. There appear to be three schools of thought in this regard among Qatar’s adversaries, each based on its particular perspective and view of how to address the crisis:


– The first school is peaceful. Its advocates believe in a policy that goes for the long haul and the gradual imposition of sanctions on Qatar. They believe that popular Arab sympathy with Qatar is only due to the blockade and will prove short-lived, and that its impact will also be limited. They point to what happened in the cases of the blockades imposed on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Palestine.


– The second school chooses the middle ground. It calls for escalating the economic sanctions with the aim of strangling Qatar, moving on to a phase of freezing Qatari assets in the Gulf states and in international banks and markets on the pretext that Qatar backs terrorism. Proponents of this view say that such a decision, if backed by the US, will not only paralyze Qatar’s economy but also prevent it from financing its media outlets and its network of political allies.


– The third school speaks of a military option and criticizes the four governments for wasting a golden opportunity in the first two days of the crisis – that is, before Qatar made overtures to Turkey and Iran. Its advocates saw Trump’s recent public remarks about Qatar’s long history of sponsoring terrorism at the highest levels as providing cover for such an option, as well as grounds for changing the Qatari regime.


Proponents of the latter school focus on two possibilities: a potential split within the ruling Al Thani family – of which there are no indications at present – or recruiting some clans that are opposed to it. In this regard, they point to the Bani Murrah tribe and the role it played in the failed 1996 coup attempt, which was backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, aimed at toppling the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin-Khalifa, and restoring his deposed father to power.


But the Bani Murrah will not be stung by the same snake twice, as one of its elders has put it. Hamad bin-Khalifa was firm in dealing with members of the tribe who were implicated in that coup attempt, deporting many of them with their families to Saudi Arabia and stripping 7,000 of their Qatari citizenship (on the grounds that they were also nationals of other countries, chiefly Saudi Arabia, which conflicts with Qatari law). He also threw hundreds of them in prison. According to this Bani Murrah elder, those involved in the coup attempt were not treated well by their backers, and were left to face their fate and pay the price alone.


The Qatari government has rejected the 10 preconditions that its opponents have demanded must be immediately and fully satisfied. These require Qatar to sever its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, expel the movement’s leaders from Qatar, shut down Al-Jazeera TV, seriously fight terrorism, and actively join the Arab/Islamic ‘NATO’ against Iran. At a press conference in Paris on Monday, the Qatari foreign minister said that there was no room for discussion of Qatar’s domestic or foreign policies since these are sovereign matters that cannot be conceded, and that the same goes for Al-Jazeera.

Press reports suggest that the UAE’s Sheikh Muhammad bin-Zayed demonstrated no flexibility whatsoever in dealing with the Kuwaiti mediation. Some claim he has been actively trying to foil that effort. The same is being said of his Saudi ally, Deputy Crown Prince Prince Muhammad bin-Salman, since they both reject compromise solutions and prefer radical ones.


We await the next step that is supposed to break this stalemate. The Saudi/Egyptian/Emirati/Bahraini alliance insists that Qatar must surrender and go down on its knees. But Qatar says it will neither kneel nor surrender. That means escalation and perhaps even war, with no room for a third option.