Barred from the Gulf club

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Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have isolated Qatar, a terrorism ‘sponsor’ and friend of Iran. But the 37-year-old Qatari emir now has his people behind him.

In the young state of Qatar, national identity is analogous to the construction sites that are constantly reshaping the Doha skyline: recently built and in a state of rapid evolution. The emirate became a sovereign state in 1971, andthe keystone ofits developing patriotic narrative was laid a decade ago with the decree that shifted the country’s National Day from 3 September, the anniversary of independence from Great Britain, to 18 December. On that date in 1878, Emir Jassim bin Mohammed al-Thani, the first ruler to successfullyunify the tribes of the peninsula, came to power. The decree issued in 2007 could be read as an attempt by the royal family to tie the national sentiment to the accomplishments of a member of the dynasty, thus subtly appointing its heirs as the only legitimate leaders of the country. While it is true that in recent times internal tribal tensions have never really jeopardised this ideological construct, Doha has been able to count on a further, unexpected, boost that has arrived from beyond the country’s borders.

When Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an embargo against Qatar in June of this year, the real aim behind the accusations of financing terrorism was the political and economic destabilization of a regime that the four countries consider awkward. Awkward because of its relationship with Shia Iran, sworn enemy of Riyadh, and its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a thorn in the side of both Cairo and the Sunni monarchies. The embargo nevertheless only served to cement popular consensus around the current Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the architect of Qatari nationalism, who signed the decree in 2007 and is now taking advantage of the attempted isolation to bring together the nation’s many souls.

The 37-year-old leader has not refrained from using authoritarian methods to confront the less loyal clans in recent months, revoking the citizenship of 55 members of the al-Murrah tribe that reside on the Saudi border and are suspected of having supported the attempted coup d’état in 1996 against Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, father of the current ruler. “The spectre of the coup was raised once again in June”, explained Annalisa Perteghella, analyst from ISPI, “but the real risk of a regime change has never existed: power is firmly in the hands of the Emir, more than before”.

Thus Riyadhmiscalculated the situation, and not only in politicalterms. “The capital flight that the Saudis intended to trigger never occurred”, explainedPerteghella. This eventuality was averted in advance by Doha’s maverick investment strategy, one designed to reassure the financial and economic elites (exemplified by the Neymar purchase at the beginning of August). With the record-breaking transfer of the Brazilian footballer to Paris Saint-Germain, the French football club owned by the Qatar Sports Investments fund, the emirate not only intended to boost its soft power through football and promote the al-Thani brand in the West, but also to demonstrate to the world that it was immune to the embargo. But thatassertionhas proven only partly true. Doha burned through reserves of €33 billion In the first two months of the embargo, and in the long term will be required to set aside €187 billion to safeguard the 2020 Football World Cup, upon which a significant portion of the country’s international credibility is riding.

Certainly the Qatari economy has adapted with surprising speed to the trade restrictions imposed by the quartet of countries, in spite of the fact that trade with these composes one-sixth of national imports(especially in the case of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates which form a vital crossroads in the intra and intercontinental routes). By using the ports of Sohar and Salalah in neutral Oman, for example, Doha has circumnavigated the now off-limits port in Jebel Ali while simultaneously maintaining food supplies to its domestic market thanks to provisions from Turkey and Iran.

Paradoxically, Tehran has been the main beneficiary of the Saudi-led embargo on a geopolitical level, a development that it has exploited in order to move closer to Ankara(which once upon a time was more in tune with the Saudis) and to reinforce links with Doha. Like Qatar, Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran shares Qatar’s distaste for Saudi Arabi.But above all, the two latter countries are co-owners of the largest liquid natural gas reserve in the world, the South Pars/North Dome. Having begun to export the gas in 1997, the reserve has been decisive in enabling the emirate to move away from the Saudi orbit and to finance the challenge  of its awkward Shia neighbour on the international stage.

Ankara and Tehran already worked side by side in September to define the de-escalation zones in Syria, and a further cooperation could be key concerning the Kurds in Rojava, unpopular with both Turkey, because of their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and with Iran, a sponsor of Damascus. If the affinity between Turkey’s president,RecepTayyipErdoğan, and Washington’s arch enemy, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, should last(it is currently limited to questions of common interest in light of the hegemonic ambitions of both), then there is a real chance of a deterioration in the already tense relations between Turkey and the USA on the horizon, one that could even lead to a definitive break between Ankara and NATO.

For their part, explained the former Italian ambassador to Riyadh, Armando Sanguini, “the USA will find itself caught between a Saudi Arabia that has been given a free rein by Trump to reshape regional balances and a Qatar that is home to the largest American military base in the Middle East, al Udeid”. Such a scenario is sure to test relationships between the US and the two Gulf countries and will limit the White House to taking purely superficial positions when it comes to future disputes.

Israel, meanwhile, is showing no signs of hesitation in picking sides. Its convergence with Saudi Arabia is as new as it is strategic, and while it is very unlikely to last over time, as Sanguini pointed out, “for now it meets the priorities of both: to counter Iran and, in the case of Tel Aviv, the Shia threat on its borders with Lebanon and Syria”. Furthermore, the Gulf crisis has led to a withdrawal of Qatari funding from Gaza.Qatar had been the main financier of the Gaza Strip, and their withdrawal has openedthe door to the Emirates, who arespending millions to bring Hamas into their sphere of influence now that it has distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood.

From Iran to the Mediterranean, the fault line on the geopolitical map is expanding, with Qatar at one extreme and Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain on the other. The growing rift is swallowing any remaining credibility of the Gulf Cooperation Council that was established in 1981 to unite the main actors in the region with a utopian vision for greater economic and political integration. With neither a single currency nor a common direction, the project is looking increasingly like an abandoned construction site.

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